Sizwe Thusi – From shelf-packing to engineering

The Education Ambassadors SA Team caught up with Sizwe Thusi, originating from Newcastle, Kwazulu-Natal but raised in Volksrust, Mpumalanga. Sizwe is a man of many talents who overcame many challnges to make sure that he achieves his educational and career goals.

I was born in Newcastle (KZN) but raised in Volksrust (Mpumalanga) from birth until 2008. I was the first grandchild my grandmother has raised from birth and I was one of the 5 grandchildren that she was single-handedly raising at the time (2 girls: Thando [17 yrs] & Maleoatle [24 years] and 3 boys: Sello [37 years], Lebo [28 yrs] & Myself [24 years]). I attended Pioneer Primary School (Volksrust) and just grade 8 at Volksrust Hoȅrskool (2008). When she could no longer afford fees for my high school career, my father started surfacing into my life and requested that I move to Johannesburg to continue high school from grade 9 at West Ridge High (WRHS) in Roodepoort where I continued and finished matric in 2012. I then moved to Cape Town when I received confirmation that I had been accepted to studying both of my preferred choices (BSc. Mechanical Engineering & BSc. Mechatronics) of which I chose Mechanical Engineering. I received a partial bursary from CHIETA (The Chemical Industries Education & Training Authority ) and an Achievement scholarship during my first year in 2013, followed by a full bursary from Murray & Roberts from the following year until I completed my undergrad in 2017.

What were the challenges and great things about growing up?

One of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced about growing up is knowing nothing about my parents, other than that they are both alive, working and living far away from me. I always thought I was ‘dumped’ at my grandma because my mom was living alone in Joburg with my older half-brother, while on the other end my dad had his own children (my other half-siblings) whom he lived with, yet I was the one who ended up living with my grandmother. All of my ‘siblings’ (I refer to them as siblings because we really were like sisters and brothers at grandma’s place) had their parents living within a walking distance (whom they could easily go and visit whenever they felt like doing so) from home or knew exactly what the story was about their parents, and that really bothered me.

However I’ve had an amazing childhood because I grew up with so many relatives in the same household, all of which brought different perspectives, different preferences, different ways of doing things and different characteristics. So I had a variety of personas and character traits to choose from and connect to.  I never needed to go out and ‘find myself’ as people would call it. I simply chose to learn from every one of them and that taught me to adapt to different situations and people, whilst not compromising myself in the process. 

Your career? What is it that you do? What inspired you to do what you do?

There are actually 3 careers I am pursuing at the moment, 2 of which are more ‘part-time’ than the 1. I will summarize each of the careers below:

1. (Junior) Mechanical Engineer (Murray & Roberts Water: Aquamarine) – Current Permanent Position

I currently work (on a standard permanent contract) for Aquamarine Water Treatment, which specializes in the design, manufacturing and maintain various water treatment systems. This career is in line with my scope of study as I am mainly involved in the planning, design, process, manufacturing and implementation of these water treatment systems which bring together all the various disciplines required to be a competent engineer such as project management, design, manufacturing processes and maintenance. I currently have a service obligation with Murray & Roberts because of the fact that they have been funding my studies at UCT from my 2nd year until I completed, and so there is a definite opportunity for me to learn from the more experienced professionals within the company and watch myself grow into one of the best in the industry, so I am definitely looking forward to that. 

2. Reserve Force Military (Naval) Engineer (Rank: Sub-Lieutenant): – Part-time position

In 2014 (whilst at UCT) the SA Navy came to UCT to present the University Reserve Training Programme (URTP) which, was a programme implemented by the SANDF to recruit future engineers whilst they were still in school. The aim was to offer them a complete Basic Military Training (BMT) course followed by a Military Training Officer 1 (MTO1) course which would encompass all the requirements required to become an officer in the military. Since this couldn’t be completed in the conventional 9-month (3 month BMT + 6 month MTO1) continuous period , but was squeezed in a 22-week programme and arranged in such a way that during the June, December and Easter Holidays, one wouldn’t go home but would use that time to complete these courses and training. This was to ensure that one completes both his/her studies and the military training required to be permanently employable by the SANDF as a military engineer.

There were two reasons to my pursuing this career. The only thing I found out about my dad growing up was that he was in the military (part of the MK who went in exile till 1994) and so it was a classical “follow in your father’s footsteps” opportunity. But most importantly, I have always been a daring individual, challenging myself in all aspects of life. Whether it was having to climb up to the highest part of the tree to face my (early) fear of heights, to competing with the older, more skilled players in a pool tournament, I always tried my luck, regardless of what the 

odds were. That also taught me that I need to also factor being realistic in every situation I embark on. So I completed my training programme and degree in 2017, and was given an opportunity to either join the force permanently or remain as a reserve force member where they would call me up every time they needed my services. So I chose to remain as a reserve force member.

3. Part-time Tutor for Topptutors South Africa : Part-time position

This was a passion I developed back in grade 12, where I realised how much I just love giving back in any way possible. One of the most effective ways I came to realise was how involved I like to get with regards to tutoring the subjects that I was lucky enough to develop a passion for since high school i.e. Mathematics, Accounting and Physical Sciences. When I got to UCT I was extremely happy to an opportunity to join a more structured organization called SHAWCO (Education), where we got to tutor and mentor learners from different grades and schools. I joined SHAWCO from 2013 until 2016 and when things started getting a little shaky financially, I saw an opportunity to go into private tutoring where I could still continue my passion while earning a little pocket money.

What do you like most about yourself and the work that you do?

Well, I would say I am a people’s person (I get that a lot from my peers) and so in this type of field (engineering), you need to establish some sort of relationship which will allow both parties to be comfortable enough to voice out their ideas, opinions and perspectives. So my personality is always easy-going and down to earth. I always prefer 4-5 different ways of achieving a goal which we can choose from. Furthermore, I enjoy working in situations where pressure, competency and other limiting factors play a major role in successful delivery of tasks because that forces you to learn a lot about other people (which improves the way you get to deal with different people, their personalities and approaches). I am always keen to learning new things, ideas and trends and this becomes an advantage for me because I am not afraid to question information presented to me. You also learn to work with people who have to report to you, so on a managerial perspective, you need to be able to make strict calls and make deadlines. The military taught me a lot about how self-confidence and body language can influence the way people receive your instructions.

What are some of the challenges which you’ve faced and how did you overcome them?

There are three actually, one in my primary years, one in varsity and one now.

  1. The element of not having any parents in the early years of my life still have heartfelt pain and upset in my life, because there were so many incidents which forced me to go back to the question: “Why aren’t my parents here?”

To mention one:

I consistently maintained well-above average results (academics) in subjects such as Computer Mathematics and Computer Literacy that I was selected to receive honorary awards at school. My grandmother was unable to travel to and fro via taxis (which forced me to learn how to use the taxi system from Grade 2 at age 7 I remember) which meant I had to go and collect my awards alone. When the primary school teachers asked me where my parents were (instances where they would need to take a photo of myself and them for the weekly newspaper, etc. together with the other achievers) I really couldn’t answer. Later in my primary years when I was selected to receive such awards I would purposefully miss the big event out of embarrassment of having to see other parent-children groups happily celebrating, and just collect my award at the principal’s office the next day. The only way I overcame this was to keep my head down and just continue achieving more and more because I knew that one day I will be commemorated for my efforts, and that even though my grandma couldn’t make it to those events, she was always there for me and celebrated at home. The same applied with representing the school with sports (soccer & cricket), choir and gumboot dancing

       2.My 2nd Year at UCT was academically extremely tough, to a point where I failed 2 courses (one 1st semester course, one 2nd semester course). The real hardship with this one was the fact that as much as there is academic support in University, one fails to make the most of it because of factors such as fear (of being called ‘stupid’ or ‘slow’) or even pride. One of the main challenges I’ve personally experienced was that, there is so little of us coming from our communities to represent them that either:

  1. The pride we develop becomes too much that we do not want to humble ourselves and accept that we are struggling. You know, the “I mean I got X distinctions in matric. This too I will get in a matter of time” type of attitude.
  2. The fear of having to approach the white/indian/coloured/Asian lecturer/tutor because we either do not know exactly what we want to ask or, the language barrier (English) is a limiting factor too that we don’t want to sound stupid.

Overcoming this meant humbling myself and accepting that I will never know everything and that there are points in life where you will need help, and I just need to start reaching out for help and using all the systems the University has for me. It’s quite tricky though, because imagine this – You are one of the very few black students to gain entry into a world-class university from your village. Now there are other individuals who are just like you, and because of the pride infused in you by your community, your family and even school, no one is willing to accept that they may be struggling with a topic and end up choosing to die alone.

       3. We are at the workplace now. As a young, graduate, you get the opportunity to hone your managerial skills by being allocated workers who will report to you (heading projects, delegate duties, set timelines, etc.). If for instance, one of those workers who report to you happen to be in their late 40’s or early 50’s, the following happens – Now I am a very cultural and traditional person. I grew up in a family and community where respect is the highest order of the day, meaning that one of the strictest rules is to respect your elders. That may include; not back chatting them, not ordering them around, sometimes not even looking at them in the eye! Now here I am, having to give this elderly being a bunch of tasks which, from my culture, is utter disrespect. So I would resort to either doing them myself (which my bosses would never accept, and probably isn’t part of my job description) or have to try and wing my way around it by asking someone else whom I can easily instruct. So there is normally a clash of cultures and norms which we first have to deal with before anything else. But then again, a human being can tell when you’re being respectful in the manner you present/ conduct yourself right?

What are some of your life highlights for you so far? What are you most proud of?

I did quite a lot of ‘piece jobs’ if you may call it that where I successfully managed to fulfil the fact that I am giving back to the community somehow while making a little money for myself. There are also ones where I learnt invaluable lessons from. Here are few, and why I am proud of myself for having gone through with them:

  1. Working as a shelf-packer at Checkers Liquor at age 18 (Matric, 2012):

After the preliminary exams, I decided to approach the manager at checkers for a temporary post to raise funds for my matric farewell costs. The main idea here was to develop a sense of responsibility and know how it feels to spend hard-earned money, because I knew I could do it and did not need to bother my parents for such. That taught me a lot about budgeting, time-management, planning and humility in that some of my peers laughed at me for doing that. I wasn’t really bothered though because I ended up telling them they’ll need a bartender later on in the night!

  1. Working in Student Housing for UCT as an assistant

Housing is one of those topics that cause distress for students in UCT, particularly incoming freshers. There are always students who are in dire need of help and hardly receive a helping hand. Imagine this – Here is a fresher who comes from KZN/Limpopo/JHB with all his/her bags at the UCT housing office. His/her parents were not able to accompany him/her to Cape Town due to a lack of funds, so they are all alone in the mother city. They have no extended family/family friends and he/she is the only individual from his/her school to be accepted in UCT. Their residence application has been unsuccessful, but he/she has nowhere else to go due to limited finances and overall knowledge of the area. So it was not only a matter of ensuring that the child has a shelter and safe, but also to ensure that the fresher is aware of different options in terms of their accommodation, etc.

  1. Representing my school in the Regional Accounting Olympiad at UJ in 2011

I also had a passion for accounting where in grade 11 a team of 10 students in our school were chosen to represent WRHS in the Regional Accounting Olympiad held in the University of Johannesburg. I then went on with 3 students to attend a week-long ‘camp’ hosted by SAICA’s Thuthuka bursary scheme where we would be introduced to a possible career in Chartered Accountancy and Actuarial Science. This was a brilliant experience because I was able to rub shoulders with the best in the province through various activities, meetings and even sharing bed spaces!  

What, in your opinion, are the most important factors to keep in mind to make it in your career or life in general?

  • Always be keen to learning new tricks, means and ideas.
  • Experience is key : be willing to get your hands dirty and be a run-around boy for the elite
  • Keep a humble persona at all times. You will look much more approachable to others and they will always run to you for help. This will improve your work relationship and develop a sense of loyalty from your colleagues.
  • Try and instil humour within the workplace. It’s always good to share a joke or make someone laugh.

Where would you like to see yourself in the next three years?

Well I would like to see myself preparing to register to become a Professional Engineer with the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA). I would also like to do a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) and a few more courses which enhance management and professional communication skills. Ultimately I would also like to see a myself involved in running a NPO in a form of a multi-faceted academy: Where we teach the youth that school is not the only way you can make it in life. There are other careers and routes one can take such as military, health services, sports, entrepreneurship, entertainment and artistic practices. We would also have plans in place to teach the kid valuable lessons in life e.g. building your business profile, creating a CV, looking at the stock-market, taxes, means of applying for funding, etc. and will consistently be mentoring them all the way.

If there was anything you could do differently, what would it be?

The way I treated my parents in high school. I was a bit of a naughty boy (rebel-like) because I was still confused (about the whole growing up alone childhood) and a typical boy who wanted to go out there and enjoy. I didn’t know better and I side-lined my parents’ feelings. That is something I really regret. It was also one of the reasons why I decided to leave Joburg after matric – just to move to another place and still show them that I can achieve what I promised them without bothering them anymore.

Are there any specific people or organisations that you look up to and draw inspiration from and why?

There are a few organizations that are in line with my occupation. ECSA (of course), The South African Institute of Mechanical Engineers (SAIMechE) and SHAWCO Education. When it comes to people there are 3: My Grandmother – who has been exceptional in producing the kind of person I am and never giving up on us at home during our childhood. I am inspired by here strength and character through how she raised us. My parents, who taught me that it’s never too late to fix things (they eventually got married in 2012) and teaching me valuable parental skills which I will build on when I get to raise my own. They really believed in me and put everything they had in ensuring I do get a chance in life to live my dreams. Murray & Roberts have also been a company I grew very proud to be a part of, as they not only paid for my studies at UCT, but ensured I get the necessary in-service training while at school to expose me to a variety of projects that an engineer will more likely come across later in my life.

Are there any inspiring projects which you’re involved in?

As I mentioned before, I would ultimately like to run an academy which will (holistically) groom children of all ages. Call it an ‘Academy of Life’ if you will, which will develop a youth that is aware of the world around them in a lot of ways possible. People who will talk about important topics such as race, gender, religion, culture, etc. which affect their lives and be aware of such. An academy that will give the child a chance in life to follow whatever they feel they are talented in whether its Maths and Science, Soccer, Art or even opening up their own salon! However this is only in the preliminary stages where I am struggling to even start it because of funding, exposure and marketing.

​Lastly, what advice would you give to others out there looking to follow in your footsteps?

The most important thing is to be content with yourself, first identify your strengths and weaknesses. Then capitalize on your strengths. With a little bit of research, you will find out that you actually have so many career options with the little that you can give, and then it’s just a matter of going out there and getting it. While there are a lot of barriers that you may face e.g. funding, resources etc. there are facilities/institutes that will recognize you if you really give your best in what you do, and like what logic dictates, ‘Help those who help themselves’.

How can the public contact you?


Facebook: Sizwe Thusi



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