Maverick Citizen


From waste picker to MA graduate — the journey of Gibson Nzimande

From waste picker to MA graduate — the journey of Gibson Nzimande
Msawenkosi Gibson Nzimande in his room at the UJ residence in Dooenfontein.Photo:Mark Lewis

After spending four years homeless, going through people’s trash to make a living, Gibson Nzimande now has an MA degree.

Gibson Nzimande recently received confirmation from the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ’s) History Department that he had passed his MA with 68% and will graduate in October.

It’s a dream that kept him alive while working as a waste reclaimer on the streets of Sandton since 2018.

Last year he still slept under a tree on Rivonia Road. A bucket and a small piece of soap were his only personal belongings, along with his honours degree certificate and MA proposal, wrapped in a plastic bag.

After UJ academics heard about Nzimande’s situation in April 2022, his life changed radically. More than R200,000 was donated by corporates and generous South Africans to a fund created to assist him.

“The four years in the wilderness taught me a lot of things. Respect life, it can change in two seconds. Without that experience, maybe I wouldn’t be here today. It helped me a lot, even though I was suffering. Those trials, tribulations and circumstances taught me so many things in life. That’s why I even managed to finish my master’s,” said Nzimande.

Reminders of the past

He sits in his small room at his residence on the Doornfontein campus, browsing through the diary he kept during his dark days. The noise of the traffic outside is a reminder of the sounds he had to endure while manoeuvring his trolley with an oversized white bag, filled with recyclables through Sandton peak traffic. He now sleeps on a bed, under a warm blanket, and studies at a desk with an electric lamp.

It is impossible for Nzimande to escape the reminders of his past. Despite this, it keeps him humble and focused on what really matters. The enormous pressure to never return to the streets persists despite his counselling sessions.

A focus on gender studies

Nzimande focused his MA on the life histories of young women using nyaope.

“My street knowledge helped me a lot to understand the relationship between gender and substance use among the youth — especially women. Most of the studies focus on men. Living on the streets, I saw an absence of women recyclers. They tend to view women on the street as prostitutes. Their voices are being ignored.”

While his term at UJ will soon come to an end, he is already working on a proposal for a PhD. He hopes to use some of the money left from the donations to enrol for the first year.

Nzimande is grateful for the sponsors who helped him, but hopes to find work to sustain himself financially.

“Life is a journey; you need to persevere. Your time will come, don’t rush. Because if I decided to do other things, like engaging in criminal activities while still living on the streets, I would have destroyed my life.”

He revisits the place where he used to sleep every night along a busy road. Today there is another waste reclaimer who calls the spot his home. Nzimande’s days on the streets are over, and a new future lies ahead.

His dream is still to become a lecturer and it’s one he will continue to chase until he stands in front of a classroom. DM/MC


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