AT FUTURE'S EDGE

The Baltimore Sun

SOWETO, South Africa-- --Wow," he blurts out. "Man."

Monde Dweku's eyes widen along with his smile. His eyebrows dance up and down. At last, his girlfriend, Irene, is stepping from her house and into the warm late November evening.

She has kept him waiting a good couple of hours, though it felt much longer. "Are you getting there?" he had asked her on the phone earlier, the Xtreme cologne already wafting from his skin.

"I'm getting dressed, I'm getting dressed, I'm getting dressed," was all she would say.

"These girls," he had muttered after hanging up.

The wait has been worth it. Finally, Monde is headed to the Fons Luminis Secondary School matric dance. His matric dance. The event combines the party feel of a prom with the solemnity of a graduation ceremony.

Monde and Irene are the snazziest couple. She wears a floor-length white gown borrowed from a friend. He is resplendent in white shoes, white pants and a white suit jacket, with a white tie setting off a striped red, pink and white button-down shirt.

Others have come more modestly attired. Nkosinathi Kubheka, for example, has on a smart pair of jeans, a button-down shirt and a sleeveless V-neck sweater. When he walks into the room, he looks in vain for one classmate he expects to see: Fezeka Kalipa. The 18-year-old never bothered getting a dress. She has been too preoccupied with her unexpected, unwanted pregnancy.

It will be four weeks until they and their fellow 12th-graders learn whether they have passed the all-important school-leaving tests called matric exams. The tests ended three weeks ago, but the Department of Education will not release results until Dec. 28, the end of the South African school year.

This year's graduating class is known as Madiba's children - after the clan name of Nelson Mandela - because they were the first group to enter elementary school after his election as South Africa's president in 1994.

Those who pass will be able to look forward to college or enhanced job prospects and a dose of respectability in the new South Africa, where blacks can now enjoy vastly expanded opportunities if they work hard and have a little luck.

Members of the Class of 2006 who fail will be advised to retake the exams, because without a matric certificate, the next stop may well be the dismayingly long unemployment line.

Tonight, no one has yet failed; dreams are still alive and well. Everyone can enter the streamer-filled hall and strut down the red carpet with heads held high.

Monde once thought he would never get this chance. After failing the 11th grade, he nearly dropped out. He was already 21 then, the result of failing two previous grades and having been kept from school by relatives when he was 8 and 9. His parents coaxed him back to the classroom, and he badly wants to pass matric, as much for pride as anything.

But tonight, he wants to bask in being in high school one last time.

Too bad the teachers and administrators dampen the party before it even begins. For reasons no one can figure out, many of the 12th-graders and their dates arrive three hours late. The frowning educators, huddled around a table in the corner, decide to turn the infraction into one last teachable moment.

When a deputy principal announces that "The General" is about to address the gathering, the audience responds with knowing laughter and a loud cheer as Principal Lempe Motumi walks to the riser. He is not smiling, though, as he takes the microphone.

"When you came to our school five or so years ago," he tells the crowd of 100, "you were not the person you are today. In some instances we have failed to make you the person we want you to be, and we regret that. In other cases, we are very proud. It gives us great joy and happiness to know we have prepared you, that you are ready for life after school."

His real concern is what they will now make of themselves, and of this changing country, and tonight's performance has not exactly inspired confidence. He refers to the two poles of life - birth and death - and beseeches everyone to make the most of the time in between them.

"What," he challenges, almost glaring, "is going to be your contribution to society?"

'Way, way beyond'

Lempe Motumi made one when he was their age, 30 long years ago. He followed throngs of students spilling out of Naledi High School in western Soweto for what seemed at first to be a spontaneous mass cutting of class.

The date was June 16, 1976. Today, it's a national holiday in South Africa: Youth Day.

That day, 20,000 Soweto schoolchildren flooded the streets to protest a requirement that certain subjects be taught in Afrikaans, the language that evolved from Dutch as the native tongue of the white Afrikaners who began arriving in the mid-1600s. Not only did many blacks have trouble speaking Afrikaans, but it was the language of their oppressors. They preferred English.

Despite faint rumblings that something big could happen, the march caught many off guard, including the police. Young Lempe felt a sense of exhilaration as he walked. He also feared the police, and for good reason.

After a standoff in Soweto's Orlando section, police opened fire and killed 12-year-old Hector Pieterson. Chaos ensued, as marchers set fire to police vehicles and police unleashed dogs on marchers. Looters rampaged through shops. Just over a week later, as calm returned to the townships, at least 176 people were dead.

The Soweto uprising captured the world's attention and infused the anti-apartheid struggle with new energy that ultimately helped end white domination by the early 1990s.

It also radicalized Lempe, until then an apolitical 12th-grader. He now wanted to do something meaningful. He longed to bolt from South Africa and join the exiled struggle movement of the African National Congress, which hoped its campaign of political pressure and violent sabotage would force the white regime to relinquish its stranglehold on power.

His father begged him not to go. You may die, he said. His father was a former gold miner who had become a trash collector and then a security guard at a construction company, living out the kind of constricted life that was the lot of millions of black men. He did not have much to offer his son, except for one thing: His employer would pay for Lempe's college if he would agree to work for the firm afterward.

Lempe stayed. A few months later, he took his matric exams, even though many teachers never returned to the classroom after the uprising to help students prepare. In what he still considers a minor miracle, he passed and then went off to the University of the North, one of the few institutions open to black South Africans. In those days, even educated blacks had few career options besides teaching, nursing, or social work.

As promised, he went to work for his father's employer in human resources. Early on, he got a painful lesson in the racial double standards that were so pervasive in the workplace then. He and a young white colleague who started at the same time compared paychecks. She did the same job but, he discovered, made four times his salary. Outraged, he confronted his boss and quit, he recalls, even though it meant having to repay his college tuition.

After selling life insurance for a time, he found work as a teacher at a high school in Soweto. But he wanted proper credentials, so he quit and found another job while studying for his teaching certificate. After earning it, he returned to the same high school, where he rose quickly to the position of vice principal.

Three years later, he saw a job listing for principal of a new public high school on Soweto's eastern fringe called Fons Luminis, "fountain of light." He applied and got the job. It was 1989, and global political and economic pressure would soon send the country down the path to a largely bloodless, negotiated transition to a black-led majority. This job, he felt, would be his real contribution.

Today, after nearly two decades as principal, Mr. Motumi laments the lack of role models in Soweto. Those who succeed, such as two graduates who work as pilots for South African Airways, usually move to suburbs filled with spacious homes hidden behind tall walls, areas that are slowly integrating.

Not that he blames them - that is exactly what he did, after all, when he moved to the suburbs and put his three children into formerly all-white schools. (The older two are now university students.)

But he frets over much more than that. He thinks today's high school students idolize wealth to an unhealthy degree, that they place less value on education than his generation did in the turbulent 1970s.

He knows that the high jobless rate that hovers around 40 percent is discouraging and that AIDS is wrecking families by claiming mothers, fathers, breadwinners. Still, today's opportunities dwarf the paths open to him in his day. Pondering the freedom his students enjoy, he muses aloud, "Jeez, I could have gone way, way, way beyond where I am at the moment."

Apartheid's legacy

"You must make a difference," Mr. Motumi commands the 12th-graders sitting there in all their matric dance finery. "If you don't, all our efforts have come to zero. "

Most in the audience look on respectfully. But these are high school students, after all, so some squirm in their chairs and a few check their cell phones for text messages.

The lectures are hardly over. Angry about the three-hour lateness, English teacher Thandi Ntsoele has literally ripped up her prepared text. When she begins to speak, she sticks to her planned theme but throws in a few pointed questions.

Since this is 2006, she notes the anniversaries they might be celebrating in anti-apartheid history: the 1956 women's march in Pretoria, the 1976 student uprising in Soweto, the 1986 township unrest that led to yet more police repression and states of emergency.

"How many of you have lived up to your responsibilities?" she asks rhetorically and then supplies the answer. "Only a handful."

She wonders if they really understand what apartheid was all about. "Have you ever stopped to ask yourself what happened, what people went through, how many people suffered? Do you ever sit down and say, 'Thank God I'm able to enjoy the same benefits as a white person?' "

She has a point about apartheid. The systematic discrimination of blacks had formally ended only a dozen years earlier. Yet for most 12th-graders, apartheid is a historical phenomenon. They never experienced its humiliating, dehumanizing laws, never had to produce a pass book to police as proof that they were allowed to be wherever they were, never felt the panic when a relative vanished. Most have no idea that their principal took part in the 1976 uprising.

Thanks to a field trip to the Apartheid Museum, they know the policy of apartheid ("separateness," in Afrikaans) legally began in 1948, and that the government soon implemented a program of inferior schooling for blacks. They know apartheid's end accelerated after Mandela's release from prison in 1990, after years of international pressure on the government.

Monde has heard that Afrikaners, the white descendants of Dutch settlers, still do not want to share the nation's wealth with blacks. Living in Soweto means seeing few white faces other than those staring out from tour bus windows, so he could not know firsthand. But he has heard that some white South Africans are resentful of blacks who drive BMWs. Still, like his peers, he feels completely free in the new South Africa, limited only by himself.

Nkosinathi, born just three months after Mandela's release from prison, used to mindlessly chant "ANC! ANC!" as a toddler, his family tells him. Ask him now about apartheid, and he makes vague statements, as if dimly recalling a mimeographed fact sheet from history class. "Many people died and stuff," he says.

Their absent classmate, Fezeka, has a somewhat fuzzy grasp of apartheid's aftermath as well. She had never heard of Black Economic Empowerment, a huge affirmative action program meant to give blacks like her a leg up in the workplace.

She is not at the dance to hear Ms. Ntsoele's scolding, but she has said she does appreciate the struggle's heroes. She recognizes that those who risked, and sometimes sacrificed, their lives were fighting for her freedom and right to a better education.

The speeches end after another teacher likens the class of 2006 to Caesar at the Rubicon and reads a passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which draws a few groans from the restless 12th-graders.

Next comes a toast of sparkling cider, followed by the thump-thump from the speakers as the disc jockey cranks up the American hip-hop and kwaito, the melodic rap-like musical style that was born in the townships.

As people hug or edge to the dance floor after the speeches, Nkosinathi walks up to Monde. They embrace. Nathi, as friends and family call him, is considered one of the top students at Fons Luminis. He aspires to study engineering. Yet his ambivalence about leaving high school is on open display at the dance.

Amid the din, Nathi leans in close. "I think I'm too young," he tells Monde. "I'm going to miss school. On Monday, I think I am going to go back to start over again with grade 10."

Hours later, the party moves by bus to a nightclub that the school has rented in downtown Johannesburg's Newtown district. Monde and Irene, who met at church and strictly adhere to a code that forbids drinking, go to the club but remain outside.

Nathi does venture inside. Just 16, he has come dateless and emphatically denies all rumors that he has his first girlfriend. In the wee hours of Friday morning at the club, he tries his first taste of alcohol, Black Label beer. He pronounces it horrible.

A surprise

The knock at the door comes unexpectedly early one Wednesday morning. A lanky young man with braids stands on the doorstep. He asks for Fezeka. He is here to take her to see a doctor. He is the father of her unborn baby.

His name is Khulisa Masela, an unemployed 21-year-old who lives around the corner from Fezeka's adoptive grandparents in Soweto's Diepkloof section. Until then, the story Fezeka told everyone was that her boyfriend Pule had gotten her pregnant. But the truth is that Khulisa did the deed in May. Fezeka had started hanging around with him because he was there, she explains with no pride, while responsible and ambitious Pule spent most days working or attending college classes in Johannesburg.

Now, after periodically insisting that he was not the father, Khulisa is taking Fezeka to see a doctor. An ultrasound scan of the fetus will pinpoint how far the pregnancy has progressed. So far, Fezeka has received no prenatal care.

November has been a tumultuous month for her.

First, Thembi Kalipa, the aunt who raised her as her child since she was 5, figured out that she was pregnant. It started one night at the Kalipa residence in the quiet Crystal Park suburb, where Fezeka had been staying during the matric exams to avoid the distractions of Soweto. Thembi told Fezeka to try on a skirt, only to notice that it would not button all the way. Thembi asked, "Why such a big tummy?" Fezeka blushed.

Later Thembi tried to remember the last time Fezeka had gotten her period, and realized she couldn't. Then an image jumped unbidden into her mind: Fezeka vomiting on the way to school one day. Now she suddenly had a suspicion about what prompted the sickness.

She confronted Fezeka, and the young woman confessed. Thembi was beside herself. "Oh, Fezeka," both recall Thembi saying, "Didn't you remember my words? Didn't I talk to you several times?"

Thembi did not believe Fezeka's story about some condom malfunction. She thought Fezeka and her boyfriend must have been drinking or that getting pregnant was an attempt to lasso the boyfriend.

Thembi had one more question:

"What's your plan?"

"I'm aborting."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

Fezeka had to admit she felt a twinge of excitement when she learned she was pregnant, but it hadn't lasted. She didn't need anyone to tell her what this pregnancy could mean to her plans for attaining a higher education and career. As a single mother without resources, she knew her chances of realizing all those dreams would be close to nil.

All these years, Fezeka had told herself she would not follow the wretched path of her mother, who had given birth to Fezeka at age 15 and died of AIDS at 28. Yet, here was Fezeka now, pregnant at age 18 as a result of unprotected sex.

On Nov. 10, moments after finishing her last matric exam, a three-hour geometry test, Fezeka walked into the Marie Stopes abortion clinic near the Soweto taxi depot, to make an appointment for the next week. But she never showed up as planned. Her boyfriend, she said, had not given her the $200, and her parents were refusing to pay.

Pule, her boyfriend, was studying business at a university and working part time at KPMG, a big accounting firm. Whether he lacked money or did not want to pay for the abortion, Fezeka could not tell. But unbeknownst to him and her, the point was now moot. Abortions are legal in South Africa only until the end of the 20th week, except in rare cases, and Fezeka was two days shy of 22 weeks. Marie Stopes would not terminate her pregnancy.

That's not all Pule did not know. Fezeka had hidden from him the fact that he was not the baby's father. She did not tell her parents, either.

A week later, Fezeka ran away from her aunt and uncle's home in Crystal Park, unable to bear their obvious disappointment in her. She took three taxis to Hlophenkulu Street in Diepkloof, Soweto, and to the home of her friend Duduzile Mnoni, herself the mother of an infant.

That is where Khulisa finds Fezeka sleeping when he knocks on the door that Wednesday in late November. After a short taxi ride, Khulisa and Fezeka reach the storefront office of a doctor Khulisa had heard of. They both expect this will be a routine medical appointment, and before long, the doctor is showing them grainy ultrasound images of the fetus.

Fezeka watches awe-struck as the fetus puts its arm over its head, moves its legs, wiggles its toes. It is going to be a girl. At 10:38 a.m., the doctor takes a photo. The details on the image place the fetus at 25 weeks, 2 days - two weeks further along than Fezeka has admitted to anyone. In just three months, late February, the pregnancy will reach full term.

But Fezeka is not thinking that far ahead. She is 37 days past the cutoff and does not qualify for a legal late abortion. Since her visit to Marie Stopes, she has been feeling resigned to having the baby and putting her up for adoption. But unlike when she tried to get an abortion before, she now has money, the cash Khulisa's uncle gave him to pay for an ultrasound. In a moment of inspiration, it occurs to Fezeka that perhaps she can use that money for a different purpose, to rid herself of the entire problem. It's worth a try.

She turns to the doctor. "Is it possible to do an abortion?"

Fezeka's future

The answer, the doctor tells her, is that indeed it is possible. Later, the doctor, who asked that his name be withheld, says that he knew it could also be construed as a crime.

In his mind, the doctor will later say, he weighed the possible problems for him if he went ahead and the possible trouble for her if he did not. He says later that he was angry that she waited so long.

But she starts crying and, in another departure from the truth, tells him that she is an orphan living on her own and that her future will be ruined. He is touched. He is also convinced that she will find a way to abort, possibly under more dangerous conditions that could leave her hurt, if not dead.

The doctor asks if she is certain she wants to abort. When she assures him that she is, he inserts three tablets into her body. The drug, he later says, was Cytotec, generically called misoprostol. It is an inexpensive ulcer treatment but is commonly used to induce abortions around the world, including in the United States, mostly by poor women.

Labor will begin soon, he tells her; call me when the fetus exits your body.

Fezeka and Khulisa leave the doctor's office and catch a minibus taxi to another part of Soweto's Diepkloof neighborhood. Fezeka goes first to her friend Duduzile's house, but when Dudu's aunt realizes what is going on, she says Fezeka cannot stay.

Unsure of where else to go, Fezeka walks around the corner to Khulisa's house, where his mother vacates her bedroom for what is to come. All afternoon and evening the pain worsens. Then around 5 a.m., with Khulisa there and the pain agonizing, the fetus begins to emerge.

As the doctor had instructed, Fezeka pours water into a bucket. This, he had told her, is to avoid her developing a traumatic association with the other possible places, such as the bed or toilet. She positions herself over it, blowing hard into a bottle.

When it is over, she lies on her stomach to help stanch the bleeding. Khulisa puts a lid on the bucket. Neither of them looks to see if the fetus was born alive. A few hours later, Fezeka, accompanied by Khulisa, returns to the doctor's office for a brief exam. They take the fetus with them.

For the first time in days, Fezeka finds her thoughts returning to the matric exams. As brutally selfish as it may be, her priority all along has been her own future, not that of her unborn child. That is why she has put herself through this ordeal.

In a few weeks, when the test results are published in newspapers everywhere, she'll get a better sense of how bright that future is.

scott.calvert@baltsun.com

THE STUDENTS AND THEIR PRINCIPAL

Nkosinathi (pronounced En-koh-zih-NAH-tee) Kubheka is a precocious 16-year-old whose family has high expectations of him, beginning with passing matric. He shares those goals, but is there too much pressure on one of the youngest 12th-graders in Fons Luminis?

Fezeka (pronounced FEH-zeh-kah) Kalipa, 18, is a student poet who is determined not to follow the path of her mother, who gave birth as a teen and died of AIDS at age 28. Passing matric is essential to her dream of one day becoming a psychologist.

Monde (pronounced MAWN-day) Dweku is 23 and one of the oldest 12th-graders at the Fons Luminis Secondary School. If he passes matric, he will be one of the first in his family to do so. Passing is a matter of personal pride to him, but he also doesn't want to disappoint his girlfriend.

Lempe Motumi, the gruff, 48-year-old principal of Fons Luminis, knows firsthand the struggles to rid his country of apartheid, but he doubts whether his students understand the costs of that fight and their obligations to do something with that hard-fought freedom.

About this series

Scott Calvert began reporting this series in September 2006. For four months, he tracked three students at Fons Luminis Secondary School in Soweto, frequently visiting them, their friends, relatives and teachers at home, school, church, restaurants, downtown Johannesburg and on the streets of Soweto. He spoke to the principal of Fons Luminis, Lempe Motumi, multiple times. Calvert witnessed most of the contemporary events depicted in this series; the rest he reconstructed using multiple accounts in virtually every case. He heard all quoted dialogue, except for a few cases in which the article states that someone recalled the comment being made. Wherever someone's thoughts are described, that person shared those thoughts directly with Calvert.

Yesterday: As their high school careers wind down, high school students take matric, a series of arduous academic tests that can make the difference between a future in the middle class or poverty.

Tomorrow: Monde, Nathi and Fezeka learn if they passed matric and get an idea of what the future holds for them.

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