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Molly Blank. To: H-AfrTeach@H-NET.MSU.EDU Review: ‘Testing Hope – Grade 12 in the new South Africa’ by Molly Blank, Cape Town 2008. Reviewed by Max Annas (independent author and writer) and Henriette Gunkel (Fort Hare Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Fort Hare), both living currently in East London, South Africa. Molly Blank’s ‘Testing Hope – Grade 12 in the new South Africa’ is a 40-minute documentary about four students preparing for matric in Cape Town. The film follows two young women and two young men through this crucial stage of their schooling, through the examination itself and finally through the time of uncertainty in the weeks following the exams. Everyone has to wait for the announcement of the results, which they find out about through notice boards at school, through the newspaper or, far away from school, through calls from friends. Grade 12 is the final year of schooling, which is decisive for whether one gets a place at university or not. The young learners belong to the first generation that received school education in post-apartheid South Africa. Education in the ‘new’ South Africa is hardly any less segregated than in pre-1994 South Africa. Before the first democratic elections the line was drawn on the basis of skin colour; the apartheid government set up four separate education systems based on race. In contemporary South Africa the line within the educational system is drawn between the categories rich and poor - which continue to be highly racialized categories. It is obvious today that things changed only nominally: while the education system itself changed substantially in terms of policy, little has changed inside the classroom. The majority of people that were pushed into inhuman living conditions during and through apartheid remain in those until today. And the comparative wealth of the majority of white people has been legitimized through the end of apartheid. In this documentary Blank hence questions the ‘new’ in South Africa’s education system today. Blank portrays Mongamo (18), Sipho (21), Babalwa (18), and Noyulanda (18) in interview situations and in their daily family and school lives. She must have chosen some of the best students in the class to interview as they are all very articulate, with a clear vision of their futures and they all pass matric in the end. Blank gives their siblings, parents and friends the opportunity to speak and she finds images that reflect on the situation at school. Any passages with voiceover are concise and add value to the narrative. The voiceovers have been selected carefully and are often expanding beyond the individual’s story. The four talk openly into the camera, revealing an intimacy that points to a long-term engagement between the director and the subjects. Kirstin Pichaske’s camera work is also responsible for the closeness to the protagonists that the audience feels after only a few minutes into the film. She notices seemingly minor points – that Sipho combs the hair of one of his brothers in the morning or Noyulwanda’s smaller brother teasing his sister. Trivial things like these make the protagonists accessible and their living conditions visible. The four learners live in Nyanga, one of Cape Town’s townships, in which a great amount of the 60 000 inhabitants live in shacks, simple houses built of corrugated metal sheets. Mongamo wants to get out of Nyanga, where he lives with his mother. He emphasizes that he aspires to see his younger brother growing up in different circumstances. Sipho supports his three young brothers and wants to escape gang- related crime. Babalwa lives with her family in a shack and wants to break away from her destiny by working hard to become a (rich) doctor – a dream that she shares with a great number of students in her age group. Noyulanda is the first-born of the family and it is difficult for her parents to raise money for her education. And even if Noyulanda gets a good matric, there is still the problem of university fees ahead. In fact the parents might have to deduct the money for their oldest daughter’s higher education from the (basic) education of their other children. ‘Testing Hope’ convinces in its intimacy to the four protagonists and to individual members of their families. Passing matric is an important phase in these young students’ lives as they will be the first in their families to achieve this level of formal education. They speak openly about this: about the individual’s hopes; about what their advancement could mean for their families; about the inadequacy of the educational system; and about the question of how they could use its offers further.[i] Gradually the audience gets to know a significant part of their lives. Mongamo’s mother points to the fact that her son’s professional success should also have implications for her life. She also wants to live in better circumstances. The film confronts a European and North-American audience with different conceptualizations of family and responsibility. In many societies it is unimaginable to plan one’s own well-being based on the successes of one’s children. In ‘Testing Hope – Grade 12 in the new South Africa’ Blank transports images of a struggle that does not get enough attention – neither within the country nor outside of it – through film and scholarly work. Opportunities of advancement for young people living in poverty remain limited. In contemporary South Africa learning opportunities are not only divided into public (that is state-owned) and private institutions - very similar to their counterpart in the security and health sector. There are also various degrees of quality in public schools: the formerly white-only Ex-Model C schools, for example remain state-owned but are more likely to generate additional private funding than the public school in Nyanga township that we are seeing. In the knowledgeable organisation of images and sounds, therefore, a minor weakness stands out. Shortly after a comment made by Noyulwanda about the disparity between the two educational systems in South Africa – that is those for the rich and those for the poor – the audience is presented with a number of images about the daily routine within a different school (for about a minute). The viewer sees computer workstations, a library, tennis courts and swimming pools. Beyond the tennis court is Table Mountain. Unfortunately these images lack any commentary which raises questions about how this privileged school fits into the education system (Is it public or private? Are we seeing another state-owned school with different quality?). Instead Noyulwanda continues with her narrative. At this point it would have been useful to introduce or describe the school represented in the images. Blank fails to point to the differences within the post-apartheid education system. This issue, however, signifies the racial segregation that was set up by the apartheid system and which hasn’t yet been resolved. Children living in poverty are left with no choice other than the public school system where the quality of learning and teaching is less than satisfactory. Blank’s ‘Testing Hope – Grade 12 in the new South Africa’ provides valuable insights into the daily life of children in a South African township. The documentary proves to be challenging to the viewer because Blank assumes knowledge not only of the education system but life in South Africa and because education is an area often ignored by filmmakers and scholars. The film communicates some precise features of the difficulties to escape poverty through education and the educational system in today’s metropolitan South Africa. In this film Blank focuses on one province, the Western Cape, in which - together with Gauteng – the quality of education is the best in the country. While since 2004 the matric results in general declined, the results in the Western Cape remained above the national average. This is different, for example, in the Eastern Cape, the province with the largest number of schools and the second largest learner cohort in the country: while the national average in 2004 was 70.7%, 85% passed in the Western Cape compared to 53.5% in the Eastern Cape (with the endorsement numbers even worse with approximately 8.8% in the Eastern Cape compared to 27.1% in the Western Cape). In 2007 the national average was 65.2% with 80.6% in the Western Cape and only 57.1% in the Eastern Cape. And the results of this year’s matric are predicted to be the worst results ever in ‘post’-apartheid South Africa – which is testing the hope of the new generation even further. Acknowledgement: Special thanks to Lise Westaway for her invaluable insights into South Africa’s education system. [i] This sense of upward mobility in a way points to the locality of the film project; it is experienced differently by children in rural communities where a sense of ‘stuckness’ and ‘no hope’ dominates. In rural areas, with approximately 80 percent unemployment, this is predictable as there is no guarantee of finding employment even with a matric. ----- End forwarded message -----