'‘It’s a blessing to do my work at an institution I’ve poured so much into,’' says Tumelo  Rasebopye

Posted on May 03, 2024

At first, he cared mostly for sports – now it’s human rights. UP diversity and inclusion specialist Tumelo “Duke” Rasebopye has graduated with a master’s specialising in leadership and gender equality.

Tumelo “Duke” Rasebopye might not have started his tertiary education as a model student, but he has certainly come full circle.

Rasebopye, who was promoted to the position of diversity and inclusion specialist at the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Transformation Office in January, graduated on 25 April 2024 with a master’s in Development Practice, and reckons he will continue with a PhD. Yet when he finished school, he didn’t qualify to study towards a degree at university.

Without the required bachelor’s pass, formerly known as a matric exemption, it took Rasebopye two years before he was accepted at UP. First he did a certificate in management principles and another in business basics at Varsity College and the University of South Africa (Unisa). Then, using those qualifications to leverage entrance into a degree, he registered for law at Unisa. When he was accepted at UP for the following year – and initially being told that he wouldn’t get any credits for his studies – he decided it didn’t make financial sense to continue. Plus, it was 2010, and the FIFA World Cup was taking place in South Africa, and Rasebopye was more than happy to devote himself to that.

A sports lover, Rasebopye says it was his interest in sport that resulted in his poor matric marks in the first place. At school, he did cross-country, soccer, cricket middle-distance athletics and “whatever sport there was”. By the time he applied himself to his studies, it was too late.

“I also think that varsity wasn’t a real aspiration until I wanted it,” he says. Then FOMO (fear of missing out) made him decide it might be a good idea.

UP was his first choice. Although home was technically Johannesburg, he went to high school at Hatfield Christian School in Pretoria. Also, his sister, Bontle, works at the University of Witwatersrand and didn’t want him to crowd her space. More than that, however, he is enamoured with the capital city.

“I just love Pretoria,” he says. “It’s truly a fantastic place to be. In every way. The people are among the best in this country – definitely among the top tier on the continent.”

Yet after almost not making it into university, from the moment he stepped onto campus, he made activism his priority. While not neglecting his studies – he graduated with a BSocSci in Industrial Sociology and Labour Studies in record time, doing well enough to do honours in Development Studies, and now master’s – he soon became involved with what was then the Centre for the Study of AIDS, now the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender (CSA&G).

A conversation in one of his first lectures sparked his interest.

“I was in a politics class, and one of my colleagues said she was volunteering at the centre, where they do training and capacitate,” Rasebopye says.

He recalls attending a relative’s funeral, where there was “a bit of a hush”, he says, about the cause of death, later speculated to be an HIV/AIDS-related illnesses. So he asked his friend to show him where the centre was, which she did straight after class. “And I got involved from there,” he says.

Rasebopye chose to become an HIV testing peer counsellor, a volunteer position he fulfilled for seven years.

“It segued into being asked to assist in curating a student leadership and advocacy programme,” he explains. “I jumped on that opportunity. And the programme I was later project managing, the Just Leaders project, is still going today. That’s how I grew into my stride.”

By 2015, he was Chairperson of the South African Students’ Congress and a member of UP’s Student Representative Council. An active leader of the #FeesMustFall student movement, he was quoted extensively in a UP master’s thesis as one of five “high-profile students” who were all outspoken student leaders during the movement from around the country. It was a pivotal time.

Rasebopye’s Facebook profile page shows a photo of protesting students, some sitting on the roof of the Student Centre. He still remembers the day, 23 October 2015, they went to the Union Buildings as part of the #FeesMustFall protest.

“Tear gas and rubber bullets started flying,” he recalls. “It was unwarranted and causes one to consider how we think about developing ethical leadership because, on that particular day, there was a lot that was not ethical”.

Leadership is a hot topic for Rasebopye. His master’s thesis, supervised by Dr Yolande Steenkamp, looked at the pursuit between leadership and achieving gender equality within the higher education sector, in alignment with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The topic, as well as his job, shows how his activism has matured and morphed with his studies, and progressed into full-time work at UP.

But at heart, nothing has changed. Rasebopye is still a walking symbol of transformation and human rights, as shown by the #SpeakOutUP T-shirt and “Are we safe?” cap he is wearing on the day of our interview, two university campaigns he has been involved in.

And his advocacy continues. He’s been asked to join the steering committee of the National Youth Coalition, which promotes the development of ethical and transformative youth leaders. And he is the National Chairperson of the Gender Practitioners’ Community of Practice in all 26 public South African universities.

He has strong views on transformation. While many might see it as changing the racial profile of, say, a sports team, he explains why it is so much more.

“We often confuse access and inclusion. We tend to think that if we get people into the room or onto a team, then we are doing transformation work. But it can easily become a box-ticking exercise. It doesn't necessarily mean that when someone enters the space, they'll be respected, affirmed or acknowledged, or that they will be embraced and integrated into the day-to-day interactions within the organisation. That’s what we mean by inclusivity.”

He adds that he is “invested in the university” and regularly envisions it as a transformed institution moving forward. “So it’s quite a blessing that I do the work that I do, at this institution that I've poured so much into”.

One thing that has lapsed is his active participation in sport, and his coaching, which saw his soccer team in Brooklyn winning the regional league. Now it’s working out at home, the occasional seven-a-side football game with friends, and a lot of hiking, which is “a great way to catch up with friends, especially when we all have busy schedules”, he says.

But more than anything else, the most fun and adventurous thing he does, he says, is motorbike riding.

“The transport part is secondary – the primary part is the excitement and joy of being able to travel somewhere on a full tank and see new places. Roads that I've travelled by car many times are always different when I travel them on a bike. It's the smells and the temperatures shifting at different points. It’s a great way to explore and experience life.”


- Author Gillian Anstey

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