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21/08/2017

Behind every student number is a story – of hope, dreams and aspirations, will and unparalleled resilience. 

These very stories, of eight Nelson Mandela University students who have had to overcome a myriad of challenges – financial, institutional and social – to successfully access university form the emotive backbone of a photo documentary exhibition that opened at the institution’s Bird Street Art Gallery last week.

The #Storyofmylife exhibition, which showcases photographs by University photographer Leonette Bower, gives audiences a glimpse into the lives of the eight students, taking them on an intimate journey into their personal spaces.

In mid-October 2015, thousands of young South Africans across the country’s higher education institutions took a stand, foregrounding the various challenges affecting their access to tertiary education – chief of which were increasing tuition fees and an untransformed curriculum.

Most affected by the financial challenges were the poor and “missing middle” – the latter deemed too rich for financial assistance but too poor to afford tuition fees – who united in thrusting a decades old phenomenon to the fore.

It was during these valiant uprisings that the concept for the photo documentary #Storyofmylife was birthed.

Nelson Mandela University vice-chancellor Prof Derrick Swartz tasked Bower with documenting students’ stories, particularly relating to issues of access to university, towards the end of 2015.

The issue of access, in particular for poor academically deserving students, is at the heart of the University’s commitment to widening access. To this end, Nelson Mandela has over the years helped raise millions towards struggling students’ tuition and accommodation fees.

“We wanted to tell the story of the university as a visual narrative, with specific focus on the “access” theme – students who are confronted with and negotiate various challenges in accessing the university,” said Bower.

For the photo documentary, Bower followed students Gretchen Sudenie, Luvuyo Plum, Jenna Leigh Greyling, Faith Moyo, Khakalomzi Gcwabe, Sakhumzi Dukwe, Nandipha Jack and Angelo Kapank; into their homes, classrooms, family lives, churches and other extracurricular activity.

The exhibition is not only a display of the students’ photographs, but also of their handwritten stories that essentially contextualise and set the tone for the series of photographs. Their stories had a common thread of a compelling commitment to succeed academically and to make a difference in the lives of others.

“Through telling these stories, I wanted to maximize the contribution of the students as part of the process of their portrayal, providing them with the opportunity of projecting their own “voice” by means of handwritten notes to accompany the images,” she said.

“The process of photographing these stories has been an enriching and rewarding experience for me. While my main objective was to offer others a window into the lives of these students, I often found myself being taken out of my own comfort zone and into another’s reality.”

In a massive display of triumph over adversity and immense will to succeed, the students – who come from all walks of life – shared their everyday lived experiences with the capacity-filled gallery audience, with many moved to tears.

Sharing his story at the opening, Khakalomzi Gcwabe, of Motherwell, reminded his peers that in all that they do they have a choice.

“That’s what my uncle would always tell me. In life, you always have a choice. Just because you come from a certain background, it doesn’t mean you must end up in a similar future. We cannot always help circumstances, but we can choose how we deal with them,” he said.

“I’ve always been driven by a need to succeed and be able to give back. I’m here because of the sacrifices that a lot of people made. I can never fully express my gratitude to them, and can only hope that my success speaks that which I may not verbalise.”

Gretchen Sudenie, who grew in the city’s Northern Areas, said it was a bittersweet moment for her.

“I should have been a statistic … a dropout … ended up dead … a nothing that amounts to nobody, but I am not,” she said.

“I stand here before you as a masters student, a Law graduate, a candidate attorney and a part-time lecturer. These are honours that I cannot take credit for alone. It has taken a village to raise this child, who is now raising her own children and supporting family.

“It’s emotional and I’m grateful for the platforms to have been able to experience and to feel it because sometimes I lose touch with who I am because I’m always trying to run away from where I come from.”

The exhibition opened on 16 August and runs until 31 August. It can be viewed at the Bird Street Art Gallery on weekdays from 9:00 to 15:00.

The photographs will also go on sale, with proceeds to go towards the Vice-Chancellor’s Student Fund that offers financial assistance to financially needy, academically deserving students.

Picture:The #Storyofmylife exhibition

Contact information
Ms Zandile Mbabela
Media Manager
Tel: 0415042777
Zandile.Mbabela@mandela.ac.za