No mere flight of fancy: Son of airport cleaner becomes a pilot
Visits to his father’s workplace at OR Tambo as a child nurtured a dream that would later come true
His disadvantaged background did not stand in his way of dreaming big. Raised by a father who was a cleaner and mother who worked as a domestic worker encouraged 25-year-old Nkululeko Sokweba to always aim higher, as he wanted to take his family out of the poverty they lived with.
From the age of four, Sokweba said he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life, and throughout his childhood worked towards achieving his dream of becoming a pilot.
He grew up – and still lives there today – in Madelakufa Section 2, an informal settlement in Tembisa, east of Johannesburg, with very limited resources. The settlement is not electrified, and the community shares a communal tap for water.
His father said his son had always been fascinated by aeroplanes. “Every time while playing he would always show me aeroplanes when they fly past our area and would say he wants to be a driver one day,” said dad Johannes Mnisi.
After realising how much his son loved aeroplanes, Mnisi said he decided to take him to his workplace at OR Tambo International Airport, where the father was employed as a cleaner.
“The first time I went with him he was very happy. We stood by the window at terminal four by the arrivals and my boy was really excited. He couldn’t believe that an aeroplane was such a huge thing because when he sees it in the sky it appears small,” Mnisi said.
The weekend visit to the airport soon became a regular thing for Sokwebu and his dad as he would constantly ask his dad to take him there.
“Seeing an aeroplane just fulfilled me. When I saw an aeroplane for the first time at close range, it was a very magical experience for me. Every time my dad took me to the airport, I honestly felt content,” Sokwebu said.
His mother, Nomvula, 55, says Nkululeko was always a bright child.
He is the only one among her seven children who managed to complete Grade 12.
“He always listened. He was just too different and was not a problematic child. He never demanded fancy things from us,” Nomvula said.
His journey has not been an easy one. He completed his matric in 2011, but battled to secure a space at university due to financial and administrative problems.
“I had a problem with home affairs because, according to my identity document, I was female and lived for a while without an ID. Most universities couldn’t consider my application as an ID was a standard requirement. Wits University was the only university that was able to admit me without an ID, but had strict conditions that I needed to present my ID within a certain period."
As one of the top three achievers in his district, he was later awarded a bursary by the Gauteng City Region Academy (GCRA), which is a subsidiary of the Gauteng department of education.
The bursary made it possible to register and study towards a teaching degree at Wits.
“I always loved teaching because as learner [pupil] I assisted other learners that were struggling. I offered them extra lessons, so teaching was a natural alternative I chose,” he said. Almost two years into his degree, South African Airways (SAA) opened applications into their cadet programme in October 2013, and he immediately saw an opportunity to achieve his dream.
He applied and was accepted into the programme in March 2014, following a stringent selection process.
“When I received that e-mail confirming that I had been accepted, I was so happy. I screamed, ran around the block at my res. I just couldn’t believe it,” he shared.
He received his private pilot licence in July 2015, and a month later, his father and niece were his first passengers. “It was a very beautiful experience for me. I had never been on a flight before that and it was even more heartwarming that my son made it possible for me to board a flight in my life,” Mnisi says.
He completed his commercial pilot licence in August 2015 and currently holds an airline transport licence that he completed in December 2016.
He also holds an instructor’s rating that allows him to train others who want to become pilots. He so far has 407 hours of flying and has flown to all major cities in the country and recently secured a job as an instructor at Thompson Aviation in Pretoria. While he has achieved his childhood goal, one unfulfilled dream remains – to convince his mother to be a passenger on one his flights.
She was supposed to fly with his father for the first time, but refused to board, saying she did not want to die. “She was really scared and we tried to convince her that nothing will go wrong, but she said she can’t do it. I still hope one day she will have the courage to board it,” Nkululeko said.