- Testing Hope: Grade 12 in the New South Africa
This heart-wrenching documentary chronicles the journey of four black students through grade 12 and South Africa’s high-stakes examination, the Matric. Poverty, race, and gender intersect in this interrogation of South Africa’s reformed post-apartheid education system. The two female and two male students live in the impoverished, gang-ridden township of Nyanga in the Western Cape and attend Oscar Mpetha Secondary School, a poorly resourced government school. Here, poverty takes the form of student hunger, housing without water or electricity, garbage-strewn streets, classrooms with broken windows, insufficient desks, and limited learning materials. Like the majority of South Africa’s schools, even after post-apartheid reforms were implemented, Oscar Mpetha serves an all-black population. Racial and economic diversity of the student body is more apparent in the higher fee–charging former white government schools, known as Model C schools, but not in township schools. While gender is not a major focus, the film provides glimpses into how gender relations impinge on students’ lives at home, in the community, and at school.
Babalwa, Noluyanda, Mongamo, and Sipho, the four students profiled in the film, are members of the first student cohort to start school in the new democracy and to reach the final year of secondary education. Since they started in 1994, a dizzying array of national policy reforms have attempted to meet the often contradictory goals of achieving racial and economic redress, democratization through decentralized school governance and financing, and the maintenance of quality standards through a meritocratic senior-certificate [End Page 190] examination for all South Africans, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status. From 1996 onward, students were no longer assessed by the apartheid-era ethnic departments of education; instead, every grade 12 student now takes a series of nationally set Matric examinations based on the subjects they study. The film captures the unquestioned public acceptance of and faith in the Matric’s role in determining access to higher education, jobs, and future success. A simple pass gives the student a school-leaving certificate, the equivalent of a high school diploma, while a high score can help a student gain university entrance, although this is far from guaranteed. Only 15 percent of South Africa’s tertiary-age cohort enrolls in higher education, and, while this is significantly higher than the African continent’s average of 6 percent, it is far lower than the demand for colleges and universities. In the school assemblies depicted in the film, teachers propound that success is a matter of religious faith and students’ confidence in themselves. Only one teacher is willing to admit that even if students pass the examinations, their opportunities will remain limited.
As the school year progresses, each student expresses how critical the Matric is for them and their families. Their anxiety to perform well is palpable. Babalwa is a confident 18-year-old female who hopes to become a doctor; she is ready to work hard and be independent. Her classmate Noluyanda is a self-declared feminist who wants to succeed for all girls. Mongamo, an articulate 18-year-old male, wants to be a civil engineer and improve life for his mother and younger brother. Sipho, who is the oldest at age 21, returned to school after years of drug abuse and gang involvement; while raising his three younger brothers, he dreams of leaving the township and pursuing maritime studies. Interviews with several mothers convey how important the Matric is to families’ futures and their willingness to make sacrifices in hopes of success.
The film succeeds in capturing visually the poverty of the township, but it is less successful in its structural analysis. Footage contrasting the limited resources of Oscar Mpetha with the affluence of a formerly white Model C school is particularly compelling, and it suggests that teachers’ pep talks and student-led prayers are poor preparation compared to the computer labs, library, advanced courses, and fitness facilities at the Model...