Dr Pulane Elsie Molokwane was months away from graduating with a BSc from the Potchefstroom University with majors in biochemistry and microbiology when tragedy struck.
“My mom could not pay the R3 900 in fees that I owed. The university’s administration told me to pack my bags and to go home just before June exams.”
“It was terrible sitting at home for that year and a half – I knew that getting a degree was my only ticket out of a life of poverty,’ said Pulane. “I began a fruitless search for a job hoping to save money to get back to university.
“My friends came to pick me up just after their graduation and showed me their graduation pictures. Instead of being happy for them, I burst into tears because the reality that I should have graduated with them slapped me in the face.”
Pully initially battled to come to terms with her loss and what she saw at the time as a waste of three years. It was only a conscious decision to put the past behind her that helped her out of the doldrums and set her on a road to recovery.
“I could not find work so I could not pay my debt off. As a result I could not apply at another university to complete my degree. So I stepped out in faith, applying at North-West University for a student loan to study a new degree, a BSc with physics and chemistry as majors. It was the only solution I could think of.” I was sent packing at Potchefstroom University in 1998 and enrolled at North-West in 2000 for a different degree. It was cheaper to go to North-West than back to Potchefstroom and easier as I didn’t owe North-West but owed Potchefstroom. So I could technically start on a clean slate. I had to change courses because the two majors I had in Potchefstroom were not available at North-West hence I had to go back to year 2, and start a new combination of majors.
The university assented to her request, provided that she signed an acknowledgement of debt and that she paid it off by May of that year. She signed the agreement though she didn’t have means to pay the debt. They took into account her previous studies and allowed her to skip the first year of her new degree.
In hindsight Pully, as she is called, now readily admits that she became a stronger person and that her trust in God grew during that time, even though she did not enjoy the experience.
“I ended up studying a degree I loved much more than the first and my academic record looked much better as a result.” Pully had struggled to study in Afrikaans at Potchefstroom University, scoring in the 50s, and was happy to see her marks soar into the 80s when she got her second chance.
As fortune would have it, she did not pay a single cent more for her education.
“I worked hard to obtain distinctions during my second year and in my third year I applied for a bursary through the South African Institute for Race Relations (SAIRR). They turned me down, however.”
Not taking no for an answer, Pully phoned the institute. They again turned her down but she continued to motivate her case, pointing to her academic performance.
The effort was too overwhelming for her though and she began to cry in front of her fellow students who were walking past the public telephone she was using. The person she was speaking to then suggested that she write a letter to the managing director (MD) of SAIRR requesting that they should relook at the matter or even source funding from an alternative fund.
Pully wrote her letter and attached her academic record explaining her entire story and then waited. Not too long afterwards she got a phone call from the MD. He wrote that he had heard that she was crying but unfortunately they did not have funds. He promised to see what he could do though.
It was not until November of that year, during the stressful time of writing her final exams, when Pully heard from the institute again. They phoned to tell her that they had a bursary for her that would pay for all her second and third years’ fees and accommodation.
“I was so grateful I embarrassingly burst into tears again.” The money was more than enough in such a way that the bit that was meant for food was used to build my mother a tiny two roomed house.
By the end of her third year, Pully had three bursaries lined up to do her Masters. She chose the bursary offered by the Department of Communication to do her Masters in Satellite Engineering in Grabouw through the Stellenbosch University.
Both the work and the studies did not satisfy Pully’s interest though and two months into the programme she began trying to make alternative arrangements. She called the university to ask them if she could register for her Masters in Applied Radiation Sciences and Technology (MSc(ARST)) but they said it was too late.
“So I phoned the Pebble-bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) and asked them if they had given my bursary away yet. Thankfully they said no.”
Pully resigned from her position and returned to the North-West University where she completed her MSc(ARST), with distinction.
The PBMR programme then gave her a job as an intern and later offered her a permanent position as a nuclear physicist, which Pully was all too eager to accept. Whilst on in-service training at PBMR she was sleeping on the floor of her Sunnyside flat because she had no bed. The stipend she was receiving at that time was shared with her sister who was also studying at university.
However, Pully never lost sight of the fact that she actually wanted a PhD. Her employers eventually gave her a bursary to study further and she started on a research project – nuclear waste minimization using micro-organisms with the environmental engineering unit at the University of Pretoria.
“The project, however, turned out to be extremely expensive and delays in funding and the accreditation of the lab to handle radioactive waste were holding me up.” She asked her supervisor, Professor Evans Martin Nkhalambayausi-Chirwa, if nuclear waste could be substituted with something else. Her supervisor suggested heavy metal contaminated ground water and Pully had to convince her employers to allow her to swop the subject matter. While initially resistant, Pully persisted and was given one and a half years to complete her PhD on the new topic.
“Despite the considerable pressure put on her by her employers, Pulane never failed to meet set targets and miraculously finished within the prescribed time,” said Prof Chirwa.
“To add to the time constraint she was required to master some of the most advanced mathematical modelling, as well as microbial culturing and characterisation techniques which she had not encountered during her undergraduate and Masters programmes.
In order to achieve this, there were many times when she worked day and night. She literally slept in the laboratory for several weeks at a time. No matter what challenge she encountered, she never quit until the work was completed.”
Just months after receiving her PhD, disaster struck once again as the PBMR project was discontinued and Pully was retrenched. SASOL was quick to offer her a position before she was retrenched, as a principal environmental scientist but soon after taking up the position she developed allergies and upper respiratory conditions due to atmospheric contaminants from the plants.
“I developed severe allergies and at times could not breathe at work. I was eventually booked off for long periods before it was decided that I should be transferred and moved away from operations to the office in Rosebank.”
The new position did not fulfil Pully though, and she struck out on her own. She then served as an executive technical director of South African Intellectual Property Fund. Afterwards, she founded her Environmental Consultancy, OLOENVIRON Pty Ltd and continued running POB, a property investment firm offering various services.
She has to date authored no less than 30 peer reviewed papers (conference and journal publications) and a book chapter.
Pully also serves as a non executive director on various boards of state owned companies including water and forestry entities; and is a commissioner responsible for the science and technology portfolio at the National Planning Commission (NPC).
When Pully looks back on her life she is thankful that she managed to persevere through the difficult times. Her perseverance not only saw her earn her doctorate but she has been able to break the cycle of poverty, build her mom a house and help pay for her siblings’ education.
“I always tell my siblings, when you want something in life you mustn’t just dream it, but feel it, live it and work hard towards it!