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With an SRD grant and his hands, Bergville’s self-taught car designer is building an engineering dream

Daily Maverick logo Daily Maverick 2022/10/03 Michelle Banda

Meet Thembelani Zondo, a 21-year-old from KwaZulu-Natal who has built his own “Bugatti Shark” car from scratch using his hands and old material that he bought with his R350 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant – after dropping out of school in Grade 11.

Zondo is a self-taught car designer from rural Woodford in the small town of Bergville, in the foothills of the Drakensberg, who has captured the hearts of many in his immediate community and on social media through his innovative skills.

“Since Grade 4 I have always loved to experiment with building new things from scratch. That year I created a small remote-controlled car from wire. Seeing the car move grew my passion and love for cars. I knew then that I wanted to build a car that would fit a human being. Years went by and while doing Grade 10 in 2019 I entered the Moses Kotane Institute (MKI) Innovation Awards after building my spiral galaxy with the nine regions of space that Asgard holds authority over… I came third place in the awards,” says Zondo.

It was then that Zondo’s skills were recognised by the MKI, an entity of the KZN department of economic development, tourism and environmental affairs, which is mandated to provide internationally recognised quality research driving economic development and innovation.

[caption id="attachment_1411482" align="alignnone" width="853"] © Provided by Daily Maverick Thembelani Zondo starts up his handmade 'Bugatti Shark' using a generator. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla / Daily Maverick)[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_1411484" align="alignnone" width="853"] © Provided by Daily Maverick The interior of Thembelani Zondo's 'Bugatti Shark'. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla / Daily Maverick)[/caption]

He was given a certificate and a study bursary by the MKI, and was relocated to Inanda, in northwest eThekwini, to a boarding school, Ohlange High School, from his hometown Ekwaluseni High School, with the promise that his mechanical skills were to be nurtured and his academic needs catered for.

He relocated to Durban, thinking he would be at a special skills school, but to his surprise – and that of his parents – he found it no different from his old school.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020 while he was in Grade 11, he went back home and never returned to school.

[caption id="attachment_1411477" align="alignnone" width="853"] © Provided by Daily Maverick Thembelani Zondo has captured the hearts of many in his immediate community and on social media through his innovative skills. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla / Daily Maverick)[/caption]

“I never went to school because I felt I was not being supported enough with my needs and that was causing heartache for my parents, who are both unemployed and have no source of income, surviving off my younger siblings’ social grants. But then again, in school, I was not excelling as much… I struggled a lot academically.

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“Leaving school was a blessing in disguise because it made me go back to my childhood dream to make a car that would fit a human being, which I have done using the R350 SRD grant and my hands.”

‘We have stood by him’

With the support of his family and childhood friend Lungisani Lakhaje (21), he began making his own “Bugatti Shark” using old car materials, zinc and wire. Zondo says he started building his car in August 2021, hoping he could finish it by December the same year, but that didn’t happen because of a shortage of funds to get all the materials he needed.

“The materials for the car were old materials that I purchased from workshops, community members and at the nearby garages, which I then recycled,” Zondo explains.

He says that he has invested about R10,000 so far in making the car.

Zondo says he chose to make a Bugatti Shark because it is his favourite brand.

Speaking about his friend’s passion, Lakhaje says: “Materials have not been easily accessible, neither did he nor the family have enough funds to support his dream… Other community members would look down upon him and his innovations as if he is crazy, but we have stood by him.”

[caption id="attachment_1411476" align="alignnone" width="853"] © Provided by Daily Maverick Thembelani Zondo began making his own 'Bugatti Shark' using old car materials, zinc and wire. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla / Daily Maverick)[/caption]

Lakhaje says he spends most of his time with Zondo while he fixes his car and helps him with manpower when necessary.

“It is all his work. He has no training in this, nor does he look up to anywhere, be it books or the internet or plans to do this.”

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Zondo’s father, Bongizwe Zondo, says he loves his son’s passion because it keeps him grounded and away from many social ills such as substance abuse.

“Most of the time Thembelani is here in our home fixing his car because that’s what he loves and we support him because it keeps him out of trouble.

[caption id="attachment_1411480" align="alignnone" width="853"] © Provided by Daily Maverick Thembelani Zondo received a certificate from the Moses Kotane Institute. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla / Daily Maverick)[/caption]

“We wish he [could go] to a special skills school rather than a normal school because while he was in a normal school he was battling academically. And the special skills school would be able to… allow him to do more with his hands and his talent or even connect him to companies making cars to mentor him.”

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During DM168’s visit to the Zondo homestead, the car was not mobile – Zondo is still working on the engine. But everything else seemed to be functional, with the control system connected to a phone inside the car, which is also connected to a generator that Zondo says was donated to him by Okhahlamba Local Municipality mayor Vikizitha Mlotshwa in 2021.

“I need to complete the engine, which I want to work on both fuel and electricity. I just want the car to start moving. Maybe then the world will be convinced and I can be better placed in an institution that supports my dream of becoming an engineer,” he says. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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