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Serving South Africa's population since 1994
22 September 2014

Learning the hard way in Transkei

Ngwenya Senior Secondary School in Transkei sits on a hill with views across a landscape of green hills speckled with cattle and the white dots of rondavels to the kraals on the distant slopes. Not far away is Qunu, the village where Nelson Mandela grew up, and which he describes in his autobiography as a land of fertile valleys and a thousand streams.

The school has 350 pupils mostly aged between 15 and 16, though some older learners are in their mid-twenties. The local community grew tired of waiting for the new school promised by the provincial leaders, and built it themselves; the work was mainly carried out by pensioners and youngsters, as most of the adults in the community have gone to Johannesburg and Durban in search of work.

There are eight classrooms. Four of them are on the east wing, along with a staff room, and have electricity; the other four, on the west wing, are without electricity and are poorly finished. The school has no running water. The building is constructed largely of breeze blocks with corrugated aluminium roofs and the rooms are without ceilings or plastered walls. There is no glass in the windows and half the classrooms are without doors.

Hard conditions for learners

On winter days the wind blows from the Drakensburg and funnels and whistles through every crack and space in the leaky old building. On days like these the students wrap themselves in blankets and huddle in the corners of classrooms to flee the biting cold. On summer days the sun beats relentlessly on the aluminium roofs draining learners and teachers alike of strength and energy. A thick film of dust coats everything. Goats and pigs wander in and out of classrooms scavenging for scraps. The toilets are dry latrines, three smelly corrugated iron cubicles perched on the veld, which stretches for miles around the school.

The students are poor. Most of them come from households headed by grandparents many of whom cannot read or write. Despite the fact that many of them don't know if they will be going home to a meal that night, they are all dressed smartly in school uniform. Fees are 150 rand (15) a year, a lot of money for families with virtually no cash income. Classes for subjects such as English are as large as 70, and teachers have few resources. Computers, videos and DVDs are unknown here.

Building success in the community

Yet despite all these disadvantages Ngwenya SSS is moving forward. An energetic Principal, Mr Ndalala, supported by an active and committed community, is turning the school round. In the last three years the school matriculation (high school diploma) pass rate has risen from 25% to 54%. The English pass rate is 76%. The school also has an award winning choir and a successful football team.

When I asked Mr Ngwenya for the reasons behind this success he highlighted the quality of his teachers and an investment in new textbooks. Despite the poor state of the building and the dreadful physical environment in which students work, each of them is supplied with a textbook for each course. But most of all he cited the importance of doing things for themselves. "That is why we built the school", he said. "We were not prepared to sit around and wait until the authorities were ready. We did it ourselves."

The legacy of apartheid

But Mr Ndalala is still not happy. "Most of the former white schools are getting close to 100% pass rate" he said. "That is our objective". The reason for black people failing is not to do with poor resources and dilapidated buildings. The real legacy of apartheid, according to Mr Ndalala, is the attitude to learning; the belief that education is only a path to low status jobs. "That is what we have to overcome" he said, "a lack of drive and an unwillingness to transcend poor environment and poverty."

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