Girl's journey from horror to triumph
'My father murdered my mother in front of us, my little brother and I; he beat her to death with everything he could find."
The Grade 12 girl sitting in front of me took some time to complete the sentence as she covered her face with her hands and tears ran through her fingers.
It happened every weekend, the ritual beatings of a mother whom her daughter absolutely adored; the little girl would bear testimony to this brutality and wonder why her mother did not leave. In the harsh life of an informal settlement, her options were limited. When asked whether they wanted their father released from prison where he served time for the murder, the children agreed; they needed the one parent still alive.
Thembi Letsoara (not her real name) was just starting to emerge from an earlier tragedy in which she was brutally raped by her cousin. Nobody would believe her, until days later the doctors would confirm the sexual assault. By this time, the evidence was thin since she had bathed and cleaned up the mess.
The boy's father was the only person working and gave money to the grandmother with whom Thembi was staying; there was an agreement that they would not pursue matters for that would risk the only source of income available to the extended family.
"For a long time I did not trust male figures, not even my father. I slept with my mother."
The young woman cries again as she recalls being raped.
Her sole support through this dreadfully painful period of her life was her mother.
"She encouraged me, she loved me, she supported me."
Now the mother was dead.
It is almost impossible to match this smart, beautiful and well-poised young woman with the two tragedies I had just heard about.
It is even more improbable that her Grade 12 examination results, before these National Senior Certificate finals, include 92% in the mathematics third paper, 94% in the main mathematics paper, and 90% in life sciences.
Having spent only three years, Grades 10 to 12, at one of the top public girls' schools in the country, the young woman overcame poverty, hardship and unspeakable trauma to become a top academic performer.
"She is guaranteed an A aggregate matric," swears the principal.
Her break came when a famous boys' school invited two children from every disadvantaged school in the area to become part of an academy in which promising learners were given high-quality lessons.
From this large group, two students were sent to that boys' school, and two to the adjacent girls' school. She made it, and took every opportunity to excel not only in academics, but also in senior netball.
There is something I have yet to understand: why most young people, when faced with incredible hardship, give up on life, but a few stand firm and triumph. This thing called resilience fascinates me. Her report card speaks of "her tenacious spirit" and "her determination and zealous attitude" and "going the extra mile to produce work of a high standard".
But the report also speaks of her humility, her grace, and a "respectful, quiet and unassuming nature".
"What is it about you that keeps you going?" I ask.
"My mom, she was my best friend and she was very strong."
And then she mentions the principal of the academy; this amazing man makes sure that people and the system do not fail her again.
"She wants to study medicine," he tells me, and will need financial assistance and guidance.
"Why medicine?" I ask her.
"Like my mother," she says, "I always wanted to make a difference in people's lives. I wanted to make my mother proud."
It is clear to me that this is not the kind of medical graduate who will jet off to Europe after a state-subsidised education. She will plough back right here.
"If your mother were here, what would you say to her?"
She does not need to think.
"I would say thank you for raising me, for supporting me, for believing in me."
And then my final question: "What is the one thing you would want your mother to know about you today?"
With a soft, confident voice: "I am now stronger than I have ever been."
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