For South Africa's students, college means promise – if they can get there

College access has grown dramatically since the end of apartheid, particularly for black students. But so has awareness of the challenges they face trying to graduate. And for many, like star student Naledi and her family, that struggle starts before they step on campus.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Naledi Thimbela sits with her half sister Pomotso at her grandmother's home in Jan Kempdorp, South Africa. Naledi graduated with honors from high school and hopes to go to college.

Two hundred and eight dollars.

Naledi Thimbela turned that number over in her head again and again. That was the amount she needed to pay her high school, she says, before they’d give her a copy of her transcript. Before she could send in the college application that might get her out of this weathered little town. Before maybe, just maybe, she could become the first person in her family to get a college degree.

Two hundred and eight dollars. That’s what it would take.

The number hovered over her, and over her mother too. When Naledi was born, Olga Thimbela had decided, resolutely, what her daughter’s life wasn’t going to be.

She isn’t going to clean white people’s toilets, she thought. Not like me.

She won’t raise her kids in a shack. Not like me.

No one is going to make her feel like she’s nothing.

Not like me.

All of those thoughts hardened into one resolution. Naledi – whose name means star – would study hard. She’d get an education. She’d make it out.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Olga Thimbela stands in the yard of her home with two of her biological children, Amanda (center) and Bokamoso (right), in a township called Tshepisong. Olga adopted six AIDS orphans after two members of her family died. She struggles to feed and care for them as well as her five biological children.

And she had, or very nearly. The mantelpiece in the living room of the small house she shared with her grandmother was crammed with her academic trophies. First place this. Second place that. Certificate of merit. Certificate of achievement. In January, she received the final results from her high school exit exams. She’d finished second in her class.

“When I used to go to her school and ask if she was okay, the teachers would just laugh and shoo me away,” says Olga, whose family has, for the last decade, been part of an occasional Monitor series about the toll of AIDS on South African families.

“They’d tell me, ‘She’s too clever, your kid. She’s doing fine.’”

But now there was the question of this money, this $208. No one in the family had it. No one knew where they could get it. And the days to apply to the University of the Free State were quietly ticking away.

Two hundred and eight.

It was all Naledi and Olga could think about.

From a distance, it seems like higher education should be the engine of social transformation in post-apartheid South Africa. Stepping onto the campuses of elite schools in Johannesburg, Cape Town, or Durban, indeed, feels like stepping into one of Nelson Mandela’s dreamscapes, their quads and lecture halls packed with a kind of well-proportioned diversity that most American universities can only conjure up in glossy admissions brochures.

In fact, since the 1990s, access to these schools has democratized radically. There are now twice as many students enrolled in institutions of higher education as there were in 1994, and the vast majority of them are black. South Africa’s black population is more educated – by percentage and by absolute numbers – than at any other time in the country’s history.

But those gains obscure another trend. Only about half of all the students who begin a degree at a South African university or technical college each year will ultimately finish. And white students are almost 50 percent more likely to complete their studies than black students, many of whom are hobbled by their years in South Africa’s massively under-serviced public school system.

Meanwhile, many, like Naledi, don’t get a chance to rise or fall on academic merit. They falter for an even more basic reason: they cannot pay. The cost of attending college has roughly doubled in the last decade, and in a country where the average income for a black family is about $7,700, university tuition at many top public schools can run half that or more – never mind living expenses. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Olga hugs her daughter Naledi at her paternal grandmother Pule Mathe's home in Jan Kempdorp. Naledi went to live with her grandmother to finish high school.

In 2015, the rapidly rising cost of higher ed set off a massive wave of student protests across the country, which became known by its hashtag: #FeesMustFall. Though their initial aim was narrow – to stop an annual tuition hike – the movement quickly spiraled into a broader outpouring of grief and rage over the state of South African higher education, two decades after the end of apartheid.

For many students, the heart of the problem was the dysfunctional state of the country’s public financial aid scheme, which was meant to make college affordable to poor students. But payments, many complained, came late or never at all.

“It’s not uncommon for these scholarships to not be paid until two or three months into the school year, after you’ve already had to deal with costs like registration, housing, books, food,” says Zoheb Khan, a researcher at the University of Johannesburg who studies youth access to employment and education in South Africa. “If you can’t pay those, you’re likely to drop out.”

The protests shoved the inequalities inside the country’s universities into the public eye, and onto the political agenda. In December 2017, then-president Jacob Zuma announced that he planned to make college tuition free for anyone whose family earned under about $30,000 a year – the vast majority of students. (The government of Mr. Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, has been tight-lipped about whether they still plan to take that policy forward.)

For many young South Africans, however, the financial barriers to attending college begin long before they ever receive their first tuition bill.  

For Naledi and Olga, there had never been much money to go around, not since the two of them moved from Jan Kempdorp – a sleepy town in South Africa’s rural Northern Cape – to Johannesburg when Naledi was just a baby. But Olga scraped by working as a maid, and soon met and married a doting security guard, Pontsho. For a while, the family was just about making it.

Then came May 26, 2005. The day Olga’s sister Nono died of AIDS. The next morning, Olga caught a bus from Johannesburg to Jan Kempdorp for the funeral. When she returned a few days later, she had her sister’s four children in tow.

A year later, Olga’s aunt also died of AIDS, and Olga took in her two children too.

“I took those kids to be one family, to know that together we’re going to fight this,” she told the Monitor at the time.

Inside their drafty tin shack in a settlement of drafty tin shacks, Olga made Pontsho a frank offer.

This is my family, she told him. If you don’t want to stay, you’re free to go.

Don’t say that, he said. I will love these kids like I love you and yours.

But that wasn’t an easy promise to keep. Not when there were eight children needing to be fed every day. Eight sets of clothes to wash. And an endless parade of requests for help with homework that Olga – who had never gone to school herself – couldn’t provide.

Money came from Olga’s jobs cleaning the houses and offices of rich people and Pontsho’s jobs guarding them overnight, plus the small grants the government doled out for the foster kids. But it always seemed to run out before the month did. Relatives, meanwhile, wouldn’t stop asking for their share. We see how much you get from the government, they’d tell her.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Olga and her then-husband, Pontsho Monamodi, pose for a photo in their shack with some of their adopted and biological children in 2007.

Eventually, Pontsho gave up and moved out, and Olga carried on.

So did Naledi.

“She was always bringing home these medals and certificates [from school],” Olga says. “From the start, she was so good.”

But Olga worried. What if this life she had chosen raising her nieces, nephews, and cousins, what if the chaos of it, the always scraping by, was dragging her eldest daughter down?

So when Naledi began high school, Olga made a choice. She packed her up and sent her home to Jan Kempdorp to live with her paternal grandmother and finish school there.

And at first, the move was startling.

Joburg was crowded, loud, on-edge. Its suburbs were rimmed with razor wire and humming electric fences. In Jan Kempdorp, on the other hand, houses had the kind of low-slung walls that were meant to keep dogs in, not people out.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Olga, Naledi, and her grandmother and younger sister walk to church in the black township of Valspan.

You didn’t really have to keep anyone out, after all, in a place where everyone already knew where they belonged.

And in Jan Kempdorp, the border was hard to miss. A set of railroad tracks sliced the town neatly in two. On one side was the old white town, with its neat suburban yards and stout brick Dutch Reformed church, where the streets were still named for an assortment of white conquerors and apartheid leaders. And on the other side, the black township of Valspan where Naledi and her granny lived, jumbled and thrumming.

Since the end of apartheid in the 1990s, a few black people had moved across the tracks, but most had stayed put. And on the vast commercial farms of pecans, corn, and cotton that ringed the town, the order of things was the same as it had always been.

During harvest season, sunburned white farmers in khaki shorts and long socks drove empty pickup trucks into the township. Whoever wanted a job for the day jumped on.

On her school holidays, Naledi was among them, just like her mother had been. She’d work for eight or nine hours straight, just as her mother had. The farmers paid $11 a day.

So when she went back to school, she knew exactly what the stakes were.

“Without education, you are nothing in South Africa,” she says.

And so she decorated the bright pink bedroom of her grandmother’s house with tiny notes of affirmation. “In life I’ve heard that it’s either you’re here with a solution or you’re part of the problem,” she had written on one in neat bubbled script. “We need to aim to be successful.”

But the odds of success were never in Naledi’s favor. In the Northern Cape province, more than half of students drop out before the 12th grade. Another quarter of those who do make it to their final year flunk their exit exams. Of those who do pass, only 21 percent have high-enough scores to qualify for admission to universities.

This year, Naledi was one of them.

But her elation, and her mother’s, quickly faded.

During her final year of high school, before she had her final results, Naledi had applied to study agricultural science at a nearby research university, but was told the program was already full. (Nationally, that’s a common occurrence – South Africa’s public universities have space for less than half the qualified students who apply each year.) So she planned to try again after her exit exam results came back, figuring her high marks might give her a better shot for the following year.

There was just one hitch. Over the past few years, Naledi had racked up a series of small debts at her high school. By the time she finished, she owed them 2550 Rand.

Two hundred and eight dollars.

And if she didn’t pay it back, she says, the school wouldn’t release her final transcript.

No transcript, no university application.

Back in Johannesburg, Olga fretted. Every month, she earned about $150, of which she spent about $60 on transport to and from work. And she still had several children at home. Paying anyone $208 was out of the question – as it was for Naledi’s granny and dad, too.

Naledi wasn’t one to wait around. So she made plans to go back to Johannesburg. Maybe, she reasoned, it would be easier to find a job or classes to take there while she figured out the money for her transcript. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Naledi hugs a hymnal as the congregation sings during a Sunday service at Twelve Apostles church. Olga, who never went to school and can't read or write, is proud of her daughter Naledi's accomplishments in school.

A few weeks before she left, her mother came to Jan Kempdorp for a weekend visit with Naledi’s two baby sisters, and she and her granny took them to their church, a stately tin shack set in an empty lot at the border of Valspan near the railroad tracks.

Beams of white sunlight slid through the lace curtains and spilled across the grooved roof as the three women squeezed their way into the front row. Outside, groups of men ambled by clutching half-filled bottles of beer. Gospel music blasted from the speakers of a nearby car.

Clutching a leather Bible with its spine worn off, Naledi dropped her head.

“Now,” the pastor began, “it is time for us to pray.”

Editor's note: The Monitor has reported on Olga and her family for more than a decade. During that time, staff members have donated clothing directly to her family.

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