Although Bongani Mapumulo, an honours graduate, has completed his journey at Stellenbosch University (SU) and will now bid the campus farewell to pursue a career, his legacy of making SU a better place for persons with disabilities will remain on campus for many years to come.
Bongani received his Honours BA degree in Intercultural Communication in absentia from the Faculty of Arts and Social Science at the seventh graduation ceremony at the Coetzenburg Centre today (12 December). He was a full-time residential student of Huis Russel Botman House for five years, first completing his undergraduate studies and then his honours degree majoring in Political Science, Sociology and Social Anthropology. He was also the head of Dis-Maties, a society that promotes awareness of students living with disabilities and advocates for their issues to ensure they have positive academic and social experiences on campus.
“As a resident of the only residence named after thought leader and late academic Prof Russel Botman, I have developed my consciousness and duty-based outlook on the world based on his ideas and teachings. His influence, even from his grave, has been priceless to who and what I have become," he says.
A part of the legacy Bongani created was as a member of this year's Students' Representative Council (SRC) in the portfolio of special needs. He contributed by promoting awareness for persons with disabilities. Although this portfolio was temporarily implemented as a pilot phase, it is now under consideration as a permanent portfolio in the SRC.
“The SRC is representative of the student body of SU. There are many students with special needs and therefore they need to be represented. The campus community will definitely have more empathy and understanding for the plight of the students with special needs if the SRC becomes involved," says Bongani.
But one of the things Bongani will probably be remembered for most, is the example that he has set to current students, prospective students with disabilities and others who experience some sort of hardship. His journey at SU is proof of his belief that there is “another world outside your disability or hardship you experience. We should strive to live an abundant life free of the physical limitations our bodies impose upon us."
Bongani's story started in Durban in KwaZulu-Natal where he was born and bred. At the age of four, he sustained a spinal cord injury and after years of medical procedures, he managed to walk slowly with the assistance of leg braces and crutches. He attended special schools for the disabled until he matriculated. He uses an electronic wheelchair to move around and during his years at Stellenbosch he became a familiar sight on campus.
“I had become used to being in a boarding school, being surrounded by many other learners in wheelchairs, on crutches or having some form of disability. I spoke isiZulu and had never been outside of KwaZulu-Natal. When I came to Stellenbosch, I was the only one in a wheelchair on campus in a strange province away from the comfort of my familiar surroundings," he says.
Bongani still clearly remembers how, shortly after he had sent his application to Stellenbosch in 2013, he received a phone call from the SU Disability Unit (DU). “The people from the University called me to inquire about the specifics of my disability, what I needed and what devices I used. I was surprised and felt that the University cared and that I would be in safe hands there. Therefore, I picked Stellenbosch. I never even heard back from the other two universities," he recalls.
During his five years at SU, he has indeed had a transformative student experience. Stellenbosch and the Western Cape became his second home, while he built a priceless network with the people he engaged with. He grew stronger in himself and became wiser – to such an extent that he is comfortable with the thought of making the Western Cape his permanent home.
His driving force is the thought of “just becoming". “I see challenges, which I have had my whole life, as opportunities to better myself. While other people say a challenge 'happened to' them, I will say the challenge 'happened for' me. Challenges improve your strength of character and ability to adapt. I have all these challenges to thank for the eternal optimistic spirit I embody that informs everything I do."
One of the next challenges that will “happen for" him is finding a job in the human capital and development field where he can engage with people and that will enable him to live life to the fullest as the outgoing and visionary person he is.