Youth Month 2022: Miguel Isaac

Youth Month 2022: Miguel Isaac

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the youth of the NRF who are working towards achieving the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us and we hope that you are inspired by the young NRF-affiliated researchers who are helping to ensure a sustainable planet for all.

Miguel Isaac is a Master’s student specialising in Political Studies at the University of the Western Cape. She received NRF funding in the form of a grantholder-linked scholarship for a Master’s degree in Political Studies, with a focus on Offgrid Cities, Elite Infrastructure Secession and Social Justice. Through this scholarship, she forms part of an exciting, interdisciplinary project called Offgrid Cities that draws together researchers from the University of Cambridge, the GCRO, the University of Edinburgh, the University of the Western Cape, and the University of the Witwatersrand.

This is her story…

I was born and raised in a small community called Gouda, 110 km outside Cape Town, under the guardianship of my grandparents who only receive an old-age pension as their main source of income. I grew up in a family that could only speak Afrikaans (the language of my hometown) fluently. I struggled to speak English until I attended Schoonspruit Secondary School in Malmesbury where I matriculated and learned to speak English through my peers who were fluent in the language.

My grandparents fuelled my passion to help others and the robust desire I feel to serve as a symbol of hope to the young boys and girls in my community whose mindsets are defeated by their circumstances and quality of life. It is hard to aspire to a bright future when you can barely survive in the present. I want the children in my community to look at me, who was once in their shoes, with nothing but hopes and dreams, renewed hope, faith, courage and strength that they too can transform their lives if they consistently work hard. I did not have much but supportive family and friends and an intense work ethic, coupled with an inquisitive mind and a hunger for knowledge.

In my community, there is a lack of opportunities for young people to elevate themselves. Young people like myself have no access to facilities, resources or even higher education opportunities. This is problematic because being educated sets the scene for the opportunities that you can benefit from in the future. Therefore, the quality of schooling is important because it will determine how you will use the skills you have acquired. Coming from a low socioeconomic background and having had limited opportunities to advance my life, I became self-motivated and purpose-driven to not only change my life but also change it in such a way that it reaches every child in my community and sparks a fire in them to change their lives. My community shaped me into the strong, purposeful, empathic, and empowered woman I am today and I will forever show gratitude to those who contributed to my personal growth and development.

Tell us about your academic journey

I had many setbacks, failures and shortcomings. I was confronted with obstacles every day that shook the grounds I walked on. After my matric year, I was forced to take a gap year because I was rejected from three top tertiary institutions in the Western Cape. Thereafter, I enrolled at the University of the Western Cape.

University was a major adjustment for me as I took a gap year because there were no finances to cover tuition and accommodation and I was unsuccessful in my attempts for funding and accommodation. As a result, I was desperate but refused to give up. So, I woke up at 04:00 every weekday morning and travelled from Gouda to UWC by train as it was the only mode of transport from Gouda to Cape Town. I would get home around 20:00 or 21:00, sometimes even later, and still had to wake up early the next morning. Bear in mind that trains aren’t always safe or reliable, but there I was, sitting on the train studying or reading. My life was in danger in most instances as I mostly travelled alone. This was very stressful for me as it took a toll on my mental health.

Nonetheless, this didn’t stop me from completing my degrees and chasing after my dreams. In fact, it motivated me as I became my own inspiration and, in this way, inspired so many other students and young people in my community. One would expect that the number of hours I spent travelling would influence my ability to perform and excel in my academics. Ironically, my performance at University accelerated and in my third year I was selected as one of the top 15% of my faculty. I received multiple monetary awards from UWC for outstanding academic performance and because I had no funding or a sponsor who could cover my tuition, my academic performance brought down my tuition fees. So I continued to not only work hard but also work smart and take advantage of the opportunities I had access to; the mentorship I received; and the networks I made along my journey. I will continue to stop at nothing to actualise my dreams and aspirations. I will continue to do whatever it takes. My community keeps me grounded and reminds me why I wanted to participate in the race.

The career path I am on today is not close to what I envisioned for myself growing up. I never gave up on myself, my family and my community. I followed my passion and it led me to the path I am now.

Today, I am an emerging researcher; a holder of two degrees; an NRF grantholder (2021-2023); a top achiever in my department; a Model United Nations delegate; a Youth Policy Committee member; a Teaching Assistant at UWC; and, finally, an aspiring energy policy maker. I am proud of myself because I have come a long way.

Did you have to overcome any obstacles to be where you are today, and what did you learn from it?

I overcame many obstacles and hurdles to be where I am today. I have learned that I was not behind in life and that there is no timeline that we should all follow to be successful. Not all of us can do the same thing in the same order. What would be considered early or late? Compared to whom? We should not beat ourselves up over where we are in our lives. I only came to understand myself after I destroyed myself. And only in the process of fixing myself did I know who I really was. Learning how to trust the process is part of growth and it is a beautiful thing to be grateful for.

Today, I am able to share my story about how I overcame the challenges I went through in the hopes that it will be someone else’s survival guide who is struggling to find their purpose in life.

What is your research focus/area of expertise?

My Off-Grid Cities research project questions how and why elites are seceding from the electricity grid by exploring elite infrastructure transitions in South Africa. The project focuses on how urban elites are transitioning from state-provided electricity infrastructure in favour of off-grid and/or decentralised energy providers and solutions, specifically solar panels. These actions transform the service provision and consumption of infrastructure in cities, with potential implications for social justice. The project builds on social justice scholarship and introduces it into debates around urban infrastructure, municipal revenue and redistribution, as well as climate change while recognising that the actions of one social group affect resource distribution in highly unequal cities.

Furthermore, urban elite infrastructures are absent from urban infrastructure and climate change debates. Thus, the overarching goal of this research is to integrate elite off-grid practices around electricity infrastructure into debates on how we can create sustainable and socially just cities. This is achieved through a critical analysis of electricity infrastructure in Cape Town, focused on infrastructure officials (municipal governments); elite infrastructure users (households); and infrastructure providers (Eskom).

Through these infrastructures, the project questions the imaginaries (motivations and justifications for secession) and off-grid practices of elite infrastructure transitions. The project will analyse these transitions in a residential context, and thus provide a further under-researched dimension of urban elites in South Africa.

The United Nations identified 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure “…a better and more sustainable future for all…” by 2030. Which of these goals are you addressing through your research, or in your personal life?

The goals that I am addressing through my research are: Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy; Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure; Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, and Goal 13: Climate Action.

As mentioned previously, I am working on a research project called Offgrid Cities with researchers and academics from other tertiary institutions. Our research project focuses on elite infrastructural secession and the implications for climate change and social justice. We acknowledge that research on urban infrastructure has undergone a renaissance within urban geography over the past two decades, most recently marked by a shift towards critically examining the post-networked or off-grid city. Within this scholarship, attention has overwhelmingly focused on the urban poor in the global South, exploring how those excluded from networked services (due to affordability, quality and/or location) survive by relying on heterogeneous or hybrid infrastructure strategies that mix grid and off-grid services, providers and technologies.

While it is vital to investigate contexts in which urban dwellers have no/limited access to networks that are unreliable and/or unaffordable, this emphasis on the urban poor has resulted in an absence of research on how other demographic groups, for example, urban elites with significant financial and spatial resources, are also adopting off-grid infrastructure transitions.

Households and businesses that are currently connected to, and can afford to access, urban infrastructure networks are choosing to install medium/large-scale infrastructure technologies, e.g. solar panels, diesel generators, water boreholes and tanks, that enable them to shift off-grid (fully or partially). This is an important area of analysis because there is a lack of knowledge about the political, financial, environmental and infrastructural implications for elite network secession. This is particularly important in the context of South Africa’s highly unequal cities where municipal services to the poor (particularly electricity) are subsidised by service revenues from wealthier customers, and where increased concentrations of water boreholes could disrupt the capacity of water aquifers to meet the city’s water needs.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

Growing up, I have always admired black empowered women who walk in their truth unapologetically, without realizing that I have become the woman that a younger version of myself has always admired, but never imagined I would be. And that is my greatest accomplishment.

Other proud achievements include:

  • Best Position Paper for the Model United Nations Simulation 2022
  •  NRF Postgraduate Scholarship 2021-2023
  • Two-times University graduate
  • Golden Key Top 15% Award 2019
  • UWC Merit Award for Outstanding Performance 2019
  • ABSA Scholarship 2019

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I would like to be an NRF-rated researcher and be selected as one of the “Mail and Guardian Top 200 Young Professionals in South Africa”.

My core value in life is to inspire, impact and empower the people in my community. My advice to the young people struggling out there: nothing will come to you easily and even if it does, it is not going to be easy. Look at the reflection of yourself in the mirror and tell yourself you are capable, strong, and in control of your life. Do not be afraid to take risks. Life was meant to be felt, lived and experienced. Do exactly that!

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