As President Ramaphosa declares gender-based violence as the second pandemic in the country, Tsepiso shares how the life he knew came to a violent end when he was just 6 years of age.
Tsepiso Tshivhase (27) was born in Khalavha in Limpopo, with his formative years spent with his grandmother and parents in one house.
“My first home was in Venda, Limpopo. I stayed with my father’s side of my family until the age of six. It was a rural area and growing up it was very safe. We used to play outside a lot, in the dusty streets. We played a lot of soccer and we made brick cars and when we got older we made wire cars. We would compete against each other about who made the best cars. At home we had cattle, I would say it was a simplistic way of life. It was a relatively peaceful community with no crime. I know it sounds cliché but almost everybody knew everyone and there was kind of a genuine connection.
“There was little movement from our village. Going into town only happened in December. It didn’t bother us. In our community, we didn’t have a lot of materialistic things in the sense that someone would want to show off their flashiest clothes. The value of life was not derived from luxury items but rather from relationships.”
Tsepiso has fond memories of his formative years.
“My grandfather from my father’s side was the chief of the area where we lived and my grandmother was one of his wives. However, she never lived in the royal house, which was in the same village. I never met my grandfather outside of ceremonies. When there was a gathering my family would say, ‘go greet your grandfather’ and that would be all. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother though. She was a person of faith, she used to take me to church. The bond that I forged with my grandmother was probably stronger than the bond with my parents.”
Tsepiso remembers that as an only child, he was spoiled with attention from his parents.
“I honestly don’t remember any conflict between my parents. My parents were very successful, my father was a high school teacher and my mother was a primary school teacher. The schools they taught in were in different villages. My father loved soccer and he was famous for soccer in the village. He used to buy me soccer balls and lots of toys. I remember him buying me a red plane and I decided I wanted to be a pilot. My mother was the funny one, she used to read me books and we made puzzles together. I still remember some of her jokes, one day she was cooking mopane worms and she began sharing a story, ‘there was this day when visitors came to the house and they asked, ‘what are you cooking?’ and I said, ‘I’m cooking tomato soup’ and the worms opened the lid and said to the visitor, ‘she is lying she is cooking us!’.’ I remember us laughing a lot with her about silly jokes.”
But tragedy struck this idyllic family.
“This scene in my six-year-old memory is most vivid. At the time, I used to sleep next to my grandmother. I knew that we were supposed to go to school and my mom was supposed to wake me up. But that morning I woke up earlier than I was supposed to and I went to my parent’s room. When I opened up the door there was smoke in the bedroom and I couldn’t see anything. I stood there and I switched on the light. I still couldn’t see. There was smoke everywhere, I just rushed out and went back to my grandmother’s room. I woke my grandmother and said something was burning. My grandmother woke up and went to my parent’s room. When she came back, she got me dressed and took me to a neighbour’s house. She said ‘stay here until I come back’. I can’t pinpoint exactly in my memory the timeline but somebody was taking me back home and that’s when I saw so many people in our yard. There was a lot of police that came to the house, the family from my mother’s side, including my grandfather, were there. I didn’t know what was happening. I could tell that something bad had happened. I could tell that my parents were not around. But no one was telling me what was going on. I’ve tried to relive that moment and remember, but my memory fails me. So many things happened. There was a lot of anger from my mother’s side of the family and I was immediately taken by them. I didn’t want to go because that would mean that I would not be with my grandmother, I cried to stay but no one would listen. I was just a kid. I knew something terrible had happened but I don’t remember asking about what had happened. When things like this happened as a child you become scared. All I did was look around, trying to make sense of what was going on, without succeeding.”
After moving from his parents’ home, Tsepiso describes the next few years as another life. He lived with his maternal grandfather, four aunts and one uncle in Muduluni village.
“I was transferred to another primary school that helped me to continue as if everything was normal. My maternal grandfather had seven children and my maternal grandmother had already passed when I was young. I used to visit them a lot previously so they were not strangers. Everyone was loving and caring towards me. I received a lot of attention as a young child. When I look at it, this side of the family was more modest. We depended on my grandfather’s pension money because no one else was working full time. We just made it through. It felt like a big adjustment coming from a family where you are showered with a lot of things and now things were a little bit different. Toys were not a priority, however, they compensated for it with the love and attention that they gave. They would play and spend time with me, making sure I was okay. I never went to bed hungry. The thing we never talked about was what had happened to my parents and I also didn’t have the courage to ask even though I had so many questions. I knew they were no more but I did not know what had happened.”
Despite all the uncertainty, Tsepiso excelled academically.
“At primary school, I was always in the top three, I used to get a lot of awards. I was part of the debate team. I loved school and the fact that it kept me busy.”
Tsepiso’s curiosity about his mom revealed the family secret.
“I think I was between nine or ten years old when I found documents about my mom in my grandfather’s room. I was just being naughty – looking through stuff. I like reading a lot and I would read anything I could get my hands on. My mother’s name was Rachel, so I began looking for her name. Most of the documents were her qualifications, bank and insurance documents. I searched for documents with her name when my grandfather was not there and it’s not a good thing to do. I would steal the documents and read them in my room. I was trying to read every single day to fill a void. It helped answer who my mom was. What was she like? I’d find transcripts from college which had her marks; it was those kinds of documents I’m talking about. It was liberating, I felt closer to her.
“On one of the occasions, I discovered a police report with a detailed account of how my mother died. My dad had murdered my mom by stabbing her and setting the bed on fire. He then hung himself in a field somewhere. I was so shocked. Why would my father do that to my mother? I didn’t remember him like that. It also made me so ashamed – how could I be this type of orphan? What does that say about me? I did not talk with anyone about it. I was even scared that someone who knows me could find out. I kept it and tried to forget it. I just put that in the back of my mind.”
To try to forget, Tsepiso focused even more on his academics.
“You know, when you are that involved in extracurricular activities, it disrupts your thinking. I was a good kid. I had built a reputation of being a good boy and any act of rebellion was never public. I never drank or smoked. I was a kind of nerd. I joined the debate team, student politics and in Matric I was the head boy of Maneledzi secondary school. It was the proudest period of my life.”
It was on this high note that Tsepiso entered Wits University in Johannesburg to study mechanical engineering.
“Wits was a horrific experience, it was really a nightmare. That was the first time I went out of a rural environment to face the reality of the rest of the world. I was staying in residence and interacting with kids from affluent areas. These were kids who grew up with wealth. I had never encountered rich people before in my life. I saw classmates coming to class in cars. And the way they expressed themselves, with so much confidence and proper English, was intimidating. Because I am black, I also felt an inferiority complex, since it was the first time I was encountering white people. I honestly did not know how to interact with other races. Back home at high school, my value was excelling academically, at Wits I was really struggling with my studies. I found university hard and I could not compete with my peers’ status. I struggled to find value in myself, I began doubting myself and I lost my confidence.”
Tsepiso needed to repeat his first year and during his second year, he was academically excluded.
“I did not know what to do with my life. I didn’t have quality friends, I didn’t have a support structure. Even at home, I did not talk about how difficult academics were. I told my family I’m not going back and when they asked why, I told them I was excluded. Everyone was devastated, no one knew the words to say to me.
“I had suicidal thoughts, I thought about getting a rope somewhere and ending it. Let me tell you why I didn’t do it. The real reason, I couldn’t allow my grandfather to go through that again. My grandfather is 82 years old this year. I just couldn’t, he is the real reason why I am still here today. I couldn’t imagine him going through that again, it would have killed him.
“I felt the shame of having to go home to a community where there was the expectation that I was supposed to be something big. I never partied or drank. All I did was go to church and join the youth ministry. It was as if to serve in the church made me regain a sense of value.
“I stayed at home for the whole year, I was afraid of meeting people. The June holidays were the most terrifying for me because kids from varsity were coming back to the village and wanted to meet with me. I didn’t want to meet anyone, I was hiding. How do I explain to someone who used to look up to me that I was chased away from one of the best universities in the country?”
It was a call from an old high school friend, Hulisani Tseisi that turned things around for Tsepiso.
“He was shocked to hear I was excluded from Wits and we spent a long time in conversation. He was asking me how it happened and why I didn’t talk about it. At the end of the conversation, he said I must forward my high school results and Wits results to him and he will try and apply at different places for me to study. I didn’t want to go back, but he convinced me to try.
“Later, when he told me where he had applied, I almost fainted. He told me he applied to UCT, the best university in Africa. He believed in me more than I believed in myself. In life, you need to find people who believe in you more than you do and then you cherish that relationship and hold on to. I knew that it was a huge risk, the chances of me succeeding were small.
“I was not accepted for mechanical engineering, but I was accepted for civil engineering. Coming to Cape Town was a dream, it was unreal. The city felt international and no one knew about my past. It was a fresh beginning. I am small in stature, so I fit in among the young students.
“I was still afraid of failing, so I changed my 4-year degree to the 5-year format. My friend was studying his masters at UCT and he became my mentor. He is above ordinary when it comes to discipline and he has the results to show for it. He worked in PWC while he was doing his Masters. He is actually from a poorer home than I am and he is now the breadwinner. He would check with me every week about how things are going. He used to make sure I do my work. I had the best coach I could have wished for and we became even closer friends.
“I had the advantage of having previous experiences at university which made it an easier transition this time. I rekindled my ability to take on leadership roles and I became the vice-chairperson of the Student Christian Fellowship. UCT opened a world I never could have imagined, it gave me the gift of strong friendships and strong support structures. I was actively seeking them out and I made the effort to attend networking events. I met some of the best minds at UCT, I’m talking about young people who are driven beyond what I thought was possible. Young people who launched their own businesses and brands. I was inspired, motivated and blown away.”
Tsepiso’s unresolved pain would soon manifest.
“In my final year, my grandmother’s sister passed away. When she passed on, I couldn’t go back because we were doing a design project at university. I knew that if I lost a week or two I would not catch up. I was thinking I’d be fine but I was far from it. Then I heard about the UCT student who disappeared, Uyinene Mrwetyana, to be found raped and murdered by a man working in the post office. It had such an impact on me. I was just mourning the death of my family member and Nene’s passing as a result of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) took me back to my mom’s passing. I felt so connected to this young lady’s story that I went on a downward spiral. A friend was worried and suggested I seek professional help. I saw a psychologist for eight weeks and I took antidepressants until I submitted my thesis. I didn’t want to postpone my thesis, I just wanted to submit, even though each day felt like I had been hit by a ton of bricks.
“The sessions with the psychologist helped me to talk about the pain of when my parents passed away. A pain I had buried for years. I spent my life avoiding any type of news connected to GBV. Subconsciously, I used to look away, because I was afraid of engaging with it, as it reminded me of my past. When Nene was robbed of her life, I couldn’t escape. I had a copy of the newspaper in my room, describing what had happened, the pain I felt was so deep, so personal, I just felt powerless. I so wish we can have a society where men can get help and stop hurting women and children. We need to stop!”
Tsepiso managed to successfully finish his degree and was looking forward to his graduation. His grandfather was going to attend, but due to COVID-19, this was not possible.
“This one was a huge setback because it’s the year I was looking forward to the most. We had already booked the flight for my grandfather and it was so disappointing to know he would not be able to make it.”
In addition, as a young graduate wanting to secure employment, COVID-19 has posed another challenge.
“Companies are no longer employing because they are cutting down. Construction sites have been closed. I do consulting work, but if contractors are out of jobs it affects those of us who design. It’s a setback, no one is certain of getting a permanent job.”
But this has not deterred Tsepiso from lending a helping hand to other students struggling during the pandemic.
“I’m involved in student support for those completing online studies, I am mentoring a few students in their final year. I’m an alumnus of the society I mentioned and we have about 300 members. We have a WhatsApp group where we try to motivate each other. I’m still part of the youth ministry back home. We have had many zoom meetings to discuss issues around COVID-19 and also to check on each other. That’s the little I can say I’m doing.”