Shamila Mpinga – breaking barriers from Dambuza to Oxford

Maryam Patel interviews Shamila Mpinga who got her LLB summa cum lauda from UKZN has been awarded Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University


Tell us about yourself, your background, education, interests.

I am a young Muslim woman from Dambuza township, in Pietermaritzburg KwaZulu Natal. I was raised by my uncle and aunt. My mother, who is a domestic worker, also had a huge role to play in my upbringing. Notwithstanding the limited resources, she always ensured that I was well taken care off. I have felt the effects of “it takes a village to raise a child” through the kindness and support of the Muslim community to which I belong. I was taught independence at a young age and voluntarily started working at the age of 12 and have not stopped since. I attended Maritzburg Muslim School for Girls on a bursary from the school. I completed high school with 5 distinctions and was nominated by the school for a scholarship to further my studies. The nomination earned me a merit entrant scholarship to study law at the University of KwaZulu Natal UKZN). After my first year of study, I was awarded the Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarship for being in the top 25 first year students in the entire university. After four years of studying, my degree was conferred on me summa cum laude. I then decided to pursue postgraduate studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT). To read for a Masters in Mineral Law at UCT, I was awarded the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship in 2017. After a very rigorous process, I am now a Rhodes scholar-elect. As a Rhodes scholar, I intend on reading for an MSc in Law and Finance and an MBA at the University of Oxford. I have varying interests which complement each other to uphold my wellbeing. These include politics, commerce, fashion, hiking and socialising.

You were recently awarded the Rhodes Scholarship. What does this mean to you?

It means the world to me! It is the last item on my list of adolescent medium-term goals, which means that my bucket list is formally empty, and I need to start drafting a new one.  At a deeper level, I trust that my earning the Rhodes Scholarship provides hope for individuals with backgrounds similar to mine to push the boundaries, surpass expectations and to not be a victim of circumstances.


If someone wrote a biography about you, what do you think the title should be?

A simple girl with big dreams and high hopes.


If you had six months with no obligations or financial constraints, what would you do with the time?

Volunteer at two types of organisations: one aimed at finding sustainable solutions to alleviating poverty and the other aimed at drastically reducing unemployment. I would also travel to learn more about other nations, people and ideas because I don’t know what I don’t know.


Who do you admire most and why?

People with good character, because it is through good character that people are able to perpetuate good and build others.


Tell me something you have done that goes against all social conventions, yet you did it anyway because it was the right thing to do.

Pursuing tertiary education. I am the first person in my family to get a degree. When I started studying, I had no idea where my degree would take me, but I knew that it would present me with great opportunities to improve the situation at home. Having gone through years of studying, I have realised that my reach stretches beyond my family and that I have the potential to have a positive influence nationally and even globally.


What inspires you?

The hope of a more equal world.


What are you known for?

Good character (I’ve been told)


Pretend you’re the President of South Africa. What three concerns about the country’s future keep you up at night?

  • Improving the standard of education & living;
  • Providing good health services and alleviating poverty; and
  • Reducing unemployment


What’s the most interesting thing about you that we wouldn’t learn from your CV alone?

Happiness is a huge priority of mine. My decisions are influenced by whether I will fulfill my purpose of making this world a better place and being happy while pursuing said decision.


How would you convince someone to do something they didn’t want to do?

If my life is a testament of anything, it is that the best adventures are often least expected. I have always wanted to become an aalimah (teacher of Islamic thought). Ten years ago, if someone had predicted that I would have a law degree and preparing to study at Oxford, I would have laughed at them. But, I find myself here. In short, I would not try convincing someone to do something they would not otherwise do, I would just encourage them to be open to other possibilities.

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