WHAT do you do when you are a shopping mall car guard in a foreign country, with circumstances oddly against you, but you still want to reach the zenith of a career in engineering?
Meet 31-year-old Fabrice Kapya, an inspirational former asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2018 he arrived in South Africa with a goal to further his studies.
Prior to landing in South Africa, Kapya had been a chemical engineering intern at ERG Africa in Katanga, in his native DR Congo. That was sometime between 2015 and 2016.
The next year or thereabouts, he worked at a Chinese-owned mining company, also in the minerals-rich Katanga region. But as with most stories that begin in the eternally volatile DR Congo, the end almost always gets dramatic.
For one reason or another – which according to him had nothing to do with the political turmoil in DR Congo – Kapya found himself on the exit and heading for South Africa early in 2018. He hardly had any savings to last him many days, so there had to be a survival plan.
With nothing to his name except determination, Kapya wasted no day mourning and immediately began his journey from car guard to the top. Indeed, he’s now at the top as he is a PhD candidate and Assistant Lecturer at the University of Pretoria’s Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering!
But how did Kapya achieve the astonishing feat all in a short space of time?
Well, Kapya had tried to obtain his first degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Likasi in the DR Congo. However, things went topsy-turvy when his father died, and he struggled to pay for his studies.
“After my father’s death, we lost practically everything,” he told IOL newspaper in South Africa. “His family took everything from us, but through the generosity of friends who volunteered to finance my studies, I obtained this degree.”
But there was something Kapya reckoned his ‘evil’ relatives would never take away from him: his education and the quest for success. Kapya trekked all the way to South Africa with no resources and no cash – but with a determination to further his studies.
He began working as a car guard at Wonderpark mall, where he made about R2 000 (about US$120) a month.
“For that, I had to stand in the parking lot every day from 7am to 8pm,” he recalls. “I had about R900 to R1 000 left a month after covering all expenses such as rent and groceries.”
In August 2018, a friend applied on his behalf at the University of Pretoria. In November 2018, Kapya was admitted to study in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.
“The circumstances around that admission are still a miracle to me. I was returning from the Tshwane University of Technology after submitting my application, when a friend who was studying at UP at the time asked me to stop by the university.
“After a long discussion, she convinced me to apply to UP. But there were only two days left before international applications closed, and at most universities, priority is usually given to those who apply first,” he said.
Kapya recalls that when he started his course in March 2019, he was still working as a car guard, meaning he needed a lot of time management skills, discipline and focus to avoid being sidetracked.
Kapya also had the added difficulties of navigating the language barrier but thankfully, his classmates came to his aid.
“While I was doing my honours modules, my classmates gave me food, paid for my transport or paid my rent and assisted me with their notes,” Fabrice Kapya.
However, just over a year into his university course, something verging on the unthinkable happened: A frequent visitor to the Wonderpark Mall was so moved by Kapya’s situation, she agreed to pay his education fees – to the tune of R18 000!
He was able to settle many of his debts, and the funding helped the engineering student undertake his Masters Degree in 2021.
In February 2021, University of Pretoria (UP) offered him a position as an Assistant Lecturer in Industrial and Systems Engineering. This allowed him to work and complete his Masters degree by January 2022, and the DR Congo national is now a PhD candidate at the prestigious institution.
“UP cared about my success – I received an award of R18 000 from the University in December 2021 and completed my Master’s degree in January 2022, 11 months after registration. Today I am a PhD candidate,” Kapya said.
He credits Professor Sarma Yadavalli, head of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, and his supervisor, Professor Olufemi Adetunji, for believing in him.
“My thanks also go to Joe Dimbata for allowing me to work at Wonderpark Mall and for being a mentor,” he said.
Kapya added that UP gave him the strength to believe in himself and the courage to pursue his dream.
“UP will always be my home. I can’t thank this university enough for everything it has done for me.”
Prior to that, Kapya also worked in the City of Johannesburg on some role as he continues boosting his impressive curriculum vitae.
Kapya says off the books, his social causes including civil rights, poverty alleviation, education rights and disaster and human relief.
“My father always wanted us to have a good education. What he left in us is far greater than what he left to us: to have the determination to do what is right no matter how tough a situation is.”
“Pursuing my studies was a way to carry on the mission he started and I’m grateful for being the first in his family to obtain an honours and a master’s degree. Every day that I stood in the parking lot, I thought about my Dad – that motivated me,” said Fabrice Kapya.