A young man from a small town becomes an inspiration to those at the University of the Free State when he becomes the youngest and first black recipient of the prestigious Abe Bailey Travel Bursary. Erica Dibela talks to him about Kendrick Lamar, success and giving up his Olympic dream for a law degree.

Gosego Moroka (23) looks like an average guy on campus. Slim, average height with goofy glasses, usually dressed in faded blue jeans, a formal shirt and Timberlands. He is also a chatterbox and a big Manchester United fan.

He may seem like your ‘run of this mill’ final-year law student at the University of the Free State but he’s actually the youngest holder of the Abe Bailey Travel Bursary, one of the most prestigious awards the tertiary institution has to offer. The award is only given to those who show exceptional leadership skills and he is also the first black recipient since its inception in 1951.

Moroka was born and bred in Thaba Nchu, a small town 60 kilometers east of Bloemfontein in the Free State. A premature baby, he is the youngest of two children. He and his older brother, Olebogeng were raised by their mom, a single parent, who is a nurse. He comes from a sporting family, his grandmother is a former tennis player, his mother was a star netball player in her day and his brother is a sprinter. Gosego was bound to be not only an academic but an excellent sportsman.

Gosego starting sprinting in Grade 1 and he was the best in his class even at that young age. Only in Grade 7 did he and his couch realise his potential. He was named Free State Champion and two years later, the 100m South African Champion.

“I have always wanted to be the best in everything I did since I was a kid, to train, fail and learn on my way to the national championship was a result of my perseverance and believing and, most importantly, working on my vision. The skinny boy from the dusty town of Thaba Nchu had conquered South Africa,” he said with a chuckle.

His mom encouraged him to work towards making the Olympics one day, but his track dream was crushed in his first year at university when he sustained injuries and on medical advice, had to give up running.

“That was a difficult moment in my life. I was borderline depressed because I had put in so much into my athletics. But I had a choice, either to allow athletics to define me, or to reinvent and define myself,” he said. That’s the moment he started to really pay attention to his law studies.

He has been involved in numerous leadership roles during his past four years at the UFS. It began in his first year when he was selected as one of 33 first-year students for the First Year Leadership for Change Programme and he represented the University in Amsterdam as part of the programme. He was also part of the First Year Committee in his residence, House Khayalami in the Sports portfolio.

Before his unfortunate sports injury, Gosego led the Khayalami athletics team to victory in the 100m and 200m sprint. An unprecedented feat from a student residing at House Khayalami since the residence is known for its soccer and not athletics. He was awarded Best Athlete by the residence. “The residence has probably never seen an athlete of my calibre and never will” he chuckles.

Gosego is a self-confessed “nerd” who loves hip-hop and is a complete chatterbox. Kendrick Lamar is one of his all-time favourite artists. “Kendrick is the best of his generation. A person whose music is for the people. That’s what I strive to achieve, to be an inspiration to those around me,” he said.

But this strong academic and hip-hop head has a lengthy list of academic achievements under his belt. Besides being a delegate at the Global Leadership Summit, Gosego is also part of the Golden Key International Honour Society. He has also served as the Community Service Director for the Golden Key UFS Chapter in which his team organised numerous community service projects including the big Mandela Day project held at Pelonomi Hospital in the Free State. He also holds motivational talks at high schools and on-campus residences to encourage others to reach for academic excellence.

One of his highlights was being selected to represent South Africa as a delegate at the University Scholars Leadership Symposium at the United Nations in Bangkok, Thailand in which he gave a speech of his experiences to thousands of delegates. He says that Thailand was extremely humid, hot and filled with so much life. “Thailand was amazing and considering that I already had friends in Thailand, they were sure to show me a good time. The speech I gave at the UN was the highlight of my time there. The ovation I received made me extremely emotional. I guess you can describe me as an emotional person,” he said.

The road to becoming the first black recipient of the Abe Bailey Travel Bursary was not easy. He had actually applied for the bursary in 2015 for the first time but didn’t make it. He was in his 2nd year at the time, was shortlisted and interviewed but he did not get the bursary. However, he did not give up, he decided to give it another try in 2017 despite his reservations.

“I started having doubts, and questions like what if I get rejected for the second time?”

He left his application to the last minute, hitting ‘send’ at 11 pm the night before applications closed. To his delight he was shortlisted, interviewed and got the bursary.

“I was overwhelmed, I cried when I received the good news. For someone who comes from a small town like Thaba Nchu, it’s crazy. It’s a good achievement and I am very happy. I managed to get it after so much hustling and bustling and headaches. The fact that it started in 1951 and I am the first black person to be selected at the UFS, it is a fantastic achievement,” he said.

For Moroka, this victory isn’t just for himself. “I’m planning on being a leader who seeks to act in the best interests of the people whom I serve,” he said.