“I have found that consistency in character and leadership makes it easier to act courageously, to lead by example, and to be of service to others.” Such wise words from one so young – an “nontombi” of just 21 from a rural village in the Eastern Cape.
But Unathi Beku is no ordinary 21-year-old. The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) graduate and Beyond the Classroom (BtC) product is a holder of the prestigious Mandela Rhodes Scholarship awarded by the Mandela Rhodes Foundation.
The former Lawson Brown High School head girl, who comes from a village outside Umtata, matriculated in 2010 and then studied a BA in Development Studies on NMMU’s Missionvale Campus.
Unathi, along with 6 279 others, will be graduating from NMMU in one of 14 graduation ceremonies taking place in Port Elizabeth and George in April.
“I was attracted to the fact that the programme is based there,” says Unathi of the campus based within the sprawling Missionvale township. “It kept me in touch with everyday development challenges in South Africa.”
Having served on the Junior City Council (JCC) during her senior high school years, Unathi’s passion for development and change in society was ignited.
She credits the development studies programme with providing her the opportunity to realise her dream.
“I knew I wanted to learn about how to actively speak for change in an academic sphere, but also how to use the methods and tools learnt in the classroom to actively implement change in my community,” she says.
To fulfil her role as an active agent for change, an energetic Unathi found something positive to invest her time in in the form of BtC, a voluntary leadership programme that introduces students to the requirements of leadership in a practical and creative way. Through the social engagement opportunities provided by the programme, in collaboration with the African Unity Foundation (AUF) of which Unathi is an ambassador, Unathi became actively engaged with the broader Nelson Mandela Bay community.
Her long list of engagements include tutoring through Masinyusane Community Development; facilitating workshops through the youth development project “Beat The System”; playing a part in educational programmes targeted at high school learners and running a mobile resource network to help make tertiary education more accessible to youth in rural areas.
After a rigorous and comprehensive six-month application process, an overwhelmed Unathi recalls the moment she received the news of being awarded the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship: “I was utterly shocked! I screamed; jumping up and down … After the initial shock subsided I felt immense gratitude for such a wonderful opportunity and I was even more grateful to those who helped in grooming me to become a young individual capable of achieving such a great honour.”
As a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, Unathi is now part of a network of young Africans who are expected to play leadership roles in their specific field and society. The scholarship not only provides Unathi with monetary assistance including academic tuition, books, accommodation, travel expenses and a generous allowance; it also provides for a supportive environment in the form of a network of fellow and past scholars and staff of the MRF, who all believe in her dreams and potential for leadership excellence.
So just where does Unathi see herself in the future?
“I see myself working towards fulfilling my life’s purpose,” says Unathi, “and that is, to help others fulfil their full potential. I am excited about future opportunities available in academia, impacting policy, and community engagement that can assist me in achieving this purpose.”
For now, Unathi is studying towards a BCom Honours degree in Economics at the University of KwaZulu/Natal (UKZN) in Durban in the hope of one day using economics as a means to achieving developmental goals.
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