After completing her final examination, South African medical student Mumtaaz Emeran expected to feel joy and relief at the end of her school career.
Instead she was met with a letter from Witwatersrand University informing her that she would not graduate unless her outstanding debt was paid within 24 hours.
With nobody else to turn to, Emeran took to social media to ask South African citizens for the help that she needed.
In a video posted on Instagram on Dec. 8, the student said: “I finished my last medical exam [...] and I thought I'd be excited, over the moon, but then I got a message from my faculty stating that I will not graduate if I have historical debt, and if it's not settled by the 9th, my name will get removed from the graduation list. If you know anyone or are able to contribute anything, I'd really appreciate it.”
The student further explained that she had been responsible for paying her fees for the first three years of studying, thereafter her payments were to be made by a sponsor. The sponsor, who remains unnamed, allegedly never fulfilled this commitment, leaving Emeran hundreds of thousands of Rands in debt.
The video quickly went viral and gained comments of support from the likes of fashion blogger and businesswoman, Aisha Baker; media mogul and UNICEF ambassador, Carol Bouwer; and former Miss South Africa pageant queens, Sasha Lee-Olivier and Bokang Montjane.
Within 24 hours, Emeran posted a follow-up video announcing that her student debt of R470,000 had been paid thanks to donations from South African citizens and a special contribution from Standard Bank.
“You guys have shown me that the spirit of Ubuntu can make anything possible,” Emeran said in her update video. “This degree is something that belongs to every one of you and I want you to know that it's because of every one of you that this was possible and I thank you so, so much.”
Earlier this week, Emeran took to Instagram again to thank citizens and name specific major donors, including award-winning South African Cricket Player, Lungi Ngidi.
She also announced that South Africans had donated more than what was needed, and that the excess funds would be used to start a foundation to help those facing a similar situation.
While the logistics have yet to be ironed out, Emeran has called on South Africans to put forward their suggestions in order to help create the foundation.
Now that she is able to obtain her degree, Emeran is due to start her internship at Johannesburg’s Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in January.
Speaking to Times Live, the soon-to-be doctor expressed her gratitude for South Africans and said that she is ready to serve the country on the front lines.
“How glorious a story it is that through a pandemic, through so many lives having [been] taken by the pandemic, South Africans birthed a doctor,” she said. “Working on the front lines in SA during a pandemic will be hectic, I know, but I will serve with gratitude and awe because I'll be thinking about what better country to serve. What better people to serve.”
Emeran further told Times Live that she believes that citizens responded to her call for help because the situation is so familiar to many.
"When the video came out, people said: 'I can relate. I have felt like that before. I know that feeling.' It's not that I'm special," she said.
South Africa has long grappled with the price of school fees being higher than citizens can afford. A student calling on her fellow citizens to help her pay for the degree she rightfully earned is not only a story about the spirit of ubuntu, but it is also an indication that South Africa has done little to make university education affordable and accessible for all.
In 2015 nationwide protests erupted in the name of #FeesMustFall, which saw thousands of students protesting against the annual increase of university fees and calling on the government to increase funding towards universities in order to alleviate these fees.
While the 2015 protests resulted in a freeze of fee increases for 2016, this did not stop university fees from continuing to increase in the years that followed, resulting in protests continuing into 2019.
A sustainable solution has not been agreed upon by the South African government and university fees will be increasing again in 2021.
You can contribute to building Emeran’s foundation by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.