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Unisa alumnus continues to inspire students in Durban

Inspirational Unisa alumnus Dr Maropeng Mpya uses his past and his experiences to help Unisa students in Durban with Moot Court and basic legal training. Here is his story.

Dr Maropeng Mpya

Mpya comes from a village called Schoonveld in the Senwabarwana (“where the Khoi drink water”) district. It is one of the most beautiful places in Limpopo. There is little to no crime, an abundance of livestock, a caring and loving community, and it is the place that has shaped Dr Mpya’s seventeen years of basic schooling. He said he owed his being to the streams and the birds, the rabbits and the herbs of Schoonveld which has given him life. The corn, watermelon, beans, and different types of wild fruit nourished his mind and spirit. It is in Schoonveld that he is at peace and where there is tranquillity.  Dr Mpya believes family to be the fabric of society and he puts his family first, before anything else. He is the third of four children and has two older sisters and one younger brother. Both his parents are still alive.  He said his mother is exceptionally gifted in arithmetic; she is a strong woman, a pillar of society, a woman of God, faithful and always optimistic.   Their home is always full of young and old people.  His mother wittingly said after he obtained his LLB, ‘So are you going to continue [your studies]?’ She had no idea what that “next” was, but she knew he wanted to do and be more. And out of that exchange came a cum laude master’s degree. Dr Mpya describes his father as a quiet, but very funny man, full of wisdom and one who provided and nurtured the family with distinction. Furthermore, his father loves cars and has driven almost every make of car available in South Africa. His three siblings are supportive, encouraging and – most importantly – loving and he would not have persisted if not for their support and advice.

Mpya said the University of South Africa had been his refuge, his place of solace, and a place where his formative years were nurtured. His journey was neither smooth nor easy, and he remembered feeling small and inadequate because he was just a humble rural boy, educated in rural public schools, with no English to posture some level of mythical intellectualism. However, over time he conquered his fears and inferiority complex to focus on his studies. It was still incredibly difficult because of the divide between the tranquillity of rural life and the hard and heartless concrete jungle of Gauteng.

He utilised every opportunity provided by the College of Law and participated in most of the programmes including Street Law, Moot Court, Mock Trial, and All Africa Human Rights Moot Court. This had bittersweet results because his marks started to drop, and he began failing some modules. He managed to graduate, though not in record time. What he lost in time studying, he made up in building incredible training expertise in Moots and excellent teaching techniques that would serve him well in future.

After realising that he did not fully demonstrate his full academic potential in his undergraduate degree, he set out to prove that he was as smart as he thought he was by doing his master’s degree. Maropeng asked God for strength and two years later, in record time, he obtained 79% for his master’s thesis. This was not as simple as he thought it would be.  It was probably the most difficult period of his academic life: he was told he was not good enough, not supposed to be working as a postgraduate assistant, he was not a writer and he did not deserve to go to international universities even though he was accepted by some prestigious universities in the world. Despite all the insults and degrading treatment, he held up his head high, smiled and persevered. For all his efforts he received the Barney Pityana Award for Excellence for his masters. He remembered the ceremony well as it was not only about the prize, but also about Professor Barney Pityana whom he had always admired from a distance – a man with a warm smile, excellent leadership qualities and infectious laughter. It was because of Professor Barney Pityana and his ideals that the award meant everything to Dr Mpya.

Maropeng used his past and his experiences to help Unisa students in Durban with Moot Court and basic legal training.  He saw a need to empower Unisa law students by becoming one of the trainers for Moot Court at Unisa and then later created his own training programme that he has taught primarily to Unisa students. He has been doing this for over 12 years and it has contributed to a holistic enhancement of legal students by making them better legal practitioners with an Ubuntu consciousness. The journey has been very fulfilling as Dr Mpya and his colleagues have managed to train excellent legal practitioners who have gone on to do incredible things within the legal fraternity. 

Dr Mpya (centre) with Moot Court finalists

He said it was never his plan to become an academic nor did he really think of getting a PhD. However, all of this changed when he entered academia as a student assistant at the University of South Africa. It was also at this point that he saw the need to acquire the highest qualification he possibly could because he intended to finish his PhD. before he turned 30 years old and then go on to become a legal practitioner full time. He pursued his PhD. vigorously for several reasons. Firstly, to serve as an example to everyone who comes from the rural areas, townships, and informal settlements; to show them that it is possible for all of them to achieve their dreams. Secondly, to position himself to lead as he has most, if not all, the qualities that a leader should have, namely, humility, charity and intellect. Finally, and closely linked to the second point, is that he wanted to fill his cup with wisdom in order to best serve humanity.  

Dr Mpya is of the opinion that he has been blessed and he thanks God for these small beginnings but he also emphasises that this is only the beginning. He said the qualification will enhance his career and has put him in the small pool of Africans with PhDs amongst South African academia. Furthermore, it has opened doors for him to serve every African better because he has acquired not only a degree, but also information that can change Africa for the better.

Dr Mpya elaborated on his research, the challenges he faced while doing his research, its findings, and how he managed to stay passionate about his topic.  The title of his PhD. is “Enforcement of Human Rights Standards against Multinational Corporations”. Therefore, the enforcement of human rights standards against multinational corporations (MNCs) interrogates the language of human rights and its impact on the African continent. The study asserts that MNCs are an intrinsic part of colonisation which has resulted in the exploitation of Africans. In order to remedy the useless language of human rights, the study has employed Botho/Ubuntu which forms the ideological, epistemological, and ontological bases upon which MNCs can be held accountable.  Dr Mpya remained passionate about his studies because he was writing the thesis with the aim of disrupting the status quo in the hope of a better Africa and world. Ironically the everyday suffering of Africans was the fuel that burned the fire to put on paper the ink of change.

When asked if there were some sort of ground-breaking research, community engagement, societal impact, human interest, or such associated with his studies, he responded by saying that his research has provided a contemporary critique and proposes a solution for the colonial, imperial and racist practices of the Global North’s multinational corporations towards the Global South in general and Africa specifically.  The research is ground-breaking in that it centres African episteme in solving African problems. Moreover, it dismantles the fallacy of human rights as just another nomenclature of Global North colonialism. The thesis succeeded in framing the principle of Botho for both its employment in multinational corporations and jurisprudence that must underpin every decision-making process in Africa.

Dr Mpya said the sacrifices he had to make for his studies were time lost which could have been spent with loved ones. He found juggling work and study to be the most difficult challenge.  He finished his PhD slightly later than anticipated because there was too much work which took away time for research, reading and writing.  Maropeng said that, for the most part, he had enjoyed the study experience except for the times when he received feedback that was merely draining and could make one feel stupid. Other than that, it was a time of immense growth and awakening to knowledge and critical thinking.

His family is elated, and they have not stopped speaking about the fact that they now have a doctor at home. It is, however, regrettable that after 26 years of democracy, a family, a village and a township can take pride in only one out of two doctors in the village where a few hundred people live.  The family has embraced his achievement for the family, the village and the township for, as Dr Mpya states, “It is not for me and them alone, but for all Africans”.

Covid-19 has disrupted much of what has been considered the norm, but those who have studied or are studying at Unisa are very fortunate because the ‘online new normal’ is something they have done for most of their academic lives. On the other hand, Covid-19 has brought untold sorrows to many families and it is incredibly sad to witness the public health system being unable to manage the crisis and the many allegations of corruption that has made the situation even worse. From a teaching point of view, it has negatively impacted on everyone who lives in an unequal society where resources and location determine one's success in life. Covid-19 has exposed the incompetence of the current government and its inability to have a vision and imagine a better South Africa for all.

Lastly, Mpya said his purpose in life is to serve others and he gives thanks to God who has given him the wisdom to do so and he prays for the emancipation of the African continent. His greatest achievements are when he observes his students achieving their goals, such as resolving legal problems, going to overseas universities with scholarships, and being excellent attorneys and advocates who do amazing work in serving society.

* By Jo Cossavella, Communications Officer, Unisa, KwaZulu-Natal Region

Publish date: 2020-08-04 00:00:00.0