CityPress - - Voices -

While there was a nascent spirit of op­ti­mism fol­low­ing the re­lease from prison, the pre­vi­ous year, of Nel­son Man­dela, 1991 was a rel­a­tively un­re­mark­able year in the lives of the ma­jor­ity of South Africans. The Na­tional Party was still in power, apartheid in­sti­tu­tions and sys­tems were still firmly en­trenched.

South Africa was still iso­lated from the rest of the world. One sig­nif­i­cant event of that year, how­ever, was the lib­er­a­tion of the ba­sic school­ing sys­tem by the gov­ern­ment of that day. This saw white schools, so called Model C schools, open­ing their doors to black learn­ers. This inkling of in­sti­tu­tional re­form was a de­par­ture from the “sep­a­rate but equal” ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy that de­fined ed­u­ca­tional out­comes for gen­er­a­tions of black South Africans.

The year 1991 was also when I sat for my matric exam. The cul­mi­na­tion of 12 years of school­ing. School­ing con­di­tions un­der apartheid were highly politi­cised and fraught with dif­fi­cul­ties, as ev­i­denced by our his­tory.

My high school years in the 1980s were largely shaped by the “state of emer­gency”, where the state ex­er­cised strong-arm tac­tics to op­press dis­senters. This re­sulted in school­ing years that were largely de­fined by reg­u­lar school stay­aways, en­demic school boy­cotts, stu­dent marches, ab­sent teach­ers, poor qual­ity of teach­ing, in­ad­e­quate school in­fras­truc­ture and an in­equitable ed­u­ca­tional pol­icy whose sole aims were to in­tel­lec­tu­ally de­prive the black child.

I there­fore wrote matric sur­rounded by a lot of noise. The en­vi­ron­ment and gen­eral prospect were dis­mal and pes­simistic. This was the time when the matric pass rate in black schools was de­press­ing. While role mod­els were there in the shape of com­mit­ted and pas­sion­ate teach­ers, the an­nual matric pass rates were gen­er­ally bleak.

There was a paucity of matric ex­cel­lence, pri­mar­ily be­cause at­ten­tion was, jus­ti­fi­ably so, di­verted to­wards ef­forts of end­ing apartheid and an in­fe­rior ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem. I sim­ply wanted to pass matric with the best of my abil­ity. I had no par­tic­u­lar ex­pec­ta­tion of at­tain­ing ex­cep­tional re­sults. I there­fore chose to put in the ef­fort and stayed op­ti­mistic de­spite the gen­eral per­cep­tion re­gard­ing the matric pass rate in black schools. Most of all, the at­tain­ment or not of this piece of pa­per could have a far­reach­ing im­pact. I was will­ing to do all I could to have a small chance to­wards a bet­ter life.

I threw my­self whole­heart­edly into prepar­ing for the ex­ams. A lot of time was spent at the com­mu­nity li­brary, to sup­ple­ment my com­pre­hen­sion of what was taught in the class­room. Along with class­mates, we de­manded ex­tra classes from our teach­ers to en­hance our prepa­ra­tion. We shared study guides and pored over pre­vi­ous years’ ques­tion pa­pers.

The re­sults of the Class of 1991 were an­nounced in Jan­uary 1992. The tide had turned. The matric re­sults were bet­ter than pre­vi­ous years and I was stunned when I was de­clared the top ma­tric­u­lant in the Western Cape. I was even more speech­less when, as a young woman from the dusty streets of Gugulethu, I was awarded a full schol­ar­ship at an Ivy League US univer­sity, Smith Col­lege, to­wards un­der­grad­u­ate study.

As I boarded the plane in Au­gust 1992 to em­bark on my stud­ies in the US, I re­flected on how a matric learner from Isil­imela Com­pre­hen­sive School in Langa, Cape Town, ended up on this jour­ney.

I came to the con­clu­sion that for each of us, our future is in­deed in our hands.

To­day the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem in South Africa is much trans­formed from what it was. All sorts of in­ter­ven­tions, led by the min­istry of ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion, are im­ple­mented and planned to­wards an eq­ui­table and ac­ces­si­ble ed­u­ca­tion aimed at bet­ter life out­comes for young peo­ple.

There­fore, as a young per­son in South Africa to­day, you have a choice. You de­cide what you do with the op­por­tu­ni­ties pre­sented to you. Stay in school. Fin­ish Grade 12. Give your­self a chance to suc­ceed. Give your­self a shot at some­thing bet­ter out there.

All it takes is an in­ner will. With­out this in­ward re­solve and de­ter­mi­na­tion, suc­cess at any­thing is nearly im­pos­si­ble. Mbava is a PhD re­searcher at Stel­len­bosch


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