“In March 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer – needless to say, I had to suspend my doctoral studies,” says Dr Lorette Arendse, who received her doctoral degree in Law from the University of Pretoria (UP) as one of 1 380 graduates who were awarded their degrees in a virtual ceremony in September this year. “My first thought on hearing about my diagnosis was that I would die an early death just like my eldest sister did.”
Dr Arendse, who is also a senior lecturer in the Department of Jurisprudence at UP, hails from Roodewal, a township in Worcester in the Western Cape. She says gangsterism, drug abuse and unemployment were rife in Roodewal when she was growing up during apartheid, adding that not much has changed today. The socioeconomic conditions prevalent at the time meant that Dr Arendse’s upbringing was not without challenges.
“My father did not complete primary school and my mother dropped out of school just after passing Grade 8,” says Dr Arendse. “Both were forced to leave school in order to support their respective families financially. Despite the many obstacles of township life, my parents managed to raise children who all obtained a matric certificate.”
In fact, Dr Arendse was one of the top matriculants at school and was accepted to study Law at all the universities in the Western Cape. But her parents did not have the financial means to send her to university. “I approached several banks for a study loan, but they all turned me down because my parents could not provide the surety that lenders typically require,” she says. “I recall pleading with bank managers to rely on my excellent study record as surety because I knew that I would be successful in my studies and that I could pay them back after graduation. They refused.”
Dr Arendse then had to work for seven years in order to raise the money that she would need to register at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) where she enrolled for an LLB degree, despite not knowing how she would cover the rest of her study costs. But her decision to take a gamble paid off.
“Within a month of registering at UWC, I was awarded a scholarship from a British institution, which not only covered the tuition and accommodation costs of my first year, but all four years of my studies! I graduated from UWC in 2007 with an LLB degree and went on to obtain my LLM (cum laude) in 2009. In the same year, I was employed by the Constitutional Court of South Africa to serve as a law clerk.”
A turn for the worse
In 2014, Dr Arendse registered for an LLD degree at UP. However, she was diagnosed with cancer the following year and would eventually have to put her studies on hold.
“Within a week of my diagnosis, I had started a six-month course of chemotherapy,” she recalls. “The drugs that were pumped into my body left me so weak that there were days I was unable to walk. My mother literally nursed me back to health – and because of her strength, wisdom and faith, I survived. After chemotherapy, I underwent a mastectomy, two reconstructive surgeries and six weeks of radiation. When I returned to work in 2016, I was still reeling from a year of brutal cancer treatment. It took me a year before I could focus on my doctoral studies again. By 2017, I had changed the topic of my thesis and was fortunate to be supervised by Professor Ann Skelton.”
Through having faced such adversity, Dr Arendse believes she discovered how tenacious and resilient she actually is. “I have always had a tenacious spirit,” she says. “I am very stubborn – I refuse to accept defeat. It doesn’t matter how difficult things get; I know that I can get through it. I know that I have the strength to survive the most difficult challenges in life.”
While there were many times when she was ready to throw in the towel, Dr Arendse says there were four reasons she didn’t: she believed her life had a purpose and that she was destined to make a positive impact in people’s lives; her faith in God sustained her, particularly on days when she felt she could not roll out of bed; she wanted to be a good example to the people of Roodewal, who do not have many role models to look up to; and finally, she wanted to make her parents proud – fortunately, her father attended a few of her graduations before his untimely death in 2011.