From the small rural village of eTshisa in Matatiele in the Eastern Cape, cum laude MSc in Mathematics graduate Mr Sonwabile Mafunda grew up in a strict environment where he was not allowed to play on the streets instead doing chores in and around his home.

Excelling at school from an early age, his determination to pursue tertiary education was fuelled while visiting his brother, Collin, at UKZN.

After matriculating, Mafunda was accepted into the Science Access Programme at UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus, which caters for gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds.  When Mathematics lecturer Mr Yougan Aungamuthu posted top achiever pictures on the noticeboard and presented the students with chocolates, Mafunda decided he wanted to be one of them!

Before the end of his first year, Mafunda came into contact with student support manager Mrs Shelley Barnsley, also fondly known as ‘the mother to all access students’. Barnsley advised Mafunda to consider studying mathematics because of his excellent results.

In his second year, Mafunda met the late Professor Henda Swart, who helped him understand and appreciate various mathematical concepts such as elementary number theory, sets, groups, graph theory and cryptography. (Graph theory is the study of mathematical properties and applications of graphs, whilst cryptography is the study of mathematical techniques to provide information security.)

‘I was fortunate to be invited by Professor Henda Swart and Dr David Erwin to the graph theory research seminars,’ said Mafunda. ‘These seminars gave me a very deep and good insight into mathematics.’

One of Mafunda’s Pure Mathematics lecturers, Professor Fortune Massamba, agreed to supervise him for his honours research. ‘Professor Massamba taught me most of the things I needed to know about research,’ said Mafunda.  ‘He took me through everything step by step, and ensured every concept was clear.’

Mafunda achieved his first merit certificate for his Honours project.

Achieving his BSc and Honours degrees led Mafunda to pursue his MSc under the supervision of Professor Simon Mukwembi of the University of Zimbabwe, UKZN’s Dr Gareth Amery and UCT’s Dr Christine Swart. His research focused on the interplay between algebraic graph theory and cryptography, particularly on stream and block ciphers (encryption algorithms). He reviewed topical aspects of these fields with aims to application to pseudo-random number generators and substitution boxes for stream ciphers and block ciphers respectively.

‘Graph theory is a very useful tool in solving mathematically modelled problems,’ said Mafunda.   ‘My supervisors made my masters research experience the best.’

Amery was complimentary about his cum laude student.  ‘Mafunda bravely tackled a wide ranging review requiring elements of group theory, graph theory as well as the application to the very topical field of cryptography. The excellent job that he did was reflected not only in very positive examiners’ reports but also in him been approached by the University of Johannesburg (UJ) to lecture there. Professors at UJ were aware of his research via conference presentations and no doubt influenced by his cheerful and committed attitude. He was renowned among undergraduate students as an excellent tutor. My current second years remember him with fondness. He will undoubtably go on to make genuine contributions to South African mathematics,’ said Amery.

Currently Mafunda is employed as a permanent lecturer at UJ in the department of Pure and Applied Mathematics, under the New Generation of Academics Programme, an initiative of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DoHET).  ‘I have to thank and applaud DoHET for the effort they have put in to ensure a smooth transmission of skills and knowledge from the old generation of academics to our generation, thus at the same time creating jobs and fighting against unemployment,’ said Mafunda.

With a cum laude MSc in Mathematics under his belt, Mafunda is currently pursuing his PhD under the supervision of two renowned UJ graph theorists, Professor Peter Dankelmann and Professor Betsie Jonck.

‘My short term goals involve completing my doctoral studies as soon as I can and adapting to my career, employer and colleagues,’ said Mafunda. ‘In the long run, I would like to show that academia can indeed be a dream job and a successful one for both young and older generations. I would like to be the best professional researcher I can be, and equip the next generation with the necessary skills for their future, the future of the world and that of mathematics at large.’

Mafunda attributes his success to his parents who have been very supportive throughout his educational journey. His father said: ‘I am very proud of my son’s achievements. He is a good mentor to his siblings and the other children within the community. Mafunda is well respected.’