Tested In Soweto

Twelve years after the end of apartheid, three students face their biggest challenges yet

Sun Special Report // Mandela's Children

April 08, 2007|By Article and photos by Scott Calvert | Article and photos by Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

SOWETO, South Africa — SOWETO, South Africa-- --The petite girl named Fezeka slides in at the end of the third row and strains to see over the shoulders of her high school classmates. She hears the voice - blaring through a bullhorn - of Busisiwe Ledwaba, the ebullient geography teacher, who is predicting great success on the momentous exams that begin this morning. Ever the brooder, Fezeka isn't sure she believes the upbeat words.

Monde has a clear view, right up front in the October sunshine. At 23, he is older than almost all his classmates, well aware of exactly how long he has waited to hear this speech. He stands raptly attentive.

Not so for 16-year old Nkosinathi, who is also out here somewhere in this crowd. With the brashness that comes from being a star student, Nkosinathi does not feel he needs this pep talk.

"We have run the race; we are at the finish line," sings out Mrs. Ledwaba, whom the students affectionately call "Busi" or "Mom."

"Out there," she promises and warns, beyond the yellow bricks and broken windows of their high school, "the world is waiting for you."

Out there. The new South Africa.

In half an hour, Fezeka, Monde and Nkosinathi will leave the breezy courtyard at Fons Luminis Secondary School and sit with their peers for the first in a month-long series of exams that will help determine whether they'll avoid the poverty that plagues so many black South Africans. Odds are that one of them will fail. A year earlier, barely two-thirds of the school's 12th-graders passed, about the same percentage as in South Africa at large.

These are the matric exams, short for matriculation, a fateful rite of passage in South Africa for generations. The United States has nothing like it. Twelfth-graders across South Africa take the tests, which carry the weight of American high school transcripts and SATs rolled into one. Newspapers report the results under banner headlines in late December, at the end of the South African school year, and the education minister's speech on the results is broadcast live to the nation.

A dozen years after the end of apartheid, the Class of 2006 is on the verge of entering a society in which brutal oppression by the white minority is long over, in which blacks can achieve success and prosperity. These students, the first group to enter primary school after anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela's election as president in 1994, are known as "Madiba's children," after Mandela's clan name.

Mandela, 88 and frail, has long preached the value of education, calling it "the great engine of personal development" through which "the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor." The government has hardly closed the yawning gaps in educational opportunities for most black and white pupils, and overall results for whites are far higher, reflecting continuing economic disparities. But it is, without question, a new world. High marks can open doors for anyone, and success on the matric is key.

Pass matric (pronounced mah-TRICK) with high marks, and you're quite possibly off to a university education, thanks to new scholarship and loan programs that lower tuition as a barrier.

Pass at all, and you have a better chance of landing a decent blue-collar or clerical job and grabbing a higher rung on the economic ladder - a chance made possible by the legions who died or sacrificed their futures fighting apartheid.

Fail, and you had better think about trying again next year if at all possible. Because otherwise, the new South Africa - with unemployment near 40 percent nationally and close to 70 percent in Soweto - still offers its huge black majority mostly the grim old realities: menial jobs, bare-bones housing, grinding poverty.

Already Fezeka, Monde, Nkosinathi and their 208 classmates have been tested by Soweto, the sprawling township home to well over a million people. Temptations and dangers lurk everywhere on its dusty streets and in its rows of four-room matchbox houses: HIV/AIDS, pregnancy, booze, crime, disillusionment.

If the challenge for the young is to survive Soweto, the matric exams offer an opportunity to escape from it.

Fezeka grasps that only education can give her a life that her mother never knew. Monde hopes to become one of the only members of his extended family to pass. And young Nathi feels the heavy pressure to excel, just as his older brother and sister did.

In a few minutes, when they leave the rally and put pen to paper, their futures will begin to take shape.

Shifting family

At 13, Fezeka Kalipa stared at a gaunt stranger with vacant eyes and hollow cheeks who lay dying in a hospital bed. It was her mother. Her biological mother, anyway. It was 2001, and the woman was succumbing to AIDS at the age of 28, cut down by a disease rippling across South Africa.

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