Popularly known as SA’s Top 100, the DHL GradStar Awards is a programme that annually recognises the top 100 university students across all varsities in South Africa based on academics, leadership qualities and readiness for the workplace.
This year, two students from Nelson Mandela University, Bwanika Lawrence Lwanga and Thandokazi Magopheni, made it to the Top 100 list and MadibazNews was more than excited to sit and have a chat with them.
In everything I have ever applied for, the greatest asset I have had is myself. So, I advise everyone who aspires to be part of such lists like the GradStar Top 100 to be as genuine as they can be. They are looking for you not a replica of someone else who already exists…
… explains Bwanika Lawrence Lwanga when speaking on what students aiming for a Top 100 spot need to do. Lawrence is a third year LLB student who grew up in Komani, and went to Queens College Boys High School in Queenstown, EC. He’s also a black consciousness and Pan-Africanist so we decided to speak to him about his reason behind choosing his degree, his extracurricular activities and overcoming challenges. He’s pretty hilarious and super smart guys! Enjoy!!
Hey Lawrence, tell us about yourself – like your name and what your friends call you.
Hey Emi! Well I have three names; my full name is Lawrence Mkhululi Bwanika. I’m an ethnic mix between a Ugandan father and a Xhosa mother and I guess everyone wanted a shot at naming me. I used to use Lawrence as my name because that’s what my parents called me and stuff. However, I believe that your name needs to have a meaning and I couldn’t derive any meaning from Lawrence, so I started using Bwanika, which means with time comes wisdom or to grow is to know. It’s something I really identify with at the moment because of all the pressure to be and know everything that society puts on you.
The name Bwanika really keeps me grounded to move my own race at my own pace. My friends call me Lays (like the chips, but no relation to the chips). It’s short for Lawrence. Then others call me Chimurenga, which is a name I got when I was housecomm at Xanadu Residence.
Alright then, Bwanika it is. So why did you decide to study law?
I chose Law because it is a strong undergraduate qualification to have. That and I got lied to by Suits and The Fixer 🙄. I think an LLB opens many doors and develops a person in many aspects such as critical thinking and writing on a domestic and international front.
I’m drawn to this field because I would like to become an inclusive policymaker. I believe in the inclusivity of Africa. I’d like to use my innovative thinking to be a helping hand in mitigating the causes of global inequality and creating a global community that has frameworks that support lasting solutions and promote working relations that are mutually beneficial to all.
(Side note, about his response to this next question: All I can say is my jaw was agape learning about all he does – I was super amazed that he does all these and as a full-time student.)
And what extracurricular activities are you involved in?
Yho, uhm I do a lot of weird things. At the university I’m part of the Black students Stokvel – a society geared towards creating a more socially responsive Nelson Mandela University environment through political dialogues, events, and engagements with university stakeholders especially for black students, ground staff and academics who have historically been at the receiving end of unfair treatment by institutions.
I’m also a debating coach at the Kingsridge school for girls, I think that’s my favourite thing to do. We are first in the province at junior level and we excel nationally at senior level. Those young people really inspire me and give me a lot of reason to work hard and be an example.
I’m also involved with the Boxer super stores marketing team at their head office. I work with them at their annual boxer youth leadership camp that selects 45 young people from South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho to go to Durban for a week for leadership training – It’s a lot of fun to meet and talk to some remarkably smart young people.
I’m an entrepreneur and am busy working towards launching one of my projects called the Laymxn’s Memoir. I am an Allan Gray Orbis foundation candidate fellow, which has really exposed me to a lot of cool entrepreneurs and given me a lot of opportunities to spread my wings and grow as a young person.
I’m part of the delegation that’s heading to Kuala Lumpur Malaysia next year for the International Youth Leadership Conference which is really cool I guess!
That’s really really really impressive Lawrence! And what do you do for fun?
For fun, I run or hang out with my friends, I live a pretty interesting life and generally a lot of the fun stuff is involved in the work I do and the people I meet when doing my work. Also, bruh I think naps don’t get the recognition they deserve so yah for fun I sleep. Then for a little risk and adventure I sleep when I am supposed to be studying before a test.
😂 Bruh, you don’t have to say that twice 😂😂😂😂. Okay, so we know you’re a black consciousness and pan Africanist proponent, can you elaborate on the causes dear to you?
I come from a long line of activists in my family and this has influenced a lot of the work I do and the ideology I carry. Succinctly, what matters most to me is the healing of Africa and the repatriation of indigenous land and life. I believe in movements that aspire to make this manifest and so you will find me all over platforms that speak against racism in all forms, patriarchy in all forms and all forms of inter-sectional manifestations of oppression.
(Side note, about his response to this next question: Powerful!)
Yup! Seeing you in those platforms we have indeed!! With all of these on your plate, what situations have been the most challenging thus far and how have you overcome them?
Uhm, well I’ve faced a lot of challenges in life in general, but I believe many of them have taught me lessons that I’m grateful for. The other challenges have been because of my position as a black person in spaces that have no interest in my well-being.
I struggled to take a positive posture towards my schoolwork for a long time especially from high school into my university career. I used to say I’m street smart until my mentor told me that to be street smart means you’re smart enough to know that grades are important. That conversation did a lot to shape my work ethic and diligence towards my work.
I struggled a lot with the effects of the university space, so before I got on Allan Gray, I really struggled financially. And that’s really a can of worms that affects every other aspect of your life. I’ve been poor for the majority of my life. It’s just that my parents shielded a lot of it from my siblings and me. I don’t come from an affluent family and with only one of my parents employed, I struggled to get by with regards to access to textbooks and food. I couldn’t experience “the big world” when I got to university because many of the things required money I didn’t have.
Going into the fees must fall protests and for a very long time after, I did struggle with a lot of depression and post-protest trauma from the violence that was senselessly metered out against students who just wanted a better life.
To be honest dealing with these things is a mission you know. There’s no happy ending sometimes and a lot of our healing takes a realisation that we need to stand together as a people and we need to first deal with our problems (especially black men), on a personal level. Our healing from traumas requires deep work that oftentimes we don’t have the time to do because of the incessant pressure from society and academic commitments.
I am a lucky soul! I survived and now have people who take care of my finances. It’s a big contributor to the depression of many students. I use the luck I have to improve the lives of as many people as I can:
Alongside a few friends I established the Xan-drive Feeding and Wellness Scheme at Xanadu Residence that helps students get access to food and psychological assistance at residence level.
I work a lot with high schools in order to assist students from backgrounds that are underprivileged because of colonialism and apartheid. We work hard to make sure young people especially young women are prepared for university in advance.
We try to source funding and use university students who are on scholarships to mentor and give information as to align the students from a young age to be in a position to finance themselves through university as well as develop a deep sense of self in order to mitigate the initial shock that comes with the violence of University and later, the working world.
I believe many of our problems are structurally engineered through institutions. So oftentimes, you’ll find me running around advocating for better policies.
I overcome a lot of adversity by digging deep and fighting right back hey! I fail a lot more than I succeed. Nobody documents the bad times.
I have an amazing partner and she helps me get through a lot. I have a solid group of friends who keep me inspired. I have the best mentors on earth who help me navigate a lot of the issues I face.
Lastly, I think I try and make sure nobody else goes through the same issues I face. If I have the ability to change something for the better, I take time to do that.
Thank you so much for that. My last question is what advice would you give the Mandela Uni student reading this interview and wanting to become a “Top 100 student” just like you?
Uhm, I think with regards to applying for things such as GradStar I can only give the same advice that was given to me by someone who made it before me which is pretense will break under the pressure when you are not yourself in high-pressure situations. In everything I have ever applied for, the greatest asset I have had is myself. So, I advise everyone who aspires to be part of such lists like the GradStar top 100 to be as genuine as they can be, they are looking for you, not a replica of someone else who already exists.
Very much appreciated Bwanika! Thanks a lot for doing the interview.
It was an absolute pleasure, thank you so much. Keep well and take care.
Connect with Bwanika on Linkedin.