SOWETO, South Africa-- --Since 3 a.m., Monde Dweku has lain awake in bed, listening to the hoots and hollers of students getting good news from newspapers arriving at the Engen gas station across the street. He said he would check precisely at 5, so he waits as the clock above his bed tick-tocks slowly to the hour. It is Matric Day, the day when newspapers across South Africa fly off the presses bearing the answer to two questions that have tormented 528,525 high school 12th-graders for a month and a half: Did I pass? And if so, how high was my score?
Those who passed will find their names in print, along with codes indicating whether they qualify for university admission or have garnered honors in certain subjects. Those who failed will not see their names at all.
The results are the stuff of headlines. This afternoon, when the minister of education addresses an assemblage in Cape Town, her speech will air live to the nation.
Some education experts think that too much hype surrounds the matric and that its role as a "door opener" is not what it once was. As the number of successful graduates has risen since the 1990s, some have questioned whether the tests are being dumbed down.
Yet passing remains a basic requirement for anyone who wants to join the South African Police Service as an officer or to train as a registered nurse. People say, not without some truth, that you need your matric to be even a grocery store clerk.
Even the mining giant Anglo American, which for decades sent into its gold mines any black man who could swing a pick, says new miners need to pass matric for more underground jobs because of the increasingly complex machinery and safety procedures.
When 5 o'clock finally rolls around, Monde's bed is already made.
Emerging from the three-room house in Soweto that he shares with his mother, stepfather and two little brothers, Monde walks not to the Engen but to a street corner a block away. The night before, he prepaid for today's Sowetan as a hedge against a mad rush.
The Sowetan has not arrived, but the Daily Sun has. Monde calls it "the lying paper" for its sensationalism, but he figures even the Sun wouldn't publish fallacious matric results. He gives the man 20 cents but resists the impulse to look right away. Instead, he strolls back to his house. Whether he is calm or merely trying to look that way, he takes his time.
The rising sun tinges the cloudy sky a purplish blue as he lays the paper across the hood of a neighbor's car and carefully unfolds it to the thick section filled with the results. Hovering over the paper, he flips to the "D" listings and begins checking. And checking. And checking some more.
He methodically pores over the dozens and dozens of Dubes, his index finger guiding his eyes over the small print. When he gets to the Dyayis, he realizes with a chill that he hasn't seen his own name. If it's there. He reverses direction, and then his gaze comes to a rest on two short, beautiful words:
At 5:16 a.m., both his arms shoot skyward. He swivels away from the car, a huge grin creasing his face. A cheer escapes his throat before he quickly returns to the newspaper.
"Was I dreaming?" he says. "No, I was not! Man, I was not dreaming. I was not dreaming. I. Was. Not. Dreaming."
He has to tell his mother, the one who abandoned him to relatives as a young boy but who has embraced him so lovingly over the past eight years that he forgives her. He runs inside and finds her asleep in bed.
"Do you know this guy?" he fairly chortles.
"Whoa!" Elsie Dweku says, still groggy. "At last." Monde has passed on his first try, but he is one of the oldest 12th-graders.
Propped on her elbows now, Elsie peers at the newspaper he has dropped on her bedside table, as if she still can't quite believe the news. Monde goes back outside to savor the moment. Soon his mother joins him, wearing a pink robe, paper in hand, her eyes still glued to the page.
At 5:30, Monde calls his girlfriend, Irene, who passed her matric two years ago and is now studying business. She had informed him, with no hint of joking in her voice, that she would marry no man who failed matric.
"My love," he says, "your man has made it."
"Really?" she replies, her tired voice raspier than usual.
He phones his stepfather, Sam Ndou, who's traveling for work. Ndou had pushed Monde to stay in school after he failed the 11th grade and wanted to quit, feeling he was too old. Monde, a 23-year-old matric survivor, giddily shares the news.
At 5:51, a text message from a former teacher flashes on Monde's cell phone: "Congrats, I saw yo name in the paper. Good luck 4 the future. Luv, Sbu."
Monde can count on one hand the number of extended family members who passed the matric. And while he did not technically need to pass in order to study the electrical trade at South West Gauteng College, his quest for personal and family pride drove him to spend long days studying at the library across the street from his house.
A mile east, in Diepkloof Extension, Nkosinathi Kubheka steps out of his home at 5:30. He sets off to find a newspaper, but the first street corner he reaches has no newspaper hawkers yet. He lopes down another road, where he bumps into a friend who has already snagged a newspaper.
He takes the paper and searches for his name. A star in Fons Luminis' limited universe, he expects to pass.
And there is it: "Kubheka, Nkosinathi."
Back at the house, father and son celebrate. His father, Aubrey, had awakened moments after Nathi, as friends and family call him, left the house and embarked on his own search for a newspaper.
Before and during the month-long exam period that ended Nov. 10, the Kubhekas made sure all their son had to do was study. Unlike his classmate, Fezeka Kalipa, he had had no housecleaning chores. Unlike Monde, he had had no younger siblings to mind.
Even so, Nathi's immaturity threatened to derail him. When he failed to get his act together to apply to the University of Johannesburg's engineering program, his father rushed him there on deadline day - twice, because Nathi did not have all his paperwork on the first trip across town.
Now, with Nathi's name in the paper, Aubrey pulls out his cell phone and calls his son's science teacher, Michael Mathe, even though it is 6:30 in the morning. "This is Nkosinathi's father," he says through a wide grin. "I wanted to let you know he passed his matric. I'm very happy."
Nathi's matric results are far from perfect. He bombed math and hardly aced physics. His scores doom his chances to study engineering at either Wits University or UJ, at least for now. Even before the matric exams began, his math grades were so low that he probably should have reconsidered a career in engineering.
But standing outside his house in the brightening morning, he refuses to change his plans. He'll simply retake math, maybe physics, too. In the meantime, he will study for most of 2007 at Central Johannesburg College, a technical school that does not require a matric pass. Nathi is still determined to be an engineer.
"Eish, my career wants math," he says.
At 16, Nathi is still young, an unabashed lover of cartoons who, in truth, doesn't really want to leave high school. This next year will be a bridge between the world he is about to depart and the university scene that awaits him.
About then, Monde arrives at the Kubhekas to read through the list of names with Nathi. Plenty of their peers did not make it. Tumelo, Stanley, Zanele, John - they're all missing, they've all failed. Passing the matric does not guarantee a job, but failing all but consigns you to a fate as a laborer, cashier, maid, gardener or the like. And even those jobs are scarce.
The big story
All over South Africa, matric results are the big story. That morning's Star newspaper has a scoop on one of the country's top-performing students, Jacobus Jordaan, a white 18-year-old who scored 10 distinctions - more than many entire schools can boast. Fons Luminis, as it turns out, will have only 14 distinctions.
The public also pays attention to those who did not make it, with an almost morbid fascination.
"I want to hear from those matriculants who failed," a DJ chirps on one pop station. "I want to know, how are you feeling? Killing yourself should not be the first thing that you think about. It's not the end of the world."
That day, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group gets a flood of calls from teenagers feeling suicidal or depressed because they failed or fared poorly. In the next week, while no matric-related suicides surface, the agency will receive 100 to 200 calls a day from anxious teens.
Such reactions are extreme, but the national results are enough to put Minister of Education Naledi Pandor in a funk. Last year, the national pass rate was 68.3 percent, with white students passing at a rate of 98.4 percent compared with 63 percent for blacks.
In her speech that afternoon, Pandor shares the grim news that the country's 2006 matric rate represents a drop of 1.7 percent to the devilish-sounding 66.6 percent. That is still higher than the 50 percent pass rate from the mid-1990s, but it is the fourth straight annual drop.
Pandor touches on some possible explanations for the decline: too few teachers, textbooks and support staff supplied by the provinces, as well as the possible diversion of national education funding to other uses at the provincial level. She talks about efforts that should help, such as teacher development. As recently as 2000, 22 percent of teachers nationwide did not have proper certification.
"We want to be at a point where we see higher outcomes, stronger science, mathematics and language passes, and expanded success rates for entry to higher education," Pandor says in her rich, schoolmarm voice. "We are not yet at the point where we wish to be."
Neither is Fons Luminis Secondary School. Mr. Motumi, the principal, went into exams counting on a strong showing. He hoped last year's 71 percent - a drop from 80-plus percent of previous years - would prove to be a one-off anomaly.
His hopes are dashed. Fons has fallen even further, to 68 percent. And just 6 percent - a mere 13 students - did well enough to qualify for university. Some teachers grumble that many 12th-graders should never have been allowed to pass the 11th grade in the first place.
As for Fezeka Kalipa, Matric Day finds her en route to Durban for a vacation with Thembi, the aunt she considers her mother, and her cousin, Andile. It has been several weeks since she impulsively sought, and received, an abortion, even though her pregnancy had lasted five weeks beyond the legal cutoff for most abortions.
A day after the abortion, Gabisele Masela, the mother of the would-be father - 21-year-old Khulisa, with whom Fezeka had had a meaningless fling - worried aloud that Fezeka might kill herself.
Fezeka's best friend, Duduzile Mnoni, who opposed the abortion on moral grounds, worried, too. Fezeka, lying on Masela's blue floral bedspread, her eyes heavy and her hair rumpled, assured them she was fine.
"It's over. Whatever I didn't want, it's over. I won't kill myself over nothing."
The next morning, Fezeka got a ride to the Crystal Park suburb where Thembi and her husband, Vuyani, live. Days earlier, Fezeka had run away to Soweto, unable to endure their disappointment at her for getting pregnant and jeopardizing a future they had tried hard to brighten.
When Fezeka walked in through the side door, Thembi did not look at her. "She decided to come back home," she muttered sarcastically, as if Fezeka was not even there.
Later came the hugs, an "I love you" from Vuyani, a gift of poetry books for Fezeka the closet poet. She wrote a new poem as well, "Ground Rule," which hinted at a deeper emotional toll than she let on:
All I now leave in god's hands
to give the penalty I deserve.
I shall serve to it.
I shall drown from it.
I shall be suffocated by it.
I shall have no say.
What she shall not do is speak the truth. Fezeka told Thembi that she tripped on a power cord and miscarried. She told the same tale to Pule, her boyfriend, who still harbored the mistaken belief that he was the true father. As she settled in for the monthlong wait until matric results were to be announced, Fezeka was badly flunking Honesty 101.
Now that day is finally here. On the drive to Durban, Thembi pulls into a gas station to buy a paper. When exams began 11 weeks earlier, odds were good that Fezeka, Monde or Nathi would fail, based on the previous year's results. Fezeka sometimes exhibited great confidence, but more often she voiced doubts that took on a fatalistic tone.
She is not sure what to expect as she flips through the newspaper. But there it is: "Kalipa, Fezeka."
Her relief emerges through a smile. Thembi tells her she is proud.
Fezeka's scores are nowhere near good enough to get into university and study psychology as she had hoped to do. But passing is a foundation she can build on. She just spent months studying for six exams. Next year, she'll need to retake only two exams, biology and physics. Good scores on those exams will give her the coveted university qualification called an "exemption."
For now, she will attend private test-prep classes while possibly getting a part-time job. Vuyani would like her to get a driver's license. There are also big issues she must address in her life. Maybe she'll take her first HIV test since just after the unprotected sex with Khulisa. Maybe she'll come clean with Pule, still her boyfriend and still in the dark about who got her pregnant.
Despite all the regrets she ticks off - the abortion, the unprotected sex, the web of lies - it remains to be seen what she has actually learned from her recent experiences. The lesson, as she articulates it, is more a state of mind than a plan of action: "Expect the unexpected."
For her, merely passing matric was something of an unexpected feat, one that distances her from her deceased birth mother. Somehow she managed to focus her mind on biology and geography, math and Zulu, amid all the personal upheaval. Fezeka has passed her matric; her mother did not. Her mother was a teenage parent; Fezeka will not be.
Eight days into the New Year, Fons Luminis rumbles back to life after a long Christmas break. Students cram into the small lobby and spill into the parking lot, all seemingly talking at once. Some have come to pick up report cards, others to sign up for the academic year, which starts in two days and will end with the calendar year.
When classes resume, the school will have unwelcome visitors: Department of Education officials scrutinizing panicked efforts by the principal, Mr. Motumi, and his staff to raise the level of instruction. The poor matric results, while far better than those at the worst schools, may even lead to the school being closed.
Mr. Motumi lays it out for his teachers at a bleak staff meeting held in the musty, hot staff room within earshot of the din beyond.
"They are going to hover at Fons Luminis, day in and day out," Mr. Motumi says of the officials, his mouth crooked in disappointment. "It is not going to be nice, ladies and gentlemen."
Mr. Motumi has never hidden his belief that today's high school students do not sufficiently appreciate the world of opportunity they have in South Africa, even with a 40 percent national unemployment rate and the AIDS scourge touching nearly every extended family in Soweto.
Though he does not make a big deal out of it to his students, when Mr. Motumi was their age, he marched in the 1976 Soweto student uprising. It was a protest against forced instruction in Afrikaans, the language of whites descended from Dutch settlers. More broadly, it was a protest against the purposely inferior schooling given to black South Africans.
Mr. Motumi has also bemoaned the pittance his school receives from the government and the inability, or unwillingness, of parents to offset that by paying school fees the way parents at many formerly all-white public schools do. He has also pointed a finger at a squabble with the school's governing body that hurt teacher morale.
But today, Mr. Motumi makes clear that the ultimate responsibility rests with him and the couple of dozen teachers looking up at him, not the students, not the government.
"The truth of the matter is we failed them as teachers. We did not do as much as we are supposed to do. As a result, the pass rate continues to drop. We cannot blame them at all - but ourselves. Maybe there is poor management; maybe the commitment, the dedication among teachers is also low. The bottom line is the blame is squarely on our shoulders."
Mr. Motumi singles out certain teachers, notably the eighth- and ninth-grade math teachers. "They are doing absolutely nothing," he says disgustedly, and that snowballs all the way to matric exams.
Things are about to change, he says. When the new year begins, teachers will give year-round, after-school instruction for this year's 12th-graders. In addition, the school will bring in outside experts and try to compel parents to pick up the tab for their lessons.
Fidelitas, a nearby high school, saw its pass rate skyrocket from 71 percent to 93 percent. This year Fons Luminis will collaborate with that school's math and science departments to see how they did it.
Mr. Motumi pauses to applaud the business studies department, whose students accounted for 12 of the school's 14 individual distinctions on the matric exams. He smiles broadly amid the clapping.
The joy is short-lived. Fezeka, Monde and Nkosinathi may have passed their matric exams, but one-third of their classmates failed. Unless they successfully retake exams, they face uncertain prospects in the new South Africa, with fewer options for negotiating the tough streets of Soweto.
In the staff room, the focus is already on the current students: "We need to resuscitate Fons Luminis," Mr. Motumi says bluntly. Then he moves on to the next item on the agenda.
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.
Sunday: 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 middle-class future or poverty.