Despite the catastrophic stroke that threatened his academic journey, Makhanza obtains his masters degree

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Rhodes University graduate, Joe Makhonza. Photo cred: Valentine Ntusi.
Rhodes University graduate, Joe Makhonza. Photo cred: Valentine Ntusi.

By Singisa Mdungwana 

After suffering a catastrophic stroke while performing on stage in 2019, with only two months left to finish his master’s degree in ethnomusicology, Joe Makhanza had to pause his academic journey. However, he says his faith was unwavering, and last week, he was one of Rhodes University graduates that were capped and hooded at the 1820 Settlers’ Monument. “I had to exercise my faith and challenge God to give me wisdom and strength,” said Makhanza.

The 43-year-old Makhanza was born in the rural town of Giyani, Limpopo, and is a father of three. He graduated from Wits University with a BMus and a Postgraduate Diploma in Arts Marketing. He then moved to Rhodes University to study toward his Master’s degree. 

Since suffering from a stroke in 2019 at a performance at Nelson Mandela University, Makhanza describes his academic journey as difficult to explain. “I still don’t know how I did it," he said. All he remembers is that he had to get back to his thesis because he believed that his education was the only way to change his life for himself and his children.

He said being a student was a challenging journey, and being a medically challenged student who is also the main provider for his family was adding more to the challenge. Makhanza remembers returning to Rhodes University in February 2020 as one of the most difficult times of his academic career, with no job, place to sleep, or food. “There were times when I had no food but still had to take medication.” Through these difficult moments, he recalls learning to exercise his faith and challenge God to give him the strength to continue working on his thesis. “I could not sit in a computer for more than thirty minutes, and if I did, I would have severe headaches,” he added. 

Dedication, faith, consistency, and perseverance have led Makhanza to this moment. While battling his health, he was also a part-time lecturer in African Music studies at Rhodes University. “I was able to withstand these tough situations because, as a Christian, I believe there’s no situation that God cannot handle, and through that, I could conquer the fear of the unknown,” he explained. 

His supervisor, Dr Boudina McConnachie, described him as an incredible human being. “After he suffered his stroke, I wept for him, thinking of his future as a musician, instrument builder, and scholar was over, but I couldn’t have been more wrong,” she said. She added that after a difficult recovery and COVID-19, Makhanza persevered and completed an excellent thesis that contributed to Eco musicology and Indigenous knowledge systems scholarship. “I am proud to have been with him for a small part of his journey,” said Professor McConnachie. 

Makhanza thanked his ILAM and the Music Department colleagues, Dr Lee Watkins, Dr McConachie, and Elijah Madiba, who offered him moral support. He also extended his gratitude to fellow scholars who offered him food, a place to sleep, financial support, and bible verses to keep him going.

Makhanza wants to study further and fulfill his long-time dream of obtaining his PhD. “I just want to be called Dr Makhanza, who went to university to initiate instrument building as a career to the generation to come and hopefully as a course in some universities who love to promote and preserve African music,” he concluded.