A man from Hanover Park in Cape Town walked a total of 34km every day to get to university, and go back home. His journey ended with graduation this week. Now he is putting to work and is teaching the next generation at a local school.
Eric van der Byl proudly holds his Bachelor of Education degree after graduating this week. (Image: supplied)
In 2010, Eric van der Byl started studying at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). He had to walk 17km to campus and then 17km back home again each day because he could not afford transport.
He did that for four years, through rain and cold, heat and sun. But his hard slog has paid off: Van der Byl graduated this week with his Bachelor of Education degree. Now 44, he was at a loss for words for a while, only able to say that the ceremony was unbelievable.
But his effervescent personality came through when he was asked why he had persevered under such circumstances. “I had to become the source that could provide encouragement and help. My view is I could help and I did. In my second year, I became a mentor and tutor [at the university].”
Van der Byl opted to study education because, as he described it, “teaching is the mother of all professions”. He is now teaching Grade 7 at Parkfields Primary in Hanover Park.
He admitted he still had a lot to learn. “The first month has been very hectic,” he said. “I feel like a blind man. There is something new every day.” But the other staff members had been very helpful and the school “is wonderful”, he said. He marvelled at the teachers who operated like well-oiled machines. One day, he said, he wanted to be like them.
“I believe in holistic education. It’s not just about teaching subject knowledge,” he told Cape Town newspaper, Cape Argus. “It’s about opening [students’] minds to all the possibilities that are out there for them. I see it as my main role to open their minds to the skills and talent and other potential that they possess.”
Van der Byl was listed as a graduation highlight on the university’s website. “He has shown true spirit and determination in pursuing his goals, going as far as walking 17km daily to get to campus,” it read. “He, too, is already putting his qualification to use and is employed as a teacher…”
Vice-chancellor Professor Tyrone Pretorius said: “This is indeed a very special occasion, not only because this is the first year I will be presiding over graduation ceremonies or that we are celebrating UWC’s 55th anniversary, but because I am proud of the calibre of graduates UWC has produced.
“Being a socially responsible university, I have no doubt in my mind that this latest crop of graduates will go on to do amazing work for the betterment of not only South Africa, but the world at large.”
Going forward, Van der Byl, a father of three, would like to pay off his study loans and perhaps pursue his postgraduate honours degree. “But I am not sure if I could balance everything now,” he said.
His story has received a positive reaction from often cynical readers. In the comment section on the IOL website, Cynicalenigma wrote: “You give me hope, sir. If I had a kid, I would want you to be his/her teacher. Thank you.” Kgatle commented: “What a beautiful story. I imagine the kids that are taught by this hero will turn out okay indeed, just like their superhero teacher.” And Vuyo said it was a good story that made his day.