Well-known future strategist Clem Sunter talks about the need for South Africans to celebrate "pockets of excellence" in our country. When it comes to individuals, his favourite example is a young man named Siyabulela Xuza.
Sunter first met him while interviewing candidates for a scholarship. Xuza had earned six straight As in matric and wanted to study chemical engineering. Sunter was even more impressed when he heard about his other achievements.
Xuza became interested in aeronautics at an early age. "One of my earliest memories of my childhood in Umtata in the Eastern Cape was seeing a plane flying overhead dropping election pamphlets in 1994."
Perhaps this fuelled his passion for rocketry, which started when he began building rockets in his mother's kitchen. The family moved to Johannesburg and in grade 8 he earned a scholarship to study at St John's College. In 2000, he started in earnest on a science project that culminated in him developing a new type of rocket fuel, which is cheaper, safer and more efficient than fuels used today.
"Watching Mark Shuttleworth going into space motivated me even more and when the US stopped shipping rocket fuel post-9/11, it became a catalyst for the development of my idea," he says.
Xuza's science project won gold at the Eskom National Science Expo and the Dr Derek Gray Memorial award for the most prestigious project in SA. This led to an invitation to the International Youth Science Fair in Sweden in 2006, where he presented his project to the king and queen of Sweden and attended the Nobel prize ceremony in Stockholm. His project was then entered into the world's biggest student science event, attracting about 1 500 students from 52 countries - the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair in the US. He won two top awards.
His credibility was further endorsed by the Nasa-affiliated Lincoln Laboratory, which was so impressed by the young scientist's achievement that it named a minor planet after him. Planet 23182, discovered in 2000 (just around the time Xuza became serious about rocketry), is now known as Siyaxuza and is found in the main asteroid belt near Jupiter with an orbital period of 4,01 years.
"It's great knowing that there is a planet out there named after me," says Xuza "but I must still remain down to earth." He is quick to attribute his success to the many mentors who have helped him along the way. But he singles out his parents, in particular. "My mother and father have always supported me. My father is my role model and taught me the ethics of hard work and perseverance in order to achieve."
So it's not surprising that Xuza decided to shoot for the stars again when he applied to study at Harvard University in the US. That he was one of only 1 948 students accepted out of about 28 000 applications speaks volumes. With the support of the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, he became an undergraduate engineering student in September.
Speaking from Harvard, Xuza is already dreaming big. "Recent events in the global political and economic arena have shifted my focus to developing a renewable energy platform for cars, using similar principles to those of my rocket fuel invention," he says. "My dream is to create a 21st-century global energy company that will remove our addiction to petrol. If you look at all the developing economies, including SA, the growth of a middle class who want houses and cars is huge. Going green is also going to be a serious concern."
He wants to grow and experience as much as he can while he is overseas. "I'm learning to speak Mandarin, which keeps me up in the wee hours. I believe the relationship between China and SA will grow and would like to be able to facilitate communication between both countries in the area of energy. I want to be multi dimensional: educated in the West with strong African roots but with a clear understanding of the East."
Xuza is clear that he will eventually return to SA. If he is anything to go by, there is some impressive talent coming up through the ranks of Generation Y in this country. "My generation is going to make an incredible impact in SA and the world."
His message to SA youth? "The time to stay positive is now. Look beyond the problems in SA and the world. Be optimistic, innovative and debate. The future of SA is definitely bright."
Big dreams for a 20-year-old South African, but watch this space.