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'My Tintswalo struggles, triumphs’

After tough years, siblings shower mom with love

Noxolo Sibiya Journalist
Itumeleng Phokoje is a teacher and co-owns a vegetable garden with her mother.
Itumeleng Phokoje is a teacher and co-owns a vegetable garden with her mother.
Image: Supplied

As the country continues to debate the authenticity of the tale of a born-free Tintswalo who benefited from government programmes after apartheid, many have drawn those comparisons to their realities. 

During his state of the nation address last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa used the analogy of Tintswalo, born in 1990 at the dawn of democracy, to focus on the democratic government’s programmes from free healthcare to housing, water, social grants to free education. 

Sowetan spoke to Itumeleng Phokoje, who was born in 1994. 

Phokoje, a teacher, became a 'deputy parent' to her younger brother to help their self-employed mother. She has a vague memory of her childhood, but remembers how growing in Phuthaditjhaba, a township in QwaQwa in the Free State, her mother Rebecca, a vendor, would rent back rooms so they could have shelter. 

“My mother sold sweets and snacks at a local school. Days were different. She sometimes made a profit and sometimes she didn’t, but she had to make sure that we eat,” recalled Phokoje.

She broke down as she explained how they would eat pap and milk for days when they ran out of chicken. 

The family also relied on a social grant to stay afloat. 

Phokoje went to a no-fee schools from primary school and despite the hardships at home, she passed matric at Mamellang Thuto Secondary School and was among its top performers.

Two years before leaving school, a feeding scheme was introduced, making her life a little easier. 

“I then enrolled at the Central University of Technology to study teaching. I had no funding. My father who sold funeral policies, tried to cover my needs but he struggled and could only pay for some of my courses,” she said. 

“In second year, I applied for Fundza Lushaka bursary, a government scheme for students interested in being teachers. It paid my outstanding fees from the previous year. It covered the rest of my tuition for four years.” 

With the money from the bursary, Phokoje said she had to take on some of her mother’s roles. 

“I became a deputy parent to my brother. I paid for his maths extra classes, bought his uniform and made sure he and our mother had food. I sent my mother money for rent when her business made little profit. Because I understood the power of education, I did everything in my power to make sure my brother gets an education.” 

On completing her studies in 2018, she was placed at school in Mahikeng, North West, where she taught economics and business studies.

“My brother was fortunate to get funding from the NSFAS [National Student Financial Aid Scheme] and studied journalism. I made sure to top up his food basket at the end of the month and would buy him clothes. I was making up for the things I was not able to have,” she said. 

“My mother returned to my grandmother’s four-roomed house because we struggled to keep up with the rent. In 2019, I bought her a house where she was able to start her own vegetable garden.”

Her brother graduated in 2023 and is a freelance journalist. The siblings help their mother who is still a vendor.

“Sometimes my brother sends her money, sometimes I do. We make sure we cater for her needs and we do it with love just as she raised us through all the hardship with love,” said Phokoje.

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