College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Mr Nkosikhona Gcabashe and some of his photographs of the Howard College campus.

Artistic Civil Engineering Student a Budding Social Media Star

Mr Nkosikhona Gcabashe, a final-year Civil Engineering student at UKZN has amassed more than 45 000 followers on his TikTok account, almost 2 000 on Facebook, and several hundred on Instagram for posts showcasing his musical, artistic, and photographic talents, foregrounding Gcabashe’s guitar melodies, songs, photographs, and pencil sketches in environments that include UKZN’s Howard College campus and his hometown of Embulwane.

Gcabashe was born in Embulwane in KwaZulu-Natal and has lived there all his life, raised alongside his three siblings by a single mother since his father’s death in 2011. He attended Indosi Primary and Umvoti High Schools. He often features scenes of his homeland that he said he captures to remind him of home when he is on campus.

Gcabashe showed an artistic streak from a young age, proving adept at drawing landscapes, people, and animals without formal instruction.

‘I think I was born an artist because I always loved to draw,’ he said. He also learned to play guitar, a challenge since he is left-handed and most guitars are designed for right-handed people.

He described his love for the instrument, and his surprise when he found out after his father’s passing that he too had played the guitar.

Gcabashe was intrigued by building design and construction, and so investigated a career in architecture or civil engineering, drawn to the latter as a discipline that turns architects’ dreams into reality. He aims to become a professional civil engineer but is also passionate about producing music, hoping to find a way to balance the two vocations.

He enrolled at UKZN as a walk-in application in 2018 after not receiving an offer from a university, motivated to study at the province’s most popular tertiary institution and benefit from the prestige of its School of Engineering.

Despite the challenges of an Engineering degree that demands dedication and sleepless nights, Gcabashe enjoyed the quality of education and facilities, and the level of staff professionalism at UKZN. Being on campus also enabled him to access YouTube tutorials to learn songs and drawing techniques, and explore his interest in photography.

In his little spare time from academic activities, Gcabashe worked on his music, videos, photography, and portraits, routinely waking before dawn to work on the pencil portraits he does on commission before attending class.

When the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown interrupted his studies, he found more time to explore his hidden talents. He purchased art supplies and began posting progress videos of his artwork to TikTok, as well as covers of songs he played on guitar. An interest in photography and the acquisition of a smartphone inspired Gcabashe to begin exploring his photography and editing skills using Adobe’s Lightroom software.

Soon, Gcabashe’s posts went viral, attracting thousands of views and resulting in requests for song covers from followers, which he would often learn to play from scratch. Despite not producing an income, Gcabashe has found inspiration in his fans’ recognition and encouragement. He was invited to perform with other musicians for several episodes of the Umbuso Wamaciko Maskandi podcast.

Gcabashe operates a Facebook account where he focuses on his portrait drawings and an Instagram account for his photography.

Gcabashe’s academic journey has confronted challenges. Coming from a household with no breadwinners, qualifying for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme enabled him to complete his first three years, but he faces the prospect of suspending his studies due to a lack of funding for 2023. His studies were also disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the switch to remote learning, which despite helping him save costs was particularly challenging when residing in an area with poor reception, especially for a degree programme where he benefitted from communal learning on campus.

Gcabashe and his sister, who is currently studying teaching at another institution, would be the first in their family to graduate from a university and potentially change their family situation.

Gcabashe plans to continue cultivating his love of all forms of photography and videography (particularly editing music videos) and hopes to explore astrophotography. He also hopes to add the piano to his repertoire.

Gcabashe made special mention of his mother, Ms Phumlaphi Gcabashe for her support, and his matric class teacher Ms Ndimande, who encouraged him throughout the year and provided him with the smartphone that allowed him to apply to university and explore his photography skills.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Supplied