He might not have been able to stand up, but when Phillip Mphela wheeled himself across the stage at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s summer graduation, the entire audience were up on their feet for a roaring ovation as he received his diploma in Applications Development.
Mphela, 30, has muscular dystrophy, a disorder which causes progressive weakness and degeneration of the muscles that control movement. It may also shorten his lifespan.
But despite the threats posed by various complications caused by his condition, Mphela continues to set long-term goals for himself.
“I want to live long,” the programmer told News24. “I have lots of things I still want to do.”
Mphela was nine years old when he was diagnosed, after his mother noticed her son had a habit of walking on his toes.
He was teased by his classmates and other children he played with in the streets of Langa as his symptoms worsened and he started losing his balance as his joints got weaker. Mphela said he developed serious confidence issues as the taunting continued.
“But my mother and dad didn’t treat me like I was different. She supported me and encouraged me to go to school even when I didn’t want to. I was taught by my parents to ignore those who discriminated against me or imitated the way I walked while laughing at me. The goal was to get through school so that I could study.”
After matriculating, Mphela, who had developed a fascination with computers and coding, attempted several courses at local colleges.
“But it was more difficult than I had thought. I dropped out because it was hard for me to get around the campuses. In some cases, people had to carry me to get me where I needed to be. I felt like a burden.”
In 2015, he applied to study towards a diploma in Information and Communications Technology, specialising in Applications Development, at Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
“I like computers,” Mphela said. “I knew it would be difficult, but I pushed through.”
‘Don’t let people discourage you ‘
On Saturday, he wheeled his way to receive his diploma five years after enrolling. The course was extended to allow him to take fewer subjects at a time.
“When they called my name, my mother just started ululating. She was so proud. The experience was fantastic. I got a standing ovation,” he said proudly.
His brother and aunt were also in the audience. Mphela’s father died in 2012.
Currently employed as an intern at an IT company, he believes his mother’s prayers are what kept him focused and motivated.
“I just live. My mother is a believer and she trusts that no matter what anyone says, everything depends on God. She never got discouraged, because she knew God would help us out of any situation.”
Within the next 10 years, Mphela hopes to work as a senior programmer in good health and with a family.
“I set goals but as a Christian, I know it’s in God’s hands. But I will continue to take steps with my mom’s encouragement. I am here because of God. I believe He is always with me.
“To anyone else who is in a situation similar to mine, don’t let people discourage you and say you can’t. People may doubt you, but it’s about how you handle it. I finished what I started. I said I would work hard and I did. I promised to show everyone. So I did.”