Sinoxolo's story of hope
It is, by broad agreement, South Africa's most dangerous school. More than a few pupils at Oscar Mpetha High School in Nyanga, Cape Town, have been wounded or even killed as a result of gang violence in and around the school.
Whenever I visited the school, I was told of yet another break-in and the loss of new computers. Broken windows, dilapidated classrooms and sullen teachers.
This school was the subject of a moving documentary, Testing Hope, which followed the lives of a small group of young people through the Grade 12 examinations and into life after school; one young pupil in Molly Blank's documentary was killed in Nyanga before the film was completed.
"Get me out of here," begged one teacher boasting a rare commerce degree who sat with her peers at the school in a dirty staffroom with tattered textbooks and unmarked scripts all over the place.
I am sure the examiner who wrote to me would be fired if she were tracked down, but this woman changed forever the life of a remarkable young man by sharing his information.
"I don't know the child at all," says the stranger's e-mail, "but as a senior marker in history who is once again utterly appalled at the ongoing rampant failure of history pupils at too many schools in the Western Cape, I am amazed at this pupil's remarkable achievement . [we are] intrigued at this outstanding achievement."
She continues: "The cognitive skill and articulation required to achieve what I suspect . is a mark in the very high 90s in a challenging subject like this would make this pupil a perfect university candidate."
Now I am seriously intrigued, and what follows is almost impossible.
In the top 10 list from the Western Cape education department you find the familiar list of high achievers from the familiar schools with stretching green lawns, beautiful old buildings, and wealthy parents: Rondebosch Boys, Rhenish Girls, Herzlia, Herschel, Wynberg Girls, Westerford, La Rochelle, Bergvliet and more. But high up in this pack of exceptional schools is the name of Sinoxolo Sem, placed fourth in this illustrious group with an almost perfect score in history.
The name suggests a black pupil, and that does not surprise me at all since the top pupil in history is also not white. What does throw me is the name of the school alongside Sem's surname: Oscar Mpetha High.
After a frantic search, I find his number and call the young man to determine his plans. He has none, especially after a Cape Town university, for reasons impossible to understand, turned him down.
"How would you like to study with us for free?" I ask the young man. The joy in his voice is priceless.
As I write this column in the early morning, we are exchanging text messages on our cellphones as the Greyhound bus hurtles from Cape Town to Bloemfontein. I am about to become the happiest vice-chancellor in South Africa.
And so I wish to pay tribute today to the history examiner from Cape Town whose alertness to matters of social justice and inequality will change forever the life of a child who not only survived the mortal dangers of five years inside South Africa's most violent school, but who by some miracle made it to the top of an elite class of schools from the province.
The examiner must know that a first-generation university student who graduates breaks the cycle of poverty in a home, enables siblings to follow in his footsteps with less anxiety, and stands as a role model for others in his school where the horizons of possibility are dimmed by gangster violence and unstable schooling.
She must have felt deeply that such remarkable achievement against the odds must be rewarded, or else the very promise that we hold up to youth in school will be meaningless.
Then there was another stranger who offered to pay for the bus and my colleagues who offered to put together the money to enable Sem to live in residence, buy books, pay his tuition fees, and have some monthly income for food and clothing. In yet another remarkable way a host of South Africans, who hardly know each other and who never met Sem, from the Cape to Bloemfontein to Johannesburg, pool their meagre resources to make one life possible, a life beyond school.
Whatever you might read elsewhere, I am immensely proud of ordinary South Africans with their extraordinary generosity to look beyond themselves and their own interests by creating life-changing opportunities for promising students without the means to study.