Corporate Social Investment

Mnisi is a man on a mission

Hard work is the way forward for Bonginkosi Mnisi, an "ordinary guy in love with science". It's a love affair with a big future.

August 13, 2012

Bonginkosi Mnisi takes a breather from his studies at Rhodes Memorial, above UCTBonginkosi Mnisi takes a breather from his studies at Rhodes Memorial, above UCT

Bonginkosi Mnisi is a passionate guy; but rather unusually for a 20-year-old, his passion is science. And it's a passion that has got him noticed and all the way to the University of Cape Town (UCT), where he is reading for a Bachelor of Science – with a triple major.

He is humble about his abilities, attributing his success to his natural-born curiosity; for the rest of us, it's mainly thanks to his sheer genius. For Mnisi aced his matric in 2010, scoring 100% in both maths and science, along with several other As. And all this from a severely under-resourced school in Mpumalanga that did not even have a science laboratory.

Makhosana Manzini Secondary School, in the town of Calcutta, is a Dinaledi School, a school that has pleasing results in maths and science and is supported by the IDC's corporate social investment unit.

The corporation spotted Mnisi's potential – during the crippling teachers' strikes of 2010 he took it upon himself to teach the curriculum to his fellow matrics – and when he came out as Mpumalanga's top maths and science student in the matric results of that year, it was quick to offer him a bursary. The IDC also invested in a science lab at his school, which it named the Bonginkosi Mnisi Laboratory.

Today, he is in his second year of a three-year undergraduate BSc; his majors are astrophysics, physics and applied maths.

Knowledge is king

When this affable and unassuming young genius sits down to breakfast on a sunny but cold Cape Town winter morning, his opening gambit is: "So I guess you want to know what astrophysics is?" He is right, of course, and this gives him the platform to launch into what he considers his destiny: inspiring a passion for science, discovery and knowledge as strong as his, in as many young South Africans as possible.

"I have this belief that I am here for others. I believe in people. All problems have solutions, and solutions come from people. If I am that person who can find a solution, then I must do it. That's what science is – seeking solutions to problems," he says.

Astrophysics, by the way, is the study of the universe at cosmic scales; modelling the movements of celestial bodies.

This year, Mnisi has been excited by two things: South Africa winning part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the Higgs boson breakthrough. They inspire him and fascinate him in equal measure. Yet where does this curiosity about the world come from, in a boy from Belfast on the border of Kruger Park, the third born child of a truck driving father and a mom who opted to stay at home and raise her children? His school, he says, "was under-resourced". "But I grew up with curiosity – I wanted to know how things work," he explains.

"This science curiosity got me into a lot of trouble with my Mom. I used to try experiments in her kitchen, and blow them up. I would read about things, like bicarb, that you find in a kitchen. I also played with electricity a lot."

Hard-working teachers

Despite the regular damage to her kitchen, Mnisi's mother recognised her son's abilities and sent him to school some distance from the influences of his friends, determined that he would make something of his genius. It was a good move on her part. The school may not have had the equipment of many city or private institutions, but Mnisi is sure of one thing: "Our teachers are very passionate. They try by all means to get the students to understand the work. And the principal, Martin Nkuna, is something else. He is a very cool person, and makes sure things are done properly."

Mnisi chose UCT as it one of only two places in South Africa that offer astrophysics. Although he was accepted on his excellent matric results, he wrote the UCT entrance exam "for the heck of it". He is on an IDC bursary, which covers all his tuition and accommodation, as well as some extra cash for books. Yet it is still difficult being so far away from home.

"I have made connections here with other Tsonga students from my area. One guy is also from Belfast and is in first year of astrophysics. There are also a couple of girls doing accountancy. It was tough at the beginning though. Although I did my schooling in English, I was used to hearing my language as well. Here it is English all the way."

His days are mostly filled with hard work, and lectures last from 9am until the evening. He tries to keep in touch with his friends and family at home, whom he visits twice a year, and on campus is a member of the Society for Physics Students, which regularly gathers for interesting talks by various professors. There is not much time for sightseeing, although Mnisi uses his residence's 72-hour post-exam rule – when students can go exploring after their final exams – to hit the beach.

Furthering his studies

The corporation funds students to Honours level, although Mnisi says he is "thinking of studying all the way up to PhD". "I would like to study overseas as well. It's one of my dreams. Harvard in the US would be my first choice, or Cambridge in the UK. I am thinking of going into nuclear physics. But we'll see. I have to work hard."

Going overseas to study would just be a step further along his almost evangelical path to promote science in Africa. He would return, he says, adamantly. "I aim to develop South Africa in terms of science and maths. In black culture, we are often told that science is difficult, but it has worked out for me and I plan to develop that passion in others – because South Africa needs scientists. I am just an ordinary guy trying to get people to fall in love with science."

He also has a few other aces up his sleeve: he knows a bit about what it takes to be a leader: "A leader needs to be willing to sacrifice," he says, before heading back to his books.

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