The high-stakes matric exams are an academic marathon that a half-million South African 12th-graders endure for a solid month every year.
Last year's exams began Oct. 10 with English and finished Nov. 10 for most students with geometry, although some took history on Nov. 13.
The tests make up 75 percent of a 12th-grader's marks in each subject and determine whether students will be able to attend university.
The exams permit only so much guesswork. While there are multiple choice and true-or-false questions, test-takers for the most part have to apply knowledge they should have learned in school. They must show their work on math word problems, interpret reading passages and show their understanding of everything from chemical reactions to biological processes to geographical phenomena.
Students must pass five of the exams to get their senior certificate, and they must score at least a 20 percent on the sixth. To qualify for university admission, they must take and pass four tests in the more challenging "higher grade" category, as opposed to "standard grade."
Learners, as students here are called, typically take six exams. Each lasts two to three hours, but most subject exams come in two parts. Add it all up, and most 12th-graders spend nearly 30 hours in exams during matric month.
Under apartheid, 18 racially divided education departments administered separate tests. That began to change after Nelson Mandela became president in 1994. In 2001, the first nationwide exams were set, and last year 11 subject exams were standard nationwide.
Among those was English, the leadoff exam. At Fons Luminis Secondary School in Soweto, the English exam was for students speaking it as a second language. That applies to nearly all Fons Luminis students, whose first words were likely in Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho or Venda.
The first part asks questions based on an excerpt from the Proudly South African marketing campaign. Some are true-or-false, some ask for the contextual definition of a word, and others test comprehension ("Explain why `Proudly South African' products should be chosen above products labeled `Made in South Africa.' ").
Part Two requires students to use dialogue between two characters to list ways in which an ad for a computer training program is misleading. In Part Three, language usage, students must pick or supply the correct word in sentences. For example, "there are (much/many/plenty) people who sell their goods directly to consumers."
Last, they must answer questions based on a cartoon that shows a woman turning away a traveling used-clothes salesman because, as she says, "everyone around here is selling them."