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19 October 2021
Building a stronger foundation on adversity

Lester Malgas has walked a long, difficult road to get to where he is today, but if there is one place he says he can always return to find himself again, it is the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

Malgas enrolled at UWC in 1994 for a BA Law degree subsequent to working at a paper factory in Blackheath after matric. At the time, discussions about South Africa’s first inclusive election and the possibility of a new government led by the ANC dominated the news.

“I had grown up in a politically charged period when in 1985 police presence and teargas was a regular occurrence at school. My father, a schoolteacher, was among those jailed for their political activities. I chose UWC because the university was known as a political space with a social awareness that ran through all its social impact activities.”

After failing his first year of law, he completed a BA degree. Malgas also played basketball for UWC’s first team and served as captain for a year. In 2002 he enrolled for a BA Honours in English, but did not complete it, opting instead to participate in a three-month UWC exchange programme at the Missouri School of Journalism in the United States.

“It is one of the most prestigious journalism schools in that country. While I was there I encountered established professionals in the field who spoke about the university as a place that one should return to from time to time, as a space for recharge, and to keep up with new technological developments in one’s area of expertise.”

He worked as an intern for MWeb Africa focusing on entertainment writing, and in 2003 joined the NGO SouthSouthNorth as a writer, going on to be appointed Programme Manager in 2006. In his time at SouthSouthNorth he was also prominent in the South African Climate Action Network, serving on the Board from 2005. In 2008. However, a seemingly functional drug and alcohol habit spiralled out of control, and he was asked to resign.

“I moved back home, taking up piecemeal freelance assignments, such as writing content for websites and living hand-to-mouth. Eventually, with my income dwindling, I started selling my possessions, and my parents’ possessions, to feed my addiction, and my dad got an interdict against me.”

Malgas became homeless. However, those years were also interspersed with periods of sobriety, in which he worked as a projects coordinator at a company focused on disability issues, and as a writer for Iziko Museums.

In 2015, after relapsing again, Malgas’ mother funded a “last-chance” stint in rehab, after which he became an active member of a 12-Step fellowship.

“I now understand addiction as a disease, the treatment of which involves an ongoing programme of recovery. My involvement in the fellowship – doing service and helping newcomers – has given me a sense of purpose that I felt I had lost.”

In 2016, he returned to UWC to finish his Honours mini-thesis and obtained funding for a Master’s degree through which he could marry his expertise in environmentalism with literary studies. He has worked as a student assistant in UWC’s Careers Office, lectured on Environmental and Sustainability Studies in the Biodiversity and Conservation Biology Department, and currently works as a freelance writer and communications consultant.

“My experience of the UWC academic space has always been a positive one. When I came back to campus I completed a range of extra-curricular courses on offer at UWC’s Leadership and Social Responsibility, where I have had the opportunity to reimagine myself as a professional seeking to respond to the varied challenges in our society.

“The time I have spent here has stood me in good stead in every part of my life, even at the lowest point. When I was lost, in need of direction, I saw UWC as a place where I could find myself again.”