From cleaning cold rooms to master’s degree in arch dam construction

19 Jan 2024 | By KAMVA SOMDYALA,Helen Swingler
Malefetsane
19 Jan 2024 | By KAMVA SOMDYALA,Helen Swingler

Growing up in Lesotho, two things loomed large in determining young Malefetsane Letsika’s future. One was the strength and dedication of a mother committed to her children’s education, no matter the personal cost. The other was the Mountain Kingdom’s massive concrete Katse Dam, Africa’s second largest double-curvature arch dam.

He did not know it then, but dam structural dynamics would play a pivotal role in his later life, earning him a master’s degree in structural engineering, with a focus on arch dam engineering from the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Department of Civil Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment.

Malefetsane, one of UCT’s many inspirational graduands, will be capped in the Sarah Baartman Hall on 14 December during the two-day, end-of-year graduation.

His is an inspirational story of fortitude, a can-do approach to life and a vision that he latched to like a bulldog.

Clothes hawker

Life at home while his father was alive was difficult. There were bouts of domestic violence. After they divorced, his mother, Agatha, remarried and Malefetsane took his stepfather’s surname, Letsika. It was an honour, he said. To the young boy, he was dad, and Malefetsane remembers the sacrifices he made for him. But he died when Malefetsane was nine.

To provide for her family, his mother was a hawker, selling the clothing she bought at Makro and factory shops in South Africa to a regular clientele. She was single-minded about education. Her children would get the best her hard-earned money could buy. And to that, Malefetsane tied his dreams.

“You will go to the Cape Technikon [now Cape Peninsula University of Technology],” she would promise in light moments.

Malefetsane had no idea what Cape Tech was, but he was a diligent student at school and to ensure he got a South African matric, his mother sent him to Calculus College, a private boarding school in Kroonstad in the Free State. His sister, Keneuoe, studied medical microbiology at the University of Free State.  

“I don’t know if it was my soul not accepting that she was gone, but I dreamt about her for years afterwards.”

That Agatha could afford the fees still amazes Malefetsane.

“She did all that on the money she earned from hawking.”

Neighbours had scolded his mother for not investing in their modest home in Maseru instead. But she had other goals in mind.

She died suddenly in 2010, when Malefetsane was in Grade 11. His world fell apart.

“They buried her on Christmas Day. I don’t know if it was my soul not accepting that she was gone, but I dreamt about her for years afterwards.”

Things fall apart

Malefetsane and his sisters, Keneuoe and Mpoi Thulo, inherited their mother’s house; little else other than the roof over their heads. And even that needed work. An aunt and uncle came to care for them.

Returning to school to complete matric, Malefetsane said the aloneness he felt was acute. Money had dried up, but he was oblivious to the signs of growing poverty: the holes in his school shoes (teachers later collected money to buy him a new pair) and tattered underwear. The school community rallied around to support him where they could. He remembers small kindnesses; the birthday cake his hostel parent, Sasha, bought to provide some comfort on his 18th birthday.

But after completing matric, a shock awaited. He returned to Lesotho to find his sister living alone in an empty house. His aunt and uncle had left, saying the burden of caring for them was too much.

“There was no furniture, no electricity. Nothing. I had to grow up suddenly and start working to afford food and clothes.”

There was also the question of further education, now overtaken by immediate survival needs. He decided to register for a three-year degree in industrial technology at Lerotholi Polytechnic in Lesotho. But the R9 000 registration fee seemed impossible. 

“I had to grow up suddenly and start working to afford food and clothes.” 

 

So, at 19, he got a job cleaning cold rooms in a pizza franchise. When he was not kneading pizza dough, he was in the cold room, the mop sticking to the frozen floor, his teeth chattering as his core temperature dropped. But the experience toughened him up, he said.

“Physically, I could take it.”

By saving most of his meagre salary, he was able to enrol for the diploma. It was a springboard to UCT when he was awarded a bursary to study towards a BSc in Civil Engineering.

Malefetsane arrived in Cape Town on 1 March 2017 (the date is stamped in his memory), into the aftershocks of the turbulent 2015 and 2016 #MustFall student protest campaigns. His maths and physics were rusty and he wasn’t surprised by the 12% he scored in his first physics exam. But thanks to the faculty’s bridging programme and help from YouTube education channels, he was able to pick up.

Circumstances had trained him in the rudiments of survival – and the foundation was hard work and subsisting on very little money. Most of all, he wanted to prove to those who had helped and believed in him that he could do this – and do it well.

Curved balls to arch dams

In Malefetsane’s mind, there would always be more than an undergraduate degree. Passionate about structural engineering, he signed up for an MSc. His thesis picks up on his interest in the structural mechanics of double curvature arch dams. The Katse Dam, built in 1996, is one example, and it still astounds him. 

Double-curvature arch dams feature horizontal and vertical arches, which means that the curvature and thickness of the dam body change in both directions, vertically and linearly. His thesis determines the critical buckling loads and behaviour of thin-shell concrete arch dams when subjected to hydrostatic pressure.

His supervisor, Alphose Zingoni, a professor of Structural Engineering and Mechanics in the Department of Civil Engineering, said, “His methodologies were similar to my own work on shell structures, which find application in thin-walled engineering construction.”

Of his student’s work ethics, Professor Zingoni has high praise, “He was a very enthusiastic student and highly motivated for postgraduate studies.”

Malefetsane is now employed by consulting engineering firm Zutari, in Cape Town, under the wing of a Matteo Angelucci, “a role model who is a genuine leader, always available to graduates and young engineers”.

On the cusp of graduating, he is so proud of what he has achieved and how he managed with so little.

“I’ve been able to see outside the box when tackling difficult situations. Life has trained me, and engineering also teaches that.”

For example, he paid the full lobola for his wife, Penelope Letsika, with money earned as a UCT tutor. The couple are expecting their first child next year, a brother or sister to his adopted eight-year-old stepdaughter, Oyena Lindi. Paying it forward, he is determined that in him Oyena will have a positive role model, and that she will see the grace of God reflected in his life.

 

His life is deeply rooted in his faith, which has shaped his understanding of the purpose of his journey.

“All that pain has been channelled into something, blessings in disguise,” he said. “It has also trained me to see myself in the future, in 10 years. I’m determined to do well and advance in my career.”

A PhD is in the offing, but when the time is right, he said.

Not forgetting others like him, who struggled to get to UCT and with the challenges of engineering, Malefetsane has launched his own YouTube channel where his videos are guides to engineering concepts and South African engineering standards.

The videos are racking up views across Africa.

Party time

His wife is planning a graduation party. The details are being hidden, but family from Lesotho are expected to converge on Cape Town, including his stepsiblings.

Malefetsane’s message to other students is a simple endorsement of Nelson Mandela’s mantra.

“Education is all you need. Whatever life situation you are going through, you can make it. I strongly believe in Mandela’s words, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon you can utilise to transform the world’.”

Adding to this, he quoted United States senator Chuck Grassley, “What makes a child gifted and talented may not always be good grades in school, but a different way of looking at the world and learning.”