Soweto to Oxford and beyond

Tamara O’Reilly

If the Rhodes Scholarship Trust were looking for a poster boy, Nhlanhla Dlamini would probably make the cut.

As the latest recipient of the generous and prestigious Rhodes scholarship, 23-year-old Dlamini possesses all the certificates, medals, blazers and fancy “colours” that have come to be expected of applicants.

The scholarship, founded by Cecil John Rhodes more than a century ago, will see him begin reading for his Masters in African Studies in September 2008 at University of Oxford, England. Dlamini views this as a vital step in achieving his goal of playing an active role in the broader development of his community, and ultimately Africa.

“I understand that my analysis of Africa’s problems is incomprehensive. It is this acknowledgment that leads me to want to pursue a Masters in African Studies,” he says. “It will broaden my knowledge of African economics, history and sociology – three essential areas in understanding Africa’s context and challenges. By being in a class that will explore socio-economic concepts in Africa, I will be able to deepen my passion for my continent by grounding it in evidence and research.”

His selection, over several other hopefuls from the Gauteng, North West, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga regions who no doubt displayed credentials that were also admirable, has not surprisingly been stunning.

“I am extremely grateful at this stage to all those who have influenced me and contributed to moulding me into the person I am today,” says Dlamini. “Everyone has been overwhelmingly congratulatory and happy for me. It’s been a humbling reminder just how many friends and family members I have who are always rooting for me.”

‘Resigned to a life of hardship’

Although he was born in Soweto, at age seven his family moved to a traditionally white suburb and he was transferred to a multiracial school.

Beyond the challenges of acculturation, both his parents were also retrenched from their jobs in the early 1990s, resulting in significant financial woes for his family.

“I was convinced at the time that my family and I were resigned to a life of hardship,” says Dlamini.

In 1992, what he calls a “seemingly small event” changed his outlook on what he could achieve academically.

“At the end of Standard One [now Grade Three], I was invited to a prizegiving. I knew nothing of prize giving or what actually happens at such evenings. It turned out I was awarded the “Most Conscientious Student “ award. For the first time since I had moved to my new school, my background didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that I came to school in a jalopy or that I was part of an awkward minority in the school.”

By the end of his secondary education at Marist Brothers College in 2001, Dlamini finished top of his class with five distinctions and full academic colours. He had also by then amassed several other awards in the areas of academics and community work. In Grade 11, he became the first pupil in the school’s history to be awarded an Honours Blazer, an accolade usually reserved for final year students.

In 2002 he enrolled for a BCom Degree in Information Systems at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He graduated cum laude, making the Dean’s Merit List every year and pronounced Wits University Council’s Academic Merit Scholar from 2002 to 2004.

Dlamini is an avid sportsman with several school and university captaincies to his name in the games of rugby and soccer. He is a national silver medalist in martial arts.

He is currently employed in Atlanta, USA as a consultant for McKinsey & Company, a firm that advises leading companies on strategies around operations, staff and advancing their business.

Dlamini returns to South Africa in March 2008 and he has left the six months remaining until he begins at Oxford without serious commitment for now, affording him well-deserved time to “tie up loose ends and perhaps take a road trip through the country”.

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