JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — On the January day three years ago that Kgomotso Tjie found out he’d made it into an elite South African university, he logged onto his Facebook page and typed a message with shaking hands. The moment he’d worked toward all his life had arrived.
“I thank God for granting me the desires of my heart,” he wrote.
For Tjie, the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg was the promised land, evidence that being poor and black was no longer a barrier to success in South Africa. Born in a rural township some 400 miles northeast of Johannesburg, he'd started believing that hard work and smarts really might be enough.
It had been a lonely odyssey to get there. At his all-black high school, more girls get pregnant each year than students make it to university, and guidance from teachers on how to apply to university had been minimal. Stumbling through a stash of application forms alone at a local library, Tjie had been stumped by even the most basic bureaucratic questions. He’d never encountered officious phrases like next of kin. Back home, his mother, who sold vegetables by the roadside to help make ends meet, couldn't offer much practical advice.
Just a quarter of Tjie’s year group at the state-funded M.L. Nkuna High School got the grades required to get into university that year, reflecting the enrolment rate of black students across public schools in the country. Tjie was one of the lucky ones who got the grades and could scrape together the money for fees to actually enrol. But once he got to Wits — as the university is known to students and teachers alike — he found himself plagued as much by self-doubt as financial constraints.
“I never fool myself into thinking because I’m here — because I left most of my peers in townships and villages — I’m a ‘better black.’ The struggle doesn't end just because I made it to Wits,” he said quietly one afternoon at the end of last year, as we sat in a terraced amphitheater overlooking the campus’s Olympic-size pool.