African boys, 2 worlds, 1 set of tests for their future

2 S.

April 29, 2007|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,Sun Foreign Reporter.

Johannesburg, South Africa -- I first met Joshua Masekwameng early last year outside his family's two-room shack. It was a cramped space where he did homework by candlelight because the Diepsloot shantytown had no electricity.

A few weeks later, on another story, I met Carl von Bratt. The setting couldn't have been more different: Afrikaans Boys High School in Pretoria, with its brick arches and air of prep-school privilege.

Joshua and Carl were both 12th- graders at the start of the academic year, which tracks the calendar. They inhabited vastly dissimilar worlds in South Africa, but in late December both learned how they fared on the all-important matriculation - "matric" - exams that were likely to play a pivotal role in setting the course of their lives.

Here is what happened to Joshua and Carl.

Carl had all the advantages. Despite the end of apartheid, the white minority still has tremendous wealth, and Carl's family is of that world. His father is a business adviser who can easily foot the $1,500 tuition at Affies, a state-aided school mostly funded by private fees.

The school has small classes, top-notch teachers, 60-plus Internet-equipped computers, a strong athletic program. In a typical year, every boy - 98 percent of them white - will pass the exams, most well enough to qualify for university.

Carl did not disappoint. He took nine subject exams, three more than most South African 12th-graders, and scored distinctions on seven. He easily got into the University of Pretoria, where he's pursuing an undergraduate law degree. His parents will cover the $6,000 in tuition, room and board.

Joshua mostly had disadvantages. His father was long dead; his mother worked as a cleaning lady but was about to lose her job because of illness. He and five relatives shared the shack. His school had dedicated teachers who invited students to come early and stay late but had outdated textbooks and few computers.

After an article of mine quoting Joshua was published, a few Sun readers offered to help. Whenever I asked him what he needed, he always gave the same reply: study guides for the looming matric exams.

On Dec. 28, I checked the local papers that list the names of those who passed. Sadly, I didn't see Joshua's name. Even with a matric certificate, finding work or pursuing higher education can be difficult; without it, one's prospects are bleak in a country with 40 percent unemployment.

Then one night my phone rang. It was Joshua calling to say he had passed. The reason I didn't see his name was that he had changed the spelling of his last name from Masekoameng. All but four of his 75 classmates, it turned out, passed matric - amazing considering most of them also lived in shacks.

Unlike Carl, Joshua did not do well enough to qualify for university. (Only two of his classmates did.) But passing meant he could study hotel management at the Rosebank College trade school. He was so proud of himself, bubbling about someday running an inn.

Tuition would be a problem, though. Despite an abundance of scholarship and loan programs, poor South Africans struggle to pay for higher education. His two-year program costs $2,300 or $2,500 a year, depending on how quickly one pays the bill.

A Sun reader offered to pay $50 a month. Then his uncle, Johannes Malahlela, a mining company clerk, said he would save all he could from his meager salary and take a loan if need be. "I believe in education," he told me. "I felt pity for him and thought, that boy is doomed."

Joshua is now two months into classes - front-office procedure, office computing and such - and loves it. He lives with Malahlela, which means no more studying by candlelight. I asked Joshua about his dreams. "I just want to get a job so I can help my mom," he said. "I just want to uplift her status."

scott.calvert@baltsun.com

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