From Petrol attendant to CFO: Martin Maepa's triumph over poverty

The Nkangala TVET CFO knows how devastating the impact of financial challenges can be on students.

Martin Maepa’s story reads like a classic rags-to-riches tale; a boy who overcame dire circumstances to help others achieve what he has – to break free from poverty through education.

Born in Moganyaka, a small village in Limpopo, Maepa’s journey to being the CFO of Nkangala TVET College was characterised by stops and starts. After matriculating from Ngwanakwena Senior Secondary School, his wishes for further education were put on hold because of lack of funds.

He went to work for a local chain store until he came across a bursary opportunity from the Auditor-General’s bursary programme, which he qualified for with his solid Maths and Accounting marks.

He started his B.Com Accounting Sciences in 2002 at the University of Pretoria. Being away from home in a foreign environment was disorienting enough, but then tragedy struck when both his parents passed away, “The grief and loss was so debilitating that I couldn’t focus on my academics and I failed my exams. When they were alive life hadn’t been easy, but with them gone, things got insufferably tough.” He says.

With his bursary withdrawn, no parents to turn to and deep in grief, he soon found himself homeless and sleeping under bridges. “I sustained myself through odd jobs and then became a petrol attendant.”

He managed to get back into the Accounting programme, but his welfare was still precarious. He recalls that, “During those days, I fought to survive and struggled to make it through my studies. I failed many times, but after persevering I completed my degree in 2006.”

Life started looking up when he started work as a trainee Accountant at the Auditor-General. However, his past came to haunt him as he owed UP for debts he had incurred and they refused to release his degree, putting his trainee opportunity at risk. Fortunately after a series of appeals, the AG’s office agreed to pay off his debt so he could get his degree released. After doing his articles for a period of three years, he was promoted to an assistant manager position in 2010.

In 2011, he left AGSA to join the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform as a deputy director: financial accounting and reporting.
He spent eight years at the department, where he was a member of the National Bid Adjudication committee, sitting as the deputy chairperson. “I was a proficient member of finance compliance committee, value chain committee and loss control committee. I became a member of national inter-governmental task team, where I was accountable for debts by organisations of states to municipalities on rates and taxes.”

In May of 2019, he took up his current position at Nkangala TVET, a college with five campuses across Mpumalanga. The student body is comprised of learners from Witbank and Middelburg and the rural underprivileged communities of former Kwa-Ndebele and Waterval Boven converge.

“My first-hand experience of being a struggling student from a rural background, desperate for an opportunity to better myself means I have an intimate understanding of the daily challenges many of our students face. I understand the depth of the impact of late payments from NSFAS or family misfortune. I know that something as simple not having money for regular meals can lead academic failure and withdrawal of bursaries.”

His work allows him to be in service to a population he cares about, but it doesn’t come without its challenges. The biggest test he faces is operating in a politically taut environment, often fuelled by economic hardship. “I have to balance priorities between student welfare, service delivery within the college system and suppliers in the community, with the institution being a major business driver for local suppliers.”

This balancing act sometimes calls for unconventional solutions, but he says his empathy is balanced with a firmness and conviction to do the right thing. “I don’t accept mediocrity and have an eye for detail because I have been trained to operate in a regulated environment which requires discipline.”

Overlooking a portfolio with so many stakeholders, from students, staff, community members, local government and college management automatically thrusts him into a position of leadership and he describes himself as a servant leader with a coaching style.

“My career, has been characterised by giving back, I have invested in those coming up behind me. Many of my former trainees are active in SETAs, in the TVET system and other sectors where their skills are making an impact.” 

Always reaching back, he has gone back to his childhood high school and whenever possible, tutors learners in math, life-skills and accounting. He is working on creating a structure to roll out this support to 15 more schools in the area in partnership with a local chief and three NGOs. He is also passionate about sharing that the TVET system offers learners an important alternative to university for school leavers with a minimum schooling level of Grade 9, “This is an important lifeline for children in rural setting, yet many don’t know about this option.”

His passion for education is a long-standing one and he admits that as a child, he dreamt of being a teacher. His path into finance was more about survival than passion. “However, I have developed an affinity for the world of finance. The opportunities I have been able to access have also allowed me to help my siblings improve their lives. Best of all, I can afford my two young sons a life that is very different from the one I endured," he explains.

Looking back at his life, he says that if he was to tell his younger self anything, it would be that, “Your past doesn’t determine your future. What you do today matters, what you say about yourself affects how you feel and act. Keeping a positive mind-set is important on the journey to achieving your goals.”

This positivity has served him well, especially as a person of small stature. He explains that, “When people try to undermine me based on my physical size, or because I am young and black, I overcome this by knowing who I am, being confident and executing my duties with excellence.”
Projecting ahead, Maepa is looking forward to advancing his qualifications, saying that he wasn’t able to pursue becoming a chartered accountant due to family commitments, saying, “I would love to lead a blue-chip company, or circle back to a life of academia. I am open to different opportunities.”