Michael Willemse sits in the front of the class, so he can hear and see better. “My one eye is not really bright and also I hear a whole lot better,” he says.
He sometimes also dozes off in class and is woken by his lecturer calling out his name.
Talking over the phone about the most recent incident, he says: “Yesterday was one of those days … I had a long night — I was up working — and I think in my fourth lecture of the day I was in the psychology class and I heard my lecturer call my name. I realised that I had just dozed off.” The memory prompts Willemse to let out a hearty laugh.
He is a first-year anthropology and politics student at Rhodes University, who, at 67, is the oldest first-year student in the history of the institution.
Willemse stopped working in 2011 when the company he worked for was liquidated. He was the company secretary. He did not receive his pension, and, without a salary, he lost everything, including his house and car.
At 60 years old he moved in with his mother. “I was back with my mother at that age. Funny enough.”
Luckily, at that age Willemse qualified for an old-age social grant and that saved him from being “destitute”. But he had lost his sense of purpose and didn’t have enough money to live a comfortable life.
When Willemse’s mother died he stayed with friends around Cape Town, who allowed him to stay for a small amount of rent. It was at this time that he started talking to a friend who was studying at Rhodes, which planted the idea in his head. The friend told him that, as a social grant recipient, he qualified for funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).
He says: “When I was told about the opportunity, I thought, ‘Well, you know, I cannot really lose. I’m hardly getting any income’.”
Willemse began searching for more information and soon realised that there is no age limit to be eligible for the student financial aid scheme. He applied to Rhodes and was accepted. Then he sent his application for financial aid. Thanks to a mix-up in documentation, he was not initially accepted by NSFAS and is going through an appeal process.
When Willemse passed matric in 1970, his father, a farmer, could not afford university fees.
But 50 years later, he set off to Makhanda to begin a new chapter. His welcome to the small town in the Eastern Cape was not pleasant; his suitcase was stolen as he got off the bus. This meant that Willemse arrived at university with just the clothes on his back.
“Lots of things have happened to me.” He laughs — something he does a lot during the interview.
Willemse says when he attended his first class he was already “semi-famous” at the university. This is because he received a special welcome from the vice-chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela.
But he is still an ordinary student and there is nothing special about him. “The first class was strange but, you know, I am no stranger to learning. I’ve done learning when I was in the military. And years ago I did a few courses but nothing to do with a university degree,” Willemse says.
He adds that it is strange to be sitting among a bunch of young people. “They might be thinking: ‘Oh, what’s this old man doing here?’”
But Willemse says he has found that the other students treat him as they do any other student; they respect him and he respects them in return.
“I am just like any other student,” he says. “It was because of my circumstances and my age that I have become semi-famous. But I am just an ordinary student.”
Willemse says most of his lecturers are also younger than him but that they all have been “fantastic”.
“There are a lot of jokes flowing between us because of my experience, my life experiences and, sometimes, when I am very tired because of a long night, I just start to doze off and they laugh and we make a joke about it in class.”
Willemse says he is having fun at Rhodes but is quick to point out that being a student is not easy. He says doing readings for the next day is quite a lot of work if you are attending four lectures every day.
But he is doing the work that needs to be done.
Willemse stays in one of the residences and has a room on the ground floor so that he does not have to climb the stairs. Being in a residence means he has been able to make friends — one of his good friends is a 20-year-old living three doors down, who is studying the same course.
He has plans of possibly doing his honours and then master’s. He hopes that when he graduates from his degree he can work as a tutor or a departmental assistant at the university. “That might be ideal for me because of my age, rather than going to look for work somewhere.”
By that point Willemse would be in his early 70s. But this doesn’t concern him. Rather, his advice is that if you are healthy enough, you are never too old to learn.