Khethelo Xulu

Khothelo Xulu spent much of his first year at the University of Zululand in sleep-deprived limbo. But it wasn’t the sort more privileged 18-year-olds endure. Xulu was essentially homeless.

“I had to study every night in the university library,” he recalls. “When it closed, I would go to an open class and study until my morning lectures began. After class I could go to a friend’s place to shower and sleep for a few hours. Then at night I would return to the library to start again.”

This gritty determination earned him a degree in biochemistry — making him the first graduate he can think of from his village. In 2010 Xulu did honours at the University of Cape Town (UCT), where he is currently completing his MSc.

With a passion for using science to battle disease, he specialises in finding techniques to diagnose illnesses and develop drugs that cure them. More specifically, his master’s investigates simpler ways to diagnose aplastic anaemia, a rare disorder the bone marrow that produces insufficient new blood cells. As someone who knows intimately the pains of learning in impoverished circumstances, Xulu is also active in the drive for improved education in his home district of Obuka, outside Empangeni. The community organisation he co-founded there offers career guidance and mentorship at high schools, and he contributes to a non-profit organisation that aims to bolster science and maths programmes in rural schools. His regular talks are also a source of priceless inspiration to the marginalised pupils who have never seen anyone go as far as Xulu has.

Named an ambassador for One Young World, a global forum for promising thinkers, and one of UCT’s Emerging Leaders for 2010, Xulu is now set on doing a PhD in the United Kingdom next year. After that he’ll bring his expertise home to fight for jobs and education.

Ian Macleod