Interview with Reloef Khoza

Tanda Tula sponsors a gifted young man, someone who represents the exciting future that lies ahead of so many South Africans. It is our privilege to introduce this inspiring, dynamic and talented young man.

1. What are you studying?

“I’m in my 3rd year of a BSC Aeronautical Engineering at WITS University” (University of The Witwatersrand, Johannesburg).

2. What made you decide to study aeronautical engineering?

“As a young boy growing up in a rural village, my friends and I would get so excited when we saw an airplane flying over. We’d run through the streets cheering and waving. I always wanted to be a pilot, I wanted to be flying in one of those planes. Later in the 11th grade I discovered that I could study how to build aircraft instead of fly them and this appealed to me so much more because of my love for mathematics.”

3. Were you inspired by any films or books?

“I watched two movies that inspired me, Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks and more intriguing was Flight with Denzel Washington – the latter in particular because of the complicated inverted move he made in order to save the aircraft – it fascinated me.”

4. Where did you go to school?

“I went to the Hoedspruit Independent College in the rural village of Acornhoek. Our headmaster, Axon Malumane, was a very inspiring and motivating person – he encouraged excellence and hard work. He motivated us to do well by wavering the following semester’s school fees if we did well in all our subjects. I made this my priority so my Dad didn’t have to pay for another school fee from the 9th to the 12th grade. I achieved this by always being well prepared and was always 6 months ahead of all my colleagues on all my classwork and studies, a tactic I still use today”.

5. Tell me about your family and parents?

“I am the youngest of 5 children. My mum died when I was 16 and my Dad has done an amazing job bringing me up on his own. My father is a travelling salesman, he sells cosmetics and some medical products, he has had to work really hard to support all of us. My father is a real inspiration to me, he motivates me and encourages me all the time, he’s a very respectful man and I have learnt so much from him”.

Out of 5 children, only 3 completed their high school education and Reloef is the first person in his family to go to University. Reloef has achieved 6 distinctions for his matric, unheard of from rural schools with so little to offer compared to the privileged government and private schools in the cities.

6. As a result, you won a bursary to WITS with a big South African Bank, what happened then?

“I was awarded the bursary and did really well in my first year despite suffering a major culture shock and struggling to understand the lecturers (I only understood maths). I found it hard to make friends and discovered how seriously unprepared I was for University. Second year was a nightmare. The bursary did not cover all my expenses so I was living in very difficult conditions. I lived with my brother who is a prison guard at Southgate Prison, he shared everything with me, I am so grateful to him. But living in a prison is stressful and dangerous.

The commute to WITS took precious study hours out of my day and I struggled to pay the transport costs. I decided to spend my nights in the University Library, understandably students were able to do so as long as they were studying, not sleeping. So, I would sit up all night reading, and shower in the faculty gym in the mornings and eat whatever food I’d been able to save from my brother. Life was tough. I was exhausted and hungry most of the time, I really struggled to stay awake during lectures.

Surprisingly at the end of the 2nd year I passed 8 out of 11 subjects and failed 3, unfortunately this was not good enough for the Bank and my bursary was immediately terminated. WITS had to impose their financial exclusion policy and I was refused access for re-registration. It was over, I was devastated. I returned home feeling shocked and bewildered. My father insisted that I stay motivated and try to find work to save up for WITS fees. I started volunteering my time to a local school to help disadvantaged kids with their maths and science. It was during this time that I met Dr. Wendy Blair who headed up the Seeds of Light NGO where I was volunteering. Wendy listened to my story, and said “you need to meet someone, Donald Scott the owner of Tanda Tula, he was an aeronautical engineer, maybe he can help”. Three weeks later I met with Don.”

7. How was your meeting with Don Scott?

“All I knew from Wendy, was that Don owns Tanda Tula, a luxury safari lodge in the Timbavati and that he’d worked as an aerospace engineer for 15 years. I had never met a real aerospace engineer so I was both nervous and excited. Don and I “clicked” instantly, we understood each other and we talked the same “engineering language”. I was overjoyed and overwhelmed. From that moment, I knew I had a chance and that Don was going to make things happen for me. Don inspires passion in everything he does, he is a versatile business man, I trust him and I know he is there for me every step of the way”.

Over the next few months Don structured a full bursary for Reloef funded equally by Tanda Tula and Aerosud (Don’s former aerospace company in JHB). By January 2017 Reloef was back at WITS.

8. You are in 3rd year now and have not long to go, what are your plans?

“I have 17 months to go before I graduate. I’m so inspired and can’t wait to get out and work in the aero industry. My plan is to gain 3 to 4 years of work experience in aerospace then I want to study an MBA. Hopefully I can win a bursary to either Harvard, London Business School or INSEAD. I also want to spend some time at Tanda Tula where I can act as a mentor to the kids on the Tanda Tula Scholarship program. 

9. Aerospace Engineering is known to have some of the most brilliant minds, how do you rank yourself against your colleagues?

At the start of first year we were 140 students, by third year 96 dropped out, we are only 44 left and I’m ranked in the top 5 students”.  

10. Don, what is so special about Reloef?

For me as someone who has experienced first-hand the challenge of trying to get a degree in Aeospace Engineering through WITS, I’m well aware of the level of commitment, the underlying aptitude and the abilities that are required from each student. Reloef clearly has all of these, but what makes him unique is that he comes from a rural schooling background in a disadvantaged community, where it is well known that the system does not prepare scholars at all for a University environment.

My experience has been that such students require a year-long bridging program in order to prepare themselves adequately for university. Reloef did not attend any such bridging program but still managed to pass his first year with exceptional marks. On top of all of this, when faced with severe challenges in his second year and the loss of bursary money, he did not simply give up on his dream but showed supreme tenacity by going back, applying himself again and again to make it through his second-year studies. That kind of commitment is rare. 

11. Don, why is Tanda Tula sponsoring Reloef?

Tanda Tula has a strong belief in the need to provide opportunities for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to realise their core potential. Tanda Tula believes that South Africa is missing out on loads of talent when people from disadvantaged communities are excluded from quality education for financial reasons. I believe that Reloef could be the ‘poster boy’ for the #feesmustfall campaign.  

12. Reloef what is your message to the kids of Acornhoek?

“You must believe in yourselves, you must focus on your goal no matter how big or small. There is so much information out there so don’t get distracted by it, stay focused, be real”.