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Luyanda Mathebula: A SAn student abandoned in Russia

by Zahid Jadwat

When Luyanda Mathebula learnt he would soon be heading to the Russian city of Tambov to pursue a degree in medicine, he was filled with excitement and wasted no time getting ready. Soon, however, his dream became a nightmare as the government cast him afar with little support and empty promises.

Hailing from Mbombela, Mpumalanga, Mathebula describes himself as “a township boy who had the dream to become a medical doctor”.”

Becoming a doctor has been his goal for as long as he can remember, he told SM Digital. It was the start of an exciting journey when he bagged a scholarship, funded by the Mpumalanga Provincial Department of Basic Education, to study abroad. Or so he thought.

Upon arriving at the city of Tambov, located about 460 kilometres southeast of Moscow, Mathebula was in for a nasty surprise. Almost immediately, he recalls encountering nasty living conditions and even racism.

“I expected good living conditions, top-of-the-range education facilities and I was never ready for racism,” he says, adding, “but I’m here to get my degree and that’s what’s important to me.”

The living conditions at Tambov State University, which Mathebula described as “inhumane” and “disgusting”, forced him to seek alternative accommodation. He describes how up to four students were cramped in a tight living space with poor ablution facilities.


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Fees crisis

Several years into his studies at Tambov State University, in the very final year of his six-year course, Luyanda Mathebula now finds himself stranded after his sponsors failed to honour their commitment.

“We’re still waiting for fees to be paid. The government had promised [to pay by] the 14th of October. We’re still waiting on that and waiting on these people to deliver on their promises.”

Initially, the government back home allocated him and several other South Africans a stipend of R5000, he says.

“Our accommodation still hasn’t been paid. We’ve been using our stipends to pay for accommodation. Those people have given us R5000 as our stipend and expect you to pay accommodation, feed yourself, have transport money, pay for medicals, pay for visas, have my practicals … it’s just ridiculous,” he said.

Faced with unprecedented inflation, eviction and expulsion notices, they were left to fend for themselves when they suddenly stopped receiving stipends from the DBE.

“I was sent here by my own government, yet they are failing to provide. It’s a sad reality,” he said.

The latest word from the Mpumalanga DBE, he said, was that the money had been handed over to the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO). It was then supposed to be allocated to the students, yet the issue persists two months into the Russian academic year.


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Urgent plea

With seemingly no end in sight and virtually most hope lost, Luyanda Mathebula hopes at least someone is able to intervene.

Inflation has cost him and his fellow South African students dearly as they struggle to get by without a stipend. He says a 400g packet of rice now costs more than R100 and likewise the cost of other necessities have skyrocketed since the West imposed sanctions on Russia for its war in Ukraine.

“I don’t have money for food, clothing (it’s getting really cold outside), toiletries [and] transport. Things have gotten so ridiculously expensive here in Russia because of the geopolitical situation,” he said.

While he has been able to get by with support from connections back home, Luyanda Mathebula says this has only dug him a grave of debt and expulsion is looming.

“The school has just said that if we do not pay school fees, they will simply expel us. Some students are already on the expulsion list, so we are just now hoping that they actually do deliver so we do not get expelled.

He is adamant that he will finish his studies as he had intended to do, to return to South Africa and take care of patients here. He says he cannot allow himself to return home without anything to show for his time in Tambov.

“They have put our very livelihoods at stake. I can’t sacrifice six years of my life trying to get this degree, to get expelled while I’m at the end. It would really be a disappointment going back home not being able to have something to show for these six years.

In the end, Luyanda Mathebula concedes he may have entrusted his schooling career in the hands of the “wrong people” who seem unconcerned about their desperate situation in a foreign country.

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