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South African Students Persevere by 'Testing Hope'


South Africa officially ended Apartheid in 1993, but the country is still feeling the effects of that oppression. Poverty remains high especially in formerly all-black townships. Many young people see education as a way to change their situation.

Unidentified Woman: It's hard work. It's the (unintelligible) of school is the ticket to life, to a really good life.


NEARY: In order to graduate, all South African students must pass a set of exams called Matric. The test opens doors to a good college and a profession or trade.

In the documentary "Testing Hope: Grade 12 in the New South Africa," Director Molly Blank chronicles the lives of four students as they become consumed with passing Matric.

We'll speak with one of the students in a moment.

But first, we're joined by Director Molly Blank here in our Washington studio. Welcome, Molly.

Ms. MOLLY BLANK (Director, "Testing Hope: Grade 12 in the New South Africa"): Thanks. It's nice to be here.


NEARY: Maybe you could explain for us first what made you think this is a good thing to focus on in order to give a glimpse into the new South Africa?

Ms. BLANK: I came to South Africa to make a film about education and found this high school, Oscar Mpetha High School, through word of mouth. And I went to visit the school and I got to know the kids actually because their teacher needed a substitute. I said, sure, I'll teach the kids. It'll be a way to get to know them. And I realized how Matric really captures the energy of the country. If you pass, your results are listed in the newspaper. The ministry of education speaks nationally on TV, announcing the scores. It really, for these students, means something about the rest of their lives.

NEARY: Molly, you profiled four students, as we mentioned, and one of those students is a young man named Mongamo Tyhala. Let's hear a clip of tape from him from the film.

Mr. MONGAMO TYHALAISIS (Student, Oscar Mpetha High School): This is (unintelligible) decide what you are going to be in the next 10 years. It all depends on this year.

NEARY: Mongamo Tyhala. And he is joining us now on the line from Cape Town, South Africa. So good to have you with us, Mongamo.

Mr. TYHALAISIS: Same here.

NEARY: I know throughout the film, you spoke about how important this is, not only to you, but to your family. You have a tremendous sense of responsibility. What does it mean to your family that you do well on this exam?

Mr. TYHALAIS: If I do well then maybe I'll go to school and get a good career so that my brother won't grow up the same way I did. In the township you are faced with a lot of obstacles like if you are a Matriclant in grade 12, you are not only facing the actual exams, but you are facing gangsterism. You have to keep yourself safe, as well as there is poverty, hunger. And if you go to school and you are hungry in the stomach, you won't be able to concentrate.

NEARY: Mongamo, what did you have to do in terms of preparing for this? How did you get yourself ready for it?

Mr. TYHALAIS: I had to study every day. And I had to go back and try to get information from other people because there was limited information we got from our teachers.

NEARY: How did you do on the exam, Mongamo?

Mr. TYHALAIS: I did well, not well enough.

NEARY: You passed, which meant that you were able to graduate, but you weren't able to go on to college. Is that what happened?


NEARY: So you plan to take this test again?

Mr. TYHALAIS: Yeah, I'm planning to take the test again during October and November.

NEARY: What do you think your school should be offering you? How should your school change in order to give students everything they need to prepare for this test, which is so important to all the young people in South Africa?

Mr. TYHALAIS: I think the teachers need to be more responsible and help a lot as well as the principal. He needs to find some sort of programs that are going to help us after school.

NEARY: Let me ask you, Molly, what would you say are some of the really big obstacles that these students are facing in post-Apartheid South Africa?

Ms. BLANK: At school - it's obviously an under-resourced school. There were times when students had to share chairs even. From what I see, not all of their teachers give them 100 percent. I don't want to criticize the teachers. Mongamo can say this better than I can.

NEARY: Mongamo, would you like to comment on the teachers?

Mr. TYHALAIS: I don't know whether to say they are qualified or not because if you place all the teachers in the same exams as the Matriculant's right, I promise you only like 25 percent are going to pass.

NEARY: You know, there was one really telling image in your film, Molly, I think, and that was a scene where you showed a predominantly white school, unbelievably beautiful swimming pools, tennis courts, beautiful campus - the contrast was just stunning.

Ms. BLANK: It's a public school known as the former Model C school built during Apartheid for white students. So several of those public schools are stunning, more stunning than American private schools - some of them. Several of these schools, including the one in the film, do offer scholarships to students in the townships to come, but the majority of black students still learn in these struggling schools.

NEARY: After making this film, after spending time in South Africa, what is your sense of what can be done at this point for South Africa to close this immense gap?

Ms. BLANK: If I were to choose one thing, I think it would be training principals and teachers. People responded well to the movie. Teachers were talking about strengthening relationships with students and trying to move forward. There are a lot of very energized people who want to work on these issues.

NEARY: Well, Mongamo, I want to wish you luck on your exams in October. I hope you do really well. I hope you go on to a great college or university.

Mr. TYHALAIS: Thanks a lot.

NEARY: Mongamo Tyhalais joined us on the line from Cape Town, South Africa. And Molly Blank is the director of the documentary "Testing Hope: Grade 12 in the New South Africa." It was good talking to you, Molly.

Ms. BLANK: Thanks. It's great talking to you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.