Simphiwe Silwana


Repeating a grade is common in South Africa, however for a top student this was the last thing he expected. Simphiwe tells us why he failed but how he chose to make his failure a success and not to give up on his goals.

Simphiwe, 19, grew up in his maternal grandparents house in Gugulethu. ‘My father was a taxi driver and he was involved in two taxi accidents when I was a baby. The second accident left him brain damaged and mentally unstable. And, my mother was too busy to take care of me’.

At the age of one, Simphiwe’s grandparents decided to raise him as their own. ‘I was told that while I was in my grandmother’s house she was going to be my mother. I did have some contact with my biological mother, but still to this day, I call her auntie.’ Despite the absence of Simphiwe’s parents this never held him back, ‘my grandparents were everything to me, I looked up to them. They gave me stability, direction and have always been there for me. Not a day goes by that I haven’t felt loved or supported.’

At the age of 13, Simphiwe’s biological mother was imprisoned in Brazil for drug smuggling. ‘The absence of my mother made me begin to question more about my father, I started to ask questions but quickly realized that it was too painful for my grandparents to talk about. I am still unsure of his circumstances and to this day have never met him. I sometimes get sad when I hear other kids talking about their dads, but in the end of the day I know I am blessed with what I have.’

In grade 10 for the first time Simphiwe failed the year, ‘I have always done well in school, but I had become complacent in my studies, assuming I would do well without studying. I failed two subjects miserably which resulted in me having to repeat the grade.’ Repeating a grade is not uncommon but for Simphiwe who was a B student this was the shock of his life, ‘I remember the day I had to go home and show my report to my grandparents. I was so ashamed. My grandmother tried to be positive but the disappointment was just too great. I had let down the people that believed in me, the ones that meant everything to me.’ Simphiwe spent that holiday introspecting, ‘before I started reflecting I was so embarrassed. I was afraid that my friends might reject me. But beside some people making hurtful comments, I survived.’

Simphiwe’s determination made sure that when he went back to school, he went back with everything he had. ‘I told myself during the holidays, “cry, cry and cry again so that you will never cry for the same reason and be in the same position over again”, now I knew how it felt to fail and I was not going to let it happen a second time.’ The holidays finished and Simphiwe couldn’t wait to get started. ‘I had a deep self-belief that I had the ability to do more and to achieve my goals. Nothing was going to stop me.’ Simphiwe has successfully progressed to grade 11 and his name is on the list of the top 20 in his grade.

Simphiwe’s mom returned two years ago, ‘we have reconnected for the first time and I have been able to get to know her. We don’t have a mother and son relationship and we might never have it. But I am thankful she is back.’

Simphiwe has set his sights on studying law after school and become an influential political figure in the country. When asked what he would do if he was the South African president for one day, he said ‘I would ask all my cabinet to leave their suits home and come to work in their tracksuits. Together we will go and find out what needs to be done in the communities. I believe that to live your passion of serving, you need to be hands on.’

Simphiwe shared a piece of advice, ‘Look within you when you are facing challenges as that is where success is going to come from. Others can assist but only you have the power to make the difference in your own life.’

Simphiwe is a former Leaders’ Quest participant, an intervention offered by Salesian Life Choices.

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