It was an early morning in the third week of July. The gates were unlocked to allow the students on the grounds. As the yard started to fill, the school became alive with energy. Youthful voices laughed and students embraced one another; this was the first day back after the three-week break between terms, and some had missed their friends.
At 7:45 a.m., the bell sounded and the learners, the South African term for students, dispersed into classrooms, metal doors slamming behind. Some latecomers tried unsuccessfully to slide through the front gate unnoticed. Today these students will be helping the maintenance staff as their punishment for being late to school by helping with garbage detail. Slight moans arose and were then silenced by the sounds of tree branches and leaves being dragged. As these tasks gradually ended, the learners tried to gain late entry to their classes.
This is Nghunghunyani Secondary School in Soweto. The walls need painting, windows are broken, classrooms are cold, and doorknobs are falling off; in some cases, classroom doors only have knobs on the inside, which can be potentially unsafe. A palm tree in the courtyard is one of the few beautifying elements on the school grounds. And yet the moods of the people here, the learners and educators, which is the term in South Africa for teachers, seemed unaffected by these rough conditions.
In the South African school system, primary schools educate learners from grades one through seven and secondary schools grades eight through 12. Nghunghunyani Secondary School is home to 714 learners and 28 educators. There are also eight assistant educators, setting the total ratio of students to educators at around 20:1.
The school’s departments have adjusted some over the years. Currently there are five departments: asocial science, business and management, science, technology and language. Curricula for each are determined by the South African government.
Unlike most American schools, Nghunghunyani runs without a summer vacation. It has four terms throughout the year, each with a one- to three-week break between terms. The school year officially ends in mid-December when learners find out if they’ll be moving on to the next grade.
Extracurricular activities at the school are minimal. “We have football [soccer] and netball [a game similar to basketball] at the moment. We don’t have other sporting codes because of the facilities,” said Oliver Shivanda, the principal at Nghunghunyani Secondary. In addition, learners have the Christian Movement Club and have formed a choir. “They practice and sing after school. They collaborate with learners from other schools and go and sing in other areas too.”
Learners at Nghunghunyani are primarily drawn from about a three-mile radius around the school. “Most are living alone, living with their grannies or are from the shacks,” said Xolisa Ntlokwana, a grade 10-12 life orientation educator. About 40 percent are drawn from Kliptown, a nearby squatter camp with no electricity or running water. “What happens is some of these people move from the country towns and come to Joburg. They have no place to stay, no job, and they establish themselves a shack in those areas….they send [their kids] over to school here,” Shivanda said.
Despite potentially long distances, about 80 percent of learners walk to school every day, leaving approximately 20 percent taking taxis. Those in the squatter camps have the farthest trek to school. “Some have to walk pretty far because their parents can’t afford taxis,” Shivanda said.
After graduating from Nghunghunyani Secondary the learners will enter university, a technical college, the workforce or the unemployment line.
An Interesting History
Opened in 1971, Nghunghunyani Secondary was named after the last emperor of the Empire of Gaza, Mdungazwe Ngungunyane Nxumalo. For five years the school continued to consistently and successfully grow until the explosion of the 1976 education uprisings by Sowetan youth.
Two prominent student activists, Ishmael Mkhabela and Lybon Mabasa, attended Nghunghunyani. “It was a meeting point of students with the riots…this school was very active in [the 1976 uprisings],” said Shivanda. So the government closed the school in 1977. It reopened two years later and the entire academic structure needed to be recreated from scratch.
Then in 1988, another period of violence and turmoil in Soweto, a group of vigilantes started terrorizing a nearby squatter camp. “Winnie Mandela mobilized the people here and provided them with arms so they could fight back,” Shivanda said. Mandela held meetings at Nghunghunyani. “When people were killed due to these uprisings…they would organize the burial and funeral arrangements, the praying and grieving in the yard,” Shivanda added.
Again in 1988, a group of police approached the school and started shooting. “[The learners] had to hide under the desks. They shot and shot for about two hours,” Shivanda said. Five learners were injured and one died. The school never received reasoning for why this tragedy occurred.
Principal Shivanda has a theory. “During that time, [the government] didn’t like to see people moving in a group. If you moved in a group, it means you are mobilizing to do violence…I suspect a group wandered toward the school and the police just started shooting.”
Current Problems at Nghunghunyani
In 2010, 62 percent of grade 12 learners at Nghunghunyani passed while 38 percent failed and grade 11 had about a 45 percent pass rate with 55 percent failing. “There is a lack of motivation on the sides of the parents because most of their parents are not involved in [the learner’s] education. Some are too old to be involved because they stay with their [grandparents],” Shivanda said.
Lack of resources is also a large hindrance for the school. “As you can see, we have no facilities,” he said. On an average day at Nghunghunyani the students pray together before going to class. “During rainy days we can’t do that because we don’t have a hall. When it’s cold like this, we can’t do that because we don’t have a hall. When we call parents to a meeting, it’s just an open-air meeting. We’re not sure when the government is going to come up and assist us.”
Veronica Dolamo has been teaching grade nine natural science and grade 12 mathematical literacy at Nghunghunyani for 25 years. In her first days, the school had a full-time librarian. “I think it encouraged the learners to read or to look up background information. They would do their own research. But the new government no longer pays librarians, they must also teach. So this has killed the library. The library is not working; it’s more like a storeroom,” she said.
Although Principal Shivanda said there is no crime between learners at the school, they have experienced theft in the past. “We need fences because there are a lot of burglars. The minute we try to buy computers for the learners, they’re stolen. If we could have a good security system it would be fine,” said Jacob Mafela, an administrative assistant.
At times, teachers themselves have become problems after being influenced by the South African Democratic Teachers Union to dedicate less time to the school. “For educators to achieve good results, you need to go the extra mile, teaching these learners to [do so.] Sometimes as a means of protest, these unions refuse the educators to go the extra mile because they see the government does not pay well,” Shivanda said.
Post-apartheid South Africa uses the quintile system to determine the poverty scores of schools. The system ranges from Q1 t0 Q5, with Q1 being the most impoverished schools and Q5 the most affluent. Nghunghunyani has been categorized as a Q3.
“Because [learners] are coming from disadvantaged areas, they are not paying school fees, not a cent,” Shivanda said. The government provides Nghunghunyani with all of its funds, about 851 rand per learner, or slightly more than $120. That makes the school’s entire budget about $87,000 for one year.
“It’s not enough because from that we buy exercise books, textbooks, we must pay for services like electricity and water, maintenance…now the money falls short. That is why the school is like this,” Shivanda said. About 80 percent of total funding must go to teaching, leaving a mere 20 percent for all other expenses.
Despite the many hardships faced by Nghunghunyani, many educators have proven to be dedicated to the learners. “Our learners are kids just like any others…I create the atmosphere for them to see me as an educator, a friend, a parent, and I always encourage them, whenever they have a problem,” Ntlokwana said. It is educators like this that will keep the school running and the learners motivated.