However, the harsh reality is that thousands don’t make it.
The graduation rate recorded by the Department of Higher Education and Training last year continued to be below 20% for undergraduates in the country’s 23 public universities.
“When in high school we have high expectations and forget that we are not going to only study, but also continue living our lives,” Mabonda said.
“Staying far from home is a challenge. But I have to be strong – focus on my goals and on finishing my degree so I can help my family.
Chosing the right friends and being able to relate well with other people, praying and having a backbone has sustained me,” he said.
The 21-year-old from Johannesburg had his story of triumph published in The Citizen in January 2011: how he followed a daily routine that began at 4am – and how on one occasion he had had to run 3km to write his final exam at Altmont Technical High School in Protea South, Soweto, after a train he was travelling in broke down during the daily one-and-a-half-hour trip.
Mabonda lived with his unemployed parents in a shack and faced many socio-economic challenges at the time – but that did not prevent him from achieving six distinctions – Xitsonga, engineering graphics and design, mathematics, physical science, civil technology and life orientation. He scored a B for English – the exam he almost missed.
His achievements earned him a bursary from steel and mining company, ArcelorMittal.
Mabonda said the past three years had required ongoing support from friends who share the same zeal for success.
After being told to always focus and follow up when he did not understand something during lectures, he also formed a study group with students with different expertise to encourage each other.
“I was overwhelmed by everything: the environment; the teaching methods – but I prayed about everything. The best advice I got was that I must attend all my lectures,” Mabonda said.