For former UCS learner, Bongani Matlebe, his biggest accomplishment to date has been to achieve one particular goal: to be at the very school he came from. “I was a beneficiary of the fundraising programme that I am now managing as the newly appointed fundraiser at the school,” he explains. “This was a goal for me and is my greatest achievement so far.”
Because when Bongani was a learner and beneficiary at UCS he always intended to give back to the school and the community. “I cannot think of a better way than what I am doing now,” he states.
Bongani was born in the small mining town of Welkom, in the Free State. At the tender age of nine his dad passed away leaving him and his mom to fend for themselves. As the only provider left in the family, Bongani’s mother had to leave Welkom to seek work in Johannesburg. The pair ended up living in the tough inner-city neighbourhood of Berea and it was there that a close friend suggested Bongani apply to go to UCS. “The school already had an excellent reputation back then,” he says.
He enrolled at UCS Primary school where he was a diligent student and did well. But then three years later things took a horrible turn when Bongani’s mom lost her job. She struggled to pay the rent so they had to move into a small space with a friend and she could no longer afford the school fees.
When UCS principal Helenne Ulster became aware of the small family’s plight, she stepped in with the school’s Adopt a Child programme which assists learners who cannot afford to pay their school fees.
“Adopt a Child saved my life. It quite literally kept me in school and off the streets where drugs and other such vices were very tempting for idle teenagers,” Bongani says.
In high school he immersed himself in the arts. He participated in the choir and tap dancing. “Out of school hours, my tap teacher ran the Tap Talk Rhythm Company. Through the dance company I ended up touring the country and performing on many stages at the age of 14 and 15,” he says.
“It was a positive escape and took me away from the seedy side of inner-city life. It opened my eyes to a better life. But even more than that it opened me up to my own potential. That’s just priceless.”
Bongani was an ambitious learner and high achiever. He became a leader in Grade 12 but one of his biggest stand-out moments at UCS was when he represented the school in the ABSA and Rotary Club of Sandton Speech Competitions. He competed against learners from some of the most affluent schools in Johannesburg and reached the finals even though UCS did not have public speaking as an extra mural like many of the other schools did.
“It was one of my proudest and most inspirational moments – it proved that the only difference between a UCS leaner and a leaner from St Stithians, for example, is access to opportunity and resources,” he says. “Our school did not have the resources, but I gave them all a run for their money.”
Bongani matriculated in 2005 after which he became a teacher’s assistant at UCS and even had a helping hand in raising funds back then. He also continued to hone his performing arts skills and a year after matriculating he co-wrote a production for UCS called How Great Thou Arts, which was staged at the Wits Theatre.
His subsequent years of working in the corporate sector and in the media industry saw him rising through the ranks from media planner to managing director. “My professional success is a tribute to the remarkable education offered by this life-changing institution,” he says.
During all this time Bongani kept up his relationship with the school, such as assisting as the spiritual guidance facilitator for a time. In 2017 he achieved an ultimate goal when he was appointed as a director on the school board and took on the roles of fundraiser and marketing manager at UCS.
Looking at Bongani’s steady rise to success, it is easy to attribute it to his go-getting spirit developed from the culture of success which runs through UCS.
“The commitment of the principal, Helenne Ulster, and good old-fashioned discipline is what keeps this a quality school. It may sound simplistic, but in a generation that is rebellious with hardly any appreciation for the responsibilities that their freedoms come with, discipline has never been more critical. Just look at how it kept me off the city streets and provided me with an excellent education,” Bongani concludes.