Submitted by: Thapelo Khasela
My name is Thapelo Khasela and this is my story of how I became the Senior Project and Financial Coordinator at Action Lesotho – an Irish NPO that brings humanitarian aid to the Kingdom of Lesotho.
There are thousands who face this difficult journey every day. I hope my story will inspire others to persevere and never give up on their goals. As a #Stayer, this is what I did.
Most people with whom I am acquainted think I’ve always had it easy. That’s not true. The cardboard boxes you see below were my bed in the coldest month of June at the most dangerous place in Pretoria – Marabastad!
I followed the “trend” and went to South Africa in 2014 to try my luck there.
I graduated in 2012 at the National University of Lesotho with a degree in Accounting. I, like many graduates, thought getting a job would be a walk in the park. I was wrong. After two years of job hunting, and no calls for interviews, it became clear that securing a job within Lesotho’s borders was unlikely. So, I followed the “trend” and went to South Africa in 2014 to try my luck there.
I knew I needed to get a work permit.
It is undeniably more difficult for skilled labour than unskilled to gain employment in South Africa without proper documentation. I knew this, and I knew I needed to get a work permit if I ever hoped to secure employment with my qualifications in the neighbouring country. I learned of the Desmond Tutu Refugee Reception Centre at Marabastad, Pretoria, and I was told this is where I could get proper documentation.
Little did I know the train experience was nothing compared to what I was heading towards.
I’ve never been in Pretoria before, nor did I know where the Desmond Tutu Centre was. On 16 June 2014 I boarded a train for Marabastad. Travelling by train in South Africa was one of the most frightening experiences I had ever had. Little did I know the train experience was nothing compared to what I was heading towards.
I started to worry, I felt sick, and I thought of my home, remembering my bed.
I arrived in Pretoria around 5 pm. It was a relief to see people already waiting for the centre to open for the following day’s services. After 6 pm the sun set and then the cold set in. I could feel the cold penetrating through my black all-star shoes and noticed people, Zimbabweans, arriving with piles of cardboard boxes. People started going to them and returning with one or two boxes. The two guys I was with explained that I would also need some boxes as these would be my bed for the night. I started to worry, I felt sick, and I thought of my home, remembering my bed.
But nothing was going to stop me from getting what I needed.
I went to the Zimbabwean ‘lads’ and purchased my ‘bed’. I was told that they cost R5 each, so I bought two. I did not sleep well that night – I could not! It was extremely cold and I could not feel my feet. I spent most of the night dreaming about the companies in South Africa I would apply to and how it would be working for these prominent companies. Around 4 am a fire was started, exactly what I needed. Nothing is free in Marabastad, and to be around the fire, cost me R5 or bring your bed as a ‘joining token’, which I gladly did.
We were treated like animals and prisoners.
Everything was better for at least 2 hours. At around 6 am things went sour. We were treated like animals and prisoners by a group of men who identified themselves as security guards at that centre. They made us stand on the line and told us we would be stamped on the arm to determine who would even be seen at the centre that day.
I didn’t even enter the gate of the DHA that day and my papers were not processed. The following day was another day in the wilderness. I went through the same thing – bought the bed, did not sleep, joined the fire circle with my bed, and was made to stand on the line and do squats at 6 am. Exactly the same thing, except this time I managed to be stamped early and was also moved to the front of the line through the same system, R100 was my token. There was hope!
I lost all hope and decided there was no way on God’s beautiful earth I would be sleeping on a box again that night.
I entered the DHA gates at around 12 noon. It wasn’t clear what the process was but I saw people go in and out of the office buildings. Some had their papers processed. Some not. Some people entered the gate and went straight to the offices and returned after a short while with their papers processed. I wasn’t one of those people. I was with a group of people in the yard, but not in the building. A short while after lunch, we were told the system is down. I still had hope that I would get documented that day. After 3 pm the service was still down and only 6 people were taken from my group. We were told to come back the following day. I had a mini heart attack. I lost all hope and decided there was no way on God’s beautiful earth I would be sleeping on a box again that night.
That evening I went straight to a taxi rank and took a taxi home. I couldn’t go through the same inhumane process again and be treated like a herd of cattle at Marabastad.
I had to persevere, and start as low as I could and work my way up.
It wasn’t until 2015, three years after graduating, that I got my break. I decided to do things differently this year. I had to persevere, and start as low as I could and work my way up. I started volunteering with an Irish Not for Profit Organisation in Lesotho. At one point, I found myself working three jobs to survive.
It took a lot of courage, confidence and willpower for me to take such a step.
In May 2015, I did something I consider very unusual, especially for introverted people like myself. I went to the office of the In-Country Director at Action Lesotho with my curriculum vitae. I told her their organisation needed a new driver, and that I am the right person to fill that gap. You see, I am not the kind of guy who would pull such a stunt. It took a lot of courage, confidence and willpower for me to take such a step. I had been through the worst at Marabastad, so this was the least of my challenges. Having recognised an opportunity, I wasn’t going to let it fall through the cracks.
Since I was already volunteering as a tutor in this organisation that was working in my community, I knew its current driver was already very busy with administration and accounting – so much so that he barely had time to carry out his duties as a driver.
In less than two weeks I received a call. The Irish Director said she had not realised that they needed a driver, but after my visit, she had a discussion with the Board and they concluded that indeed a new driver for their outreach programs was needed. To top it off, they offered me the position if I could pass a driving test. I aced it!
Good things were starting to happen to me because I never gave up!
I did well in my role as the driver and the following year, 2016, I was made the Sales, Purchasing and Distribution Coordinator of the Craft Sector of the organisation. Good things were starting to happen to me because I never gave up! I persisted, was courageous and determined, and believed that I had to go through the trials in South Africa to appreciate the value of what I have now. I was being prepared to work with the orphans, the poor and the most vulnerable in my community.
For the first time, the organisation was run entirely by a Basotho team of coordinators and trainers.
In July 2017, when the In-Country Director, who had become my mentor, retired from her role, she offered me a new position in the organisation – Senior Project & Financial Coordinator. At that time, I was 28 years old. This made me the youngest person within the organisation, yet the most senior employee in the organisation. For the first time, the organisation was run entirely by a Basotho team of coordinators and trainers. What a historic day it was for this organisation!
The trials in SA, my experience with the humanitarian project, together with being a member of #Stayer has molded me to be the best version of myself. It has taught me to be a loving and compassionate person, who always stands up when witnessing oppression towards others. I am truly thankful for all the experiences.
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GOOD THOUGHTS • GOOD WORDS • GOOD DEEDS
Final Editing for #ImStaying
I’m a lover of words, of mentoring, networking, and helping my fellow man to ‘learn to fish’. Driven by a hunger to never stop learning, I have a passion for adventure and travel, sundowners and laughter with good friends. At the end of the day what brings great delight to my life are my young adult sons.
Quote: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Nelson Mandela