/ 10 January 2020

Learner excels after long journey

Academically gifted: Sibabalwe Mkunqwana
Academically gifted: Sibabalwe Mkunqwana



Sibabalwe Mkunqwana’s mother, Zoleka, says that as far back as 2010, her daughter predicted that she would be one of the top achievers in matric. She would even tell her mother what dress she should wear to the awards ceremony.

Zoleka says that last year, when they were watching the announcement of the matric results, her daughter said again: “Mama, ndizovela eTV nam [Mama, I am also going to be on TV].”

When the call came through inviting Sibabalwe to attend the matric results announcement this week, as one of the top 30 achievers flown in from across the country, Zoleka says her daughter said: “I told you that I was going to be on TV.”

Zoleka spoke to the Mail & Guardian this week at Vodaworld in Midrand, north of Johannesburg, during a ministerial breakfast organised for the top achievers in the 2019 matric results.

Sibabalwe was not present during the interview — she had just been taken by her father to join the other top achievers to have their photo taken. The 30 top achievers are those learners who have performed exceptionally well out of the more than 500000 candidates who wrote the matric exams last year.

“It has been a long, hard journey to get here,” says Zoleka.

Sibabalwe suffers from severe Athetoid cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair for mobility. She attended a daycare centre for children with special needs until she was five years old. She then had to leave the centre, because it did not accommodate older children.

For the next five years, Sibabalwe stayed at home. Her parents could not enroll her in a special needs school because those in the vicinity did not have boarding facilities for children of her age. Her mother says: “I had forgotten that Sibabalwe needed to go to school. I was not working at the time and I used to look after her.”

Zoleka says Sibabalwe, 23, has always been ambitious and would ask her mother to buy her pencils, crayons and an eraser. “She would hold a pencil with her whole hand and then bite her arm so that she could have a firm grip and then draw beautiful sketches and then crayon them.”

Sibabalwe used to tell her mother that she would be the number one artist in the whole world.

It took a student social worker from the United States — who had come to volunteer at the daycare centre that Sibabalwe used to attend — to change the situation. Zoleka says the student visited her home with another social worker from the daycare centre and, after assessing her daughter, said it was wrong that Sibabalwe was not attending school.

Days later, Zoleka received a call from an official from the Eastern Cape department of education. “He told me that he had received Sibabalwe’s case and because of the severity of her condition they would admit her toa school.”

But this offer came with a condition — Zoleka would have to sit in class with her daughter “because no teacher would be able to communicate with her”.

Sibabalwe’s condition affects her speech and she is barely audible when she speaks.

So, for two years when Sibabalwe started school at Vukuhambe special school in Mdantsane, East London, Zoleka sat in class with Sibabalwe, interpreting for teachers. “Teachers would sometimes dispute what I am saying [is what] she is saying. They would start believing me when her classmates confirmed that indeed that is what she was saying.”

It was at this point, when Zoleka realised that her classmates understood her daughter, that she stopped attending.

Because Sibabalwe cannot use her limbs fully, she cannot write. So she had to use a laptop — sponsored by a therapist at her school — to do her school work. Remembering how this started, her mother says: “Yoh sisi! She used to use her chin to type. It was hard to do that. Her chin turned black because she would develop an infection from the typing.”

Zoleka says she was not aware of her daughter’s academic capabilities but people at the school would tell her that her child is brilliant. There were also people, particularly other learners, who would claim that she copied their work because they did not believe someone with her condition could obtain impressive marks.

At school, Sibabalwe needed help with tasks such as taking her laptop out of her bag and opening it or taking her books out of her bag and paging. Her mother says: “She was being assisted by her classmates. Her classmates would have to do their own work and still focus on Sibabalwe.”

Her mother tried to get a teacher’s aide to help. She says she knocked on many doors asking for help but even the provincial department of education — whose duty was to provide her daughter with her teacher’s aide — failed to assist.

“You don’t know sisi, you don’t know what we have been through. I am not going to cry,” she says, holding back tears. “It has not yet sunk in that Sibabalwe is here today. We have gone through so much pain with my child. The department of education failed to help us,” she says, no longer able to hold back her tears.

In 2018 Sibabalwe was finally granted a teacher’s aide. In 2017, she also became the first person in Africa — according to the department of basic education — to receive a computer with eye-gaze technology. It follows the movement of her eyes to type, and that is how she is able to write and communicate.

Zoleka says during tests and other exams her daughter would be allowed to finish writing the next day because she would not be able to complete the task in the time allocated, especially when she used her chin to type. For the Matric exams, the national department of basic education gave her special permission to spend as much time as she needs to finish writing.

Zoleka says: “When that happened I said: ‘Nguye ke lo uThixo’ [This is God’s work].”

At the awards ceremony on Tuesday night, after the announcement of the matric results, Sibabalwe was announced as the third top achiever in the special needs education category. She was also one of the three top achievers from the Eastern Cape. Her school achieved a 100% pass rate