‘Your health is your wealth’ is not a phrase typically associated with young people but it is one that Ntshepiseng was forced to come to terms with when she faced a debilitating spinal cord infection that not only affected her physical health, but her schooling and family life too.

“I woke up with a terrifying pain I’d never felt before. I was unable to move or get out of bed. I didn’t understand what was wrong with me and I suddenly felt very afraid.” 

Ntshepiseng was just 12 years old when she began to experience the first symptoms of an illness that would follow her for the rest of her teenage years. Living in a small village in the Eastern Cape, Ntshepiseng was only able to access primary medical care at her local clinic and had no other choice than to travel the over 600km to Cape Town by minibus taxi – South Africa’s notoriously unsafe public transport option – in order to receive the specialised treatment she needed.

An excruciating journey which culminated in spinal surgery, this was unfortunately not the end of the Ntshepiseng’s problems. On her return, having missed many weeks of school, she did her best to catch up with her class, but her pain and symptoms returned until finally her family made the decision to relocate to Cape Town where, although Ntshepiseng would be closer to the medical attention she needed, it would mean leaving their peaceful rural home for an overcrowded township life.

And life in Cape Town did have its problems. Having settled in Lower Crossroads – one of many townships outlying the city of Cape Town – Ntshepiseng had to travel a significant distance to school every day. The long daily journey through a community plagued by gangsterism, violent crime and other social ills, together with the intimidation of attending a new school, meant that while Ntshepiseng did her best to keep up, her new circumstances and educational gaps made it difficult for her to keep her head above water and her confidence wavered. Finally, the crushing news that her Grade 12 results were not sufficient for her to enrol at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology – the tertiary institute where she had dreamed of studying, knocked Ntshepiseng and she was unable to see a future for herself outside of her township life.

However, despite having lost hope, it wasn’t long before the same fighting spirit that had helped Ntshepiseng overcome her health problems returned when she heard about SAEP’s Bridging Year programme – a course aimed at helping young people from under-resourced and under-performing township schools transition from secondary to tertiary education.

Selected from over 152 applicants, Ntshepiseng is now working under the facilitation of of SAEP staff to rewrite three of her final school exams. Participating in the rigorous life-skills and career guidance programmes, she is gaining confidence, learning about herself and is able to interact and communicate effectively with her peers and people in authority. And, with close to 80% of Bridging Year students going on to access higher education, training or meaningful employment, the future for Ntshepiseng is once again looking bright!