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 far-reaching 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 University
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