Dr. Kwanele Kunene: My Teacher Said I’d Never Become a Doctor; I Did

Dr. Kwanele Kunene defied the odds when she chose to follow her dreams and reject the voices of those who didn’t believe she had what it took to become a doctor. Today, she holds a PhD in chemistry and runs an NGO called Zosukumizizwe with her twin sister. This is her story:

Early beginnings

I was born and raised in a small town, Dannhauser, South Africa, in the rural area of Jan Farm. I am a twin, and we are the lastborn children of the late Madoda and the late Agnes Kunene. I completed Grades 1 to 7 at Annandale. I remember when I was doing Grade 7, our teacher, Mr. Ngwenya, asked us about the career path that we wanted follow. Most learners wanted to be teachers, nurses, and police officers, but I chose a different career – a doctor.

I later attended Inzululwazi Secondary School for Grade 8 to 10, however, they didn’t have a math teacher, which forced me to transfer to Durnacol Combined School for my Grade 11 and 12.

One of my Grade 12 teachers did not believe I could become a doctor because of my math and physics marks. This motivated me to work harder, and I passed my matric with exemption.

I hadn’t been given the opportunity to use CAO (Central Applications Office) to apply to different institutions because that teacher didn’t believe in me. After matric, I took a gap year since I hadn’t applied to universities. I tried Durban University of Technology (DUT), but they turned me down because I didn’t apply through CAO, and my marks were not that good.

Then the following year, I applied, but I was not accepted for any of my choices. I remember that day well. I was at DUT when they told us they only had space in HR at the ML Sultan campus. I went from the Steve Biko Campus to ML Sultan to register for HR, but I was not happy.

While there, I saw the Berea Technical College phablet that was advertising different courses. Chemical engineering was listed, which is closely related to analytical chemistry. I went straight to Berea Technical College.

A new beginning

It took me weeks to register because I did not have enough funds. I vividly remember the last day for registration. It was a Friday. I sat down near the cashier counter waiting for my mother to send some money. She didn’t because my dad missed the bus to make the transaction.

As I was still waiting, I met a lady named Ms. Mathonsi who asked why I was sitting there and crying. I explained everything to her. She gave me the money to register and some money for lunch. This was the beginning of my journey at Berea Technical College as a chemical engineering student.

I managed to register at DUT to earn a national diploma in analytical chemistry and BTech in chemistry. Then, afterwards, a master’s degree and PhD in chemistry.

During my master’s degree studies, I was awarded the AESOP scholarship to study at the University of Latvia for a year. After my master’s degree, during my PhD studies, I was awarded the French Embassy Scholarship to study at the Institute of Membranes Montpellier.

Giving back

Zosukumizizwe is the NGO that I run with my twin sister. It was established in 2011. We wanted to help learners, especially from rural areas, with career guidance. This helps them apply CAO and NSFAS (National Student Financial Aid Scheme). We did not want the learners to experience the hardships we encountered as students.

Tell us about your twin.

I would say my twin has played a crucial part in my life and my son’s. She worked at Tongaat Hullet as a mechanical engineer while I was studying. She supported me financially throughout my studies. In 2014, she was advised by her employer to quit and enroll in school, but she refused because she wanted to support me.

After studying in Latvia, I managed to pay fees for my twin sister to do a BTech in mechanical engineering. My sister played a big role in my son Zosukum’izizwezonke’s life when I was away. She became his mom, and he didn’t know that she wasn’t his mother. He only found out recently. He calls us Best Mom 1 and 2, respectively.

My twin and I share a special connection that goes beyond that of ordinary siblings. Sometimes we say and do things at the same time. We think the same thoughts or sense each other’s feelings.

What is your advice for women, especially in Africa, who want to achieve their best?

  1. Always ask for help and assistance when the need arises. No man is an island. I was blessed to have been surrounded by several fantastic mentors and colleagues who have helped me achieve more than I could have by myself.
  2. Careers are non-linear. At each step, choose opportunities based more on what you think and you will learn from it rather than on where you think it might take you.
  3. A diverse set of experiences is invaluable in building a rich career.
  4. I always encourage young aspiring academics to work hard in order to achieve their dreams. I quote from renowned performer Lady Gaga when she states, “Some women choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their dreams. If you’re wondering which way to go, remember that your career will never wake up and tell you that it doesn’t love you anymore.”

You can connect with Dr Kwanele via:

Facebook: Esie Kwanele Kunene
LinkedIn: Dr Kwanele Kunene

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