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5 May 2021
From pool cleaner to PhD

Mervyn Coetzee, who graduates tomorrow (5 May 2021) with a PhD in Education: Language and Literacy, will be having a celebration to mark the occasion. But the focus will not be on his impressive achievement. Instead, he says it will be a “celebration of the Coetzee family and their resilience”, as well as all those who opened the door to higher learning by saying “yes” to a young man from Bonteheuwel with a dream to do more with his life. It will be his opportunity to thank them for the sacrifice and support that enabled him to progress from being a pool cleaner to obtaining a PhD. 

Guest of honour will be Mervyn’s mother, Joan Coetzee, who turns 81 in July, and who raised him and his five siblings alone in the gangster-ridden suburb of Bonteheuwel after their father died in 1974. Mervyn was only eight years old at the time. The family lived in poverty and to bring in some extra money, Coetzee worked as a casual cleaner at the Sea Point Pavilion. His sisters left school to work in factories in Epping. Coetzee recalls standing outside the local fish shop in the hope of being given a few “kaiyangs” (clumps of batter) at the end of the day, which he would share with the family as supper. If they were lucky, there would be a few pieces of fish attached. 

Gang violence was commonplace in their neighbourhood, and in the eighties, anti-apartheid protests were also frequent. Coetzee recalls how the family would run a cold bath when they heard the police coming, in anticipation of the tear gas. Friends with activists such as the late Ashley Kriel, Anwa Dramat, former Hawks director and others at Bonteheuwel High, Coetzee was involved in the student protests of that time. 

He admits that he was not a brilliant student “by any means”. Notwithstanding his challenging circumstances, Coetzee also had to deal with his own differences. Born with two thumbs on each hand, he had to endure teasing from his peers who called him derogatory names. Coetzee says it was the humiliation he felt because of his appearance, that helped him understand the insecurities and fears of his students, and that would later form the premise of his thesis on trauma in learning and teaching.

When Coetzee failed his mid-year exams in Grade 10, he wanted to drop out of school. But his older brother intervened, saying that one of the family had to complete Matric. He managed to complete school in 1984. While still working shifts at the pool, he was introduced to law enforcement officers who encouraged him to become a beach constable. Although the job kept him fit, he found it difficult to patrol a beach that he could not enjoy because of apartheid legislation. Additionally, there was also a pervading sense that there had to be more to his life, he says. 

Four years later, a girlfriend encouraged him to apply to study at the University of the Western Cape. His application was rejected, but he accompanied her to registration nonetheless, taking a day off work. “This is where the story changed,” he says. A chance encounter with a peer facilitator, Niel van den Heever from Namaqualand, created an opportunity for further education at UWC. But first, Coetzee had to secure the funding he needed to register. 

After several unsuccessful attempts to get financial support close to home, Coetzee decided to approach the Department of Education, then located in Roeland Street. Although applicants usually have to apply at least 10 months in advance, a serendipitous meeting with an inspector there who encouraged him to “go do something with your life”, set Coetzee on the path to registering for a degree and he completed a BA in English and Philosophy.  

The fact that someone had taken a chance on him, saying yes instead of referring him away to another department or person, was life changing, says Coetzee. “I am wired and excited to find ways of saying yes to people. It is in my DNA to be solutions-driven.” He went on to an Honours in English and several years later, a Masters in English Literature. His classmates included Herman Wittenberg, currently the Head of the English Department, Zackie Achmat, activist and film director, and Adam Haupt, Director of the Centre for Film and Media Studies at UCT.

Proud moment: Coetzee being capped in 1992 by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

Coetzee spent the 1990s at CPUT, UWC and UCT in various capacities - tutor, writing consultant and lecturer. He was one of the  lecturers to teach in UWC’s first BEd. Foundation Phase degree. He is currently working as the Academic Review Specialist in UWC’s Academic Planning Unit. Coetzee also taught in the United States, where he lived for several years. After going through a difficult divorce, and battling depression, he found himself back in South Africa. 

He took a job as a tutor at UWC’s English for Educational Development unit where he first encountered what would become the crux of his seminal PhD research - students’ reticence to speak aloud in class. He spent 18 months in Dublin and initially enrolled for a PhD in Linguistics. At the advice of his Irish supervisor, he later switched to a PhD in Education so that he could investigate students’ personal narratives. He had found, during his time as a tutor, that students were able to write about themselves and their experiences of social injustice in a “very deep way”. 

Coetzee’s thesis is titled: “Trauma, Injustice and Identity: Investigating an Egalitarian and Autoethnographic Approach to Analysing Students’ Personal Language Narratives”. One of his external examiners noted that: “The study is groundbreaking as it pays specific attention to student’s trauma, which is a very common experience of first-year students with English as their second and third language who now use it as their main medium of instruction… I therefore recommend that this thesis be deconstructed and published as a book to get a bigger readership. It is my belief that any attempt to publish this masterpiece in smaller parts like articles and book chapters will thwart the wholeness and beauty of the study.”

Another examiner expressed his wholehearted recommendation that the thesis be "accepted in its current form and the candidate be awarded the degree of PhD with distinction".

A third examiner described it as a “pioneering work", also recommending that it be published as a book.

Coetzee is already working on this project, and he hopes to have his first book ready for publication within a few months. He attributes much of his success to his supervisor, Professor Sivakumar Sivasubramaniam, who provided considerable support during the writing of his thesis. 

He remains ever-mindful of the doors that opened up for him throughout his journey from cleaner to PhD graduate. Coetzee would therefore like to inspire others to also overcome their insecurities, and personal challenges, to fulfil their dreams. “I want to go on and share with the world the power of saying yes.”