Family plays an important role in the lives of many Dell Young Leaders. This is true for Simphiwe Sithebe, a Dell Young Leaders alum from the graduating class of 2020. Raised by his grandparents in a rural area of Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN), Simphiwe is currently working at one of South Africa’s largest private banks. Simphiwe shares more about his grandmother’s influence and the continuing impact of his graduation on his family and community.
What have you been up to since graduation?
I’m a graduate from the University of Cape Town (UCT) with a degree in chemical engineering and now working in the banking sector. As someone new to the working world, I’ve been learning the lingo that people use in business, especially since I come from an engineering background. When you come into a bank, specific terms can mean something completely different. My manager has been very open with explaining what certain concepts mean.
I’ve also been learning new skills and upskilling myself. In terms of coding, it’s an always evolving learning space. I’m often checking out new things to learn about coding, python, and data analysis. In my job, they support us with an online course subscription so many of the things I’ve been doing are from there. I thought — why not just learn more about things that can further improve my career?
Where do you think this focus on lifelong learning comes from?
The thing is, my home is full of teachers. My mum, aunt, grandmother, uncle — they’re all teachers. They’re very big on education and learning. This was actually a challenge in university because in my final year I was faced with choosing between continuing my academic career or going into the workplace. My family wanted me to keep learning until I got my master’s degree or PhD. In my final year I was conflicted because I wanted to work, but was caught between a master’s degree and going to the workplace.
How did you overcome your final-year challenge?
Eventually I made the choice to get a job, and then convinced the family of my plan. My mum and family wanted me to pursue a master’s degree because they believe it’s nice to be educated. For them, looking at South Africa and how high unemployment is, they thought going straight from varsity to looking for a job would be difficult. They were anxious and worried I would be unemployed, but here I am now. They’ve always been supportive. My family, my mum, my grandparents, and the people I’m close to were very excited and supportive when I graduated. Some even offered to come with me to Gauteng to look for places to live. In terms of my career, my family doesn’t say a lot because I’m always the person who tries to plan and investigate the possibilities, so when I make a decision I have already thought of all the outcomes.
Graduation is a time for reflection and celebration for many of our graduates. Looking back at your university journey, what would you say was your biggest motivation?
Coming from the rural areas of KZN, growing up herding cows, I owe a huge thank you to my grandmother specifically. In 1999 when I was born, my mum was still in university so I went to stay with my grandmother while my mum continued her studies. Since birth, I was with my grandmother. She’s always been the one who was big on education.
When my mum finished studying in 2002 she moved to a small town in KZN, so I was always with my grandmother growing up. My grandmother played the mother role essentially — waking me up, both preparing and giving me money for food, helping me with homework. If I had something going on at school, she would pull up as the parent. When I was in high school, she was known as the mother of Simphiwe. Because she was also a teacher, she encouraged me to get educated. She would say, “This is the grandson that’s going to buy me a television.” In high school, I was the top achiever in math in my district in KZN and it was a big thing for her. She would say, “Simphiwe’s doing the things. He’s getting awards, he’s getting recognised by the mayor in town.” When I went to UCT, we were always in contact. She would ask how things are going at UCT.
What do you think has been the impact of your graduation on your family and your community?
In the third year of university, my grandmother passed away. She never saw me graduate but from what I know about her, I know she’d be all over the place. She would have retired by now, seeing that her grandson is working. Her goal had always been to see her kids work, to see her grandson work. I’m happy to say that what my grandmother wanted for me is in fruition.
Some people believe education isn’t the thing that will help you succeed. My grandmother believed in the core values of getting educated and getting a degree to make something of yourself. That belief from her is what kept me going.
This story is dedicated to Simphiwe’s grandmother, Lindiwe Khumalo, who passed away on May 12, 2019.