At Future's Edge

Two students celebrate end of exams as another deals with a mistake that could ruin her plans

April 09, 2007|By Article and photos by Scott Calvert | Article and photos by Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

SOWETO, South Africa — SOWETO, South Africa-- --Wow," he blurts out. "Man."

Monde Dweku's eyes widen along with his smile. His eyebrows dance up and down. At last, his girlfriend, Irene, is stepping from her house and into the warm late November evening.

She has kept him waiting a good couple of hours, though it felt much longer. "Are you getting there?" he had asked her on the phone earlier, the Xtreme cologne already wafting from his skin.

"I'm getting dressed, I'm getting dressed, I'm getting dressed," was all she would say.

"These girls," he had muttered after hanging up.

The wait has been worth it. Finally, Monde is headed to the Fons Luminis Secondary School matric dance. His matric dance. The event combines the party feel of a prom with the solemnity of a graduation ceremony.

Monde and Irene are the snazziest couple. She wears a floor-length white gown borrowed from a friend. He is resplendent in white shoes, white pants and a white suit jacket, with a white tie setting off a striped red, pink and white button-down shirt.

Others have come more modestly attired. Nkosinathi Kubheka, for example, has on a smart pair of jeans, a button-down shirt and a sleeveless V-neck sweater. When he walks into the room, he looks in vain for one classmate he expects to see: Fezeka Kalipa. The 18-year-old never bothered getting a dress. She has been too preoccupied with her unexpected, unwanted pregnancy.

It will be four weeks until they and their fellow 12th-graders learn whether they have passed the all-important school-leaving tests called matric exams. The tests ended three weeks ago, but the Department of Education will not release results until Dec. 28, the end of the South African school year.

This year's graduating class is known as Madiba's children - after the clan name of Nelson Mandela - because they were the first group to enter elementary school after his election as South Africa's president in 1994.

Those who pass will be able to look forward to college or enhanced job prospects and a dose of respectability in the new South Africa, where blacks can now enjoy vastly expanded opportunities if they work hard and have a little luck.

Members of the Class of 2006 who fail will be advised to retake the exams, because without a matric certificate, the next stop may well be the dismayingly long unemployment line.

Tonight, no one has yet failed; dreams are still alive and well. Everyone can enter the streamer-filled hall and strut down the red carpet with heads held high.

Monde once thought he would never get this chance. After failing the 11th grade, he nearly dropped out. He was already 21 then, the result of failing two previous grades and having been kept from school by relatives when he was 8 and 9. His parents coaxed him back to the classroom, and he badly wants to pass matric, as much for pride as anything.

But tonight, he wants to bask in being in high school one last time.

Too bad the teachers and administrators dampen the party before it even begins. For reasons no one can figure out, many of the 12th-graders and their dates arrive three hours late. The frowning educators, huddled around a table in the corner, decide to turn the infraction into one last teachable moment.

When a deputy principal announces that "The General" is about to address the gathering, the audience responds with knowing laughter and a loud cheer as Principal Lempe Motumi walks to the riser. He is not smiling, though, as he takes the microphone.

"When you came to our school five or so years ago," he tells the crowd of 100, "you were not the person you are today. In some instances we have failed to make you the person we want you to be, and we regret that. In other cases, we are very proud. It gives us great joy and happiness to know we have prepared you, that you are ready for life after school."

His real concern is what they will now make of themselves, and of this changing country, and tonight's performance has not exactly inspired confidence. He refers to the two poles of life - birth and death - and beseeches everyone to make the most of the time in between them.

"What," he challenges, almost glaring, "is going to be your contribution to society?"

`Way, way beyond'

Lempe Motumi made one when he was their age, 30 long years ago. He followed throngs of students spilling out of Naledi High School in western Soweto for what seemed at first to be a spontaneous mass cutting of class.

The date was June 16, 1976. Today, it's a national holiday in South Africa: Youth Day.

That day, 20,000 Soweto schoolchildren flooded the streets to protest a requirement that certain subjects be taught in Afrikaans, the language that evolved from Dutch as the native tongue of the white Afrikaners who began arriving in the mid-1600s. Not only did many blacks have trouble speaking Afrikaans, but it was the language of their oppressors. They preferred English.

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