Stepping stone to success

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January 2, 2015 - 12:00 AM

In 2008, as Thabo Mbeki was entering his final year as president of South Africa, the country was still feeling its way toward a racially integrated economy after decades of apartheid rule. Mining — gold, platinum, diamonds — remained the country’s industrial backbone. And Sandvik, a 150-year-old Swedish-owned supplier of mining equipment, held on as one of that industry’s major corporate players.
Bruce Kamanga, then 34, worked in the company’s Johannesburg office as a low-level clerk in the accounts payable department. It wasn’t a bad job. In fact, it was an advance of sorts; a generation earlier his grandparents had come to Johannesburg — the “City of Gold” — not to work in the mining offices but to labor in the hard rock mines themselves, extracting the city’s namesake mineral while reaping almost nothing of its resale profit.
“It was hard work,” says Kamanga, recalling his grandparents’ lives. “Even today, mining is not easy. People are not paid according to how much they put in. When you see what an average mine worker makes — it’s like $300 to $400 a month. You can’t send your child to school for that.… When you hear that platinum is selling at $1,700 and then they tell you they will pay you $300 a month, it means those people are cheating us. That’s what you saw in the recent massacre” — in 2012, 34 miners were shot and killed by police during a strike at a mine near Marikana; the worst incident of state violence since apartheid — “these workers were saying ‘That’s enough. We don’t want peanuts anymore. We need better wages. We need to feed our families.’
“See, if I work in a mine in Johannesburg, it’s not just about my wife and kids who are looking to me. It would be my cousins, my brothers, my parents — the same paycheck has to go very far.”
Although Kamanga wasn’t working in a mine in 2008, the obligations to his extended family were the same.
An international corporation, Sandvik draws a number of foreign executives to its offices in South Africa. One afternoon Kamanga was sitting with one of these men, a Brit. “I asked the man: ‘The business development people are all white — when are we going to see black people coming in here?’ He was honest with me. He explained exactly how he got his education, his mining engineering degree. How he had worked his way up in England.
“I remember when (Nelson) Mandela said, on TV, in maybe ’95 or ’96: ‘People, you need to go to school.’ But the time for me, then, wasn’t right. [In 2008], though, I knew that the only way to have a breakthrough in South Africa was to get a better education.”
From that point Kamanga began quizzing visiting executives about their training. “Most of the things I’ve ever done have come from talking with people,” says Kamanga.
Eventually Kamanga met an American businessman. “He told me he went to school at the University of California, and I said ‘How many universities are in the U.S.?’ He told me ‘Oh, well, Bruce, the book is this thick.’” Kamanga holds his thumb and index finger about four inches apart. “And when I went to the American Library,” Kamanga says, smiling, “they gave me a book of universities and it really was that thick.”
And so, in early 2009, after a lot of deliberation and perhaps some portion of wry, divine intervention, the Kamangas — Bruce; his wife, Ursula; and their 7-year-old daughter, Hope — having at last decided on Neosho County Community College, arrived at their new home, in Chanute.
“We didn’t know what we were getting into. It was a gamble, a risk.” The Kamangas are a devout family: “Maybe, putting it in a nutshell,” Bruce says, “God planned for us to end up in Kansas.”

NEARLY SIX years later, after having transferred his credits from NCCC, Bruce is now a graduate of Kansas State University and recently received his MBA from Washburn, in Topeka. The family currently lives in Humboldt, where Bruce works in inventory management at B&W Trailer Hitches, while Ursula finishes up her master’s degree, also at K-State. Hope, now 12, is a popular student at Humboldt Middle School. And, since their arrival in Kansas, the family has added another Kamanga: Lebogang Zoe, an energetic 3-year-old with a pronounced American accent and bottomless fervor for sing-a-long YouTube videos featuring Barney the Dinosaur.
“The community here has made the difference for us,” Ursula said. “Arriving here, being in a different environment, it can be very overwhelming. But the reception we got from the people, first in Chanute, it was really mind-blowing, because they just accepted us. Everyone wanted to help, I must say. I thought it was a great environment to bring up our kids.
“Since you do not have family members, to have this community being so helpful — that was very influential. We felt at home, if I can put it like that.”
The family’s plans, however, have always been to return to South Africa, equipped with degrees. “The U.S. doesn’t need my skills,” Bruce explains. “But South Africa, and Africa, needs my skills. It’s what Africa needs most right now: human capital.”
Ursula, who hopes to work for a non-governmental organization promoting equitable education, agrees: “With the education that we’ve attained, I think we need to use it wisely, so that it can benefit other people. For that, I think it is necessary to go and give back to your own country, if you can.”
For Bruce, it’s unlikely he’ll return to the mining sector: “My aim is one day to work for myself. Maybe doing steel fabrication. I wish I could do what B&W is doing; something where I would be able to create jobs for others through my entrepreneurship skills, which I’m learning every day from Joe Works (the company’s owner). I see how he does his thing, and I want to make use of the wisdom he is giving to me on a daily basis, so that I’m able to make a difference in my own community.”
Bruce’s referring to Joe Works in this way isn’t incidental, and the Kamanga’s relocation to Humboldt last August wasn’t the first time the two men met. A framed photo of Works and his wife hangs in the family’s living room on New York Street.
 “OK,” Bruce says, looking toward Ursula then back again. “I’ll tell you how I met him.
“Joe was actually the one that helped us to stay and get an education in the U.S. Him, his wife Janie, and actually the whole Works family.”

LATE IN 2009 the Kamangas found themselves within hours of returning to South Africa without the American education they sacrificed so much to obtain. The U.S. was in the early days of what would become the Great Recession. Jobs near the Neosho County campus were hard to come by. Scholarships, which the Kamangas had counted on, were suddenly unavailable. Less than a year after arriving in Kansas, the family was out of money.
They packed their boxes and had their return tickets to Johannesburg in hand. “We were convinced by then,” says Bruce, “that the devil had lied to us, telling us to come to the U.S. We thought we had made a mistake in coming here; we needed to get back home.”
Bruce approached his church in Chanute, asking whether any member would be willing to drive the family to the airport. “That’s when the youth pastor was interested to know why we wanted to go back. We explained to him. Then he said, ‘Let’s pray. Maybe God will help us out.’ It was a miracle, you know. It was the youth pastor who got in touch with Joe and Janie, and said ‘There’s this couple from Africa and they’re on their way back.’ And so Joe and Janie wanted to hear our story, why we are here, and why we are going back. That’s when they said ‘OK, we’re going to help you go to school here. So that’s how we ended up staying here and that’s how, again, I ended up knowing Joe and Janie Works.” 
“So, yeah,” Bruce concludes, “everything changed from requesting a ride to the airport. And then comes this miracle. But if you tell the story like this to people here, they don’t believe it. But people at home — they believe it.”
Bruce concedes that fortune, too, may have played its part. “In 2011, when I visited South Africa, I went to see my old colleagues from work. They wanted to know what was going on. When I was telling them about my story, they were like: ‘Wow, Bruce. Wow, you are a lucky bastard.”

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