He got 100% for Matric maths at the age of 15 by teaching himself. Then the life of Musa Manzi, now a professor of geophysics at Wits University, turned tragic. What stopped him from jumping to his death as he had planned? Read his story as told to SUSAN BENTLEY, then watch his video advice on how to keep focused
Musa (32) is a senior researcher and lecturer at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand (more often known as ‘Wits’). He grew up in Ndwedwe, a rural village in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal. Today he shares a home in Johannesburg with his two nieces, Joy (19) and Hope (17)
‘AFTER PASSING MATRIC, I knew I wanted to study at Wits University, so I borrowed R100 from my mom and took the bus to Johannesburg. The people in the admin department said they couldn’t help me because I hadn’t applied. I didn’t know what to do. A guy there saw my confusion and asked if he could help me. He discovered I’d received distinctions for all my Matric subjects at the age of 15, including 100% for maths and 98% for physics, and persuaded the university to register me for a BSc in maths and physics. His assistance blew me away. He was Indian and where I came from, Indians and white people were in the same bracket for me: unhelpful to black people! It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten in letting go of my prejudices and not judging others.
I’d had a tough early childhood. My father died when I was two and I was rejected and bullied both at home and at school. People called me things like skinny and it hurt. But when a shop owner, Zodwa Mngoma, told me I was created in the image of God, it changed my life. I used to go into the hills to pray and read the Bible. One day I had a vision that showed me no matter how small and fragile my faith, God would be faithful to me as I trusted in Him. I decided to become a doctor of some kind and persevered through my studies in high school, teaching myself and my school friends maths and physics as we had no teacher.
At the age of 15, Musa borrowed R100 from his mother and travelled 500km to apply to Wits University. Today he travels globally. Here he’s on a research trip in Germany with fellow academics
My university studies went well, and I made friends with a wide range of people which opened up my world and my thinking. But one week before my final undergraduate exams, Mom and my sister died within a day of each other: Mom of TB and my sister of natural causes which have never been explained to me. I’d been planning to treat Mom to so many things when I finished my degree, to thank her for always supporting me and believing in me: now I could never do that. I felt I’d nothing left to live for. I wrote a note stating that, and walked over to the window, intending to jump out to my death. At that moment, a friend arrived, and I ended up not carrying out the plan.
Instead, I brought my sister’s two young daughters back to Johannesburg to live with me. I had no plan and no resources. The three of us slept at Park Station that first night. We lived on and off in my office and in the Wits library for about two years, which led to my being disciplined by the university. One day, a fellow student took me home for a meal. Her parents, Ed and Rose Thomas, invited me and my nieces to stay with them and they became my parents. This was another experience of people being kind to me when I least expected it from them. Sadly, Ed died recently but I am still so close to Rose. She has an extraordinary, amazing heart, and is my mother, my best friend and my biggest supporter.
When Musa’s mother and sister died within a day of each other, he was just 18 and planned to kill himself but got interrupted. Instead, he took on his young orphaned nieces and was disciplined when they were all discovered living in the university library. Today, Hope (left) is 17 and Joy is 19, and the trio lives together in a house in Johannesburg
The kindness of Ed and Rose is one of the reasons I don’t get angry with people much nowadays and rather try to understand the full picture. I tend to look for the reasoning behind any racist behaviour I encounter: what happened in this person’s life that causes them to behave like this? I’ve also sometimes been stopped by the police as a potential drug dealer because I’m black and have dreadlocks. These things don’t upset me because I try to look beyond what I see. I actually find difficult people more interesting than those who are good-natured – I learn a lot from them.
Some people believe you can’t be a scientist and a Christian, yet I see no conflict here: even scientists agree there’s so much that can’t be explained by science. In my view, and according to the law of probability, nothing comes from nothing, so something must have started the universe. I believe it was God. I have some interesting interactions with atheist colleagues. One said to me, ‘Musa, I don’t like your Jesus, but I like what he’s done for you!’
Musa with ‘second mother’ Rose Thomas. ‘She has an extraordinary heart and will always be my best friend,’ he says. ‘The kindness of Rose and her husband Ed is one of the reasons I don’t get angry with people much and try to understand the full picture.’
I believe God works through pain for good, and I’m grateful for that. Every aspect of my journey has shaped my character. Teaching myself maths and physics at school taught me to think for myself and despite the pain of my sister’s death and the responsibility of raising her daughters, I’ve also experienced great love and blessing through them.
I believe the true measure of a person is whether you have learnt to sacrifice yourself in the service of others. I try to care for people, whether it’s my nieces, my colleagues or my students. I was 18 when I started raising my nieces and it changed my perspective completely: I realised it was easy to focus on my own goals while the people I loved, or who loved me, lost my presence with them. That way you end up with power and achievements, but no meaningful relationships. What sort of life is that?
I’m passionate about excellence and am up every morning at 4am. As I make coffee, it’s just me and my God in the quiet as I pray and listen to Him. The days are so busy and complex, and this is a daily reminder to me of who I truly am.’
DR MUSA MANZI’S 6 TIPS FOR YOUNG STUDENTS
- Work on your character and your attitude above all else. This is your responsibility alone
- Make friends with a wide range of people – black, white, male, female, young, old – it broadens and diversifies your thinking
- If you’re in South Africa, our education system has many problems but find a way right now to take steps towards your own goal
- Be flexible, find different and creative ways of attaining your goals
- Academic life isn’t easy, it’s demanding, you’re judged on output, and it’s easy to forget why you’re doing it. Discover purpose and meaning in life beyond the academic
- Live your own story. For me that means having God at the centre of my life and asking Him every day to do His will in my life
WATCH MUSA’S TIPS ON HOW TO KEEP ON TRACK WITH YOUR STUDIES
A professor of geosciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, Musa Manzi is also director of its Seismic Research Centre. In between researching and lecturing in locations as diverse as Oxford, Nigeria and Sweden, Musa tours South Africa giving motivational talks in schools. He has also established an orphanage in Durban. Musa has been honoured with numerous local and global awards, including the Africa Award for Research Excellence in Earth and Ocean Science from the American Geophysical Union and the Emerging Researcher Award at South Africa’s ‘Science Oscars’ (the NSTF-TW Kambule Award).