This month sees close to 170,000 first-year students enrolling at South African universities. For many, the adjustment from their old lives to new incarnations as university students will be the biggest change they’ve yet experienced. REBECCA DAVIS spent a day with three students moving out of Khayelitsha to take up places in residence at the University of Cape Town.
“What you’re about to see happen is radical,” says Kelly Rosenthal, as we drive towards UCT. Rosenthal was the director for the last two years of an NGO programme which has given a group of Khayelitsha children intensive matric teaching, and seen astonishing improvements in results. Of her 2011 crop of 14 matrics, no less than eight have received places at UCT, in residence, with financial aid. The latest available figures, from 2009, show that only 12.1% of all black South Africans participate in higher education: stymied by the difficult teaching conditions and insufficient resources in most township schools. Today, Rosenthal is helping her students move into their hard-won res places.
“It’s radical because these students are making one of the most extreme jumps you can make anywhere in the world: from Khayelitsha to middle-class affluence in Rondebosch,” says Rosenthal. The distance between Khayelitsha and Rondebosch is no more than about 25 kilometres, but in economic terms they may as well be planets apart. These students have the chance, for the first time in their families, to make the transition from the working class to the middle class. How does that feel?
“I’m nervous,” confesses Afika Damane, 19, as he paces around the area below UCT’s iconic Jameson Steps. We are waiting to collect two other students, both of whom have also just registered as first-years, to take them back to their homes in Khayelitsha to collect their possessions and return to their new lives at UCT. Afika is soft-spoken but confident. “This is the biggest step I’ve ever taken,” he says.
Upon seeing Rosenthal, his first query is an anxious one: he has been told he must still submit his motivation for financial aid. She reassures him that his application will succeed. Afika wants to study Drama, Film & Media and Gender Studies, with an eye to becoming a performer or director.
“How’s your room?” she asks.
“It’s good, I’m not sharing,” he says. Is it on the ground floor? “I don’t do grounds,” he laughs.
His friends trickle out from registration. Unathi Zengezi, 18, is going to sign up for Social Anthropology and Gender Studies. Yolanda Benya, 18, hopes for Film & Media, Politics and Gender Studies. Unathi is earnest and bespectacled. Yolanda has a bright copper weave and a pair of pink Converse.
I’m surprised by the popularity of Gender Studies. Are they feminists? “Yes,” says Unathi firmly. “Very,” adds Yolanda. She tells the story of how she recently taught a taxi driver a thing or two about unfair generalisations when he complained that women passengers always try to evade fares.
Photo: Afika outside his home in Khayelitsha (Rebecca Davis/iMaverick)
We bundle into Rosenthal’s car for the drive to Khayelitsha. Yolanda’s mom phones. She is a single mother who works as a security guard. “She’s worried about what I’m going to eat in res,” Yolanda says after the call. “She said, ‘do they know you’re a vegetarian’?” She has been a vegetarian for five years since an encounter with meat in the Eastern Cape went horribly wrong.
“Tell your mom you’re about to be surrounded by more vegetarians than you’ve ever met in your life,” Rosenthal says drily. Almost immediately Yolanda’s mother calls again. This time she is anxious about when she will have to pay the “family contribution” towards fees which is required even on financial aid (around R1,000). The three nervously discuss a rumour that someone they know was required to pay R6,000. Rosenthal tries to allay their concerns.
For much of the drive, the discussion is taken up with the case of their friends Asanda and Amanda Nyandeni. Amanda, like the three in the car, received financial aid for a place in residence at UCT. Her half-sister Asanda didn’t make the cut, and the two are inseparable. Asanda has been accepted at TSIBA, the Tertiary School in Business Administration, and while everyone agrees that this is a great opportunity, they know their experiences will be very different. Asanda will have to stay behind in Khayelitsha, while Amanda moves to Rondebosch.
The strain this impending separation has placed on the sisters’ relationship was so deeply felt that the two were not talking until the day before, when Unathi brokered a dialogue, and a reconciliation. “Asanda said she loves herself too much to kill herself for UCT,” Unathi recounts. They laugh, but with a slight air of discomfort.
We pass the Burning Fire evangelical church. “That’s Yolanda’s church,” says Unathi, pointing to it. “The pastor is Chinese.” Chinese?
“Korean,” corrects Yolanda. “There is someone who translates what he’s saying into English, and then someone else translates that into Xhosa.” Will she come back to the township to go to church here, once she’s settled in res? “Sometimes,” she shrugs. “They let us wear trousers.”
Afika, it emerges, hasn’t finished packing.
“You’re going to have to do this stuff for yourself now,” Rosenthal reminds him. “You know you’re going to have to wash your own clothes in res?”
“Of course, I’m a gentleman,” he chides her, pretending to be affronted. Unathi says laughingly that she will take her washing back to Khayelitsha for her grandmother to do.
Photo: Unathi outside her house in Khayelitsha (Rebecca Davis/iMaverick)
We drop off Afika and Yolanda to finish packing and collect Unathi’s luggage from the house she was raised in by her sister and her uncle. Unathi’s sister says she is “very excited” for Unathi’s move. They share a hug, and Unathi extracts a promise that her sister will visit her res room soon. Unathi has compacted her possessions into a suitcase and a tog-bag. Still in its plastic wrapping is a bag her neighbour gave her as a farewell gift. “It’s so nice,” she says, examining it. Unathi only told one of her neighbours about her acceptance into UCT. “The others will be too jealous,” she explains. Not only is Unathi the first in her family to go to university, she is also the first on her street.
When we collect Yolanda, we discover that she hasn’t been as restrained in her packing, with a plethora of suitcases, bags and two large teddy bears. “She brought books,” says Unathi, peeking in a bag. “I just brought the Bible. My aunt told me to.”
Nobody from Yolanda’s family is home, so she has left a note stuck to the fridge addressed to “Mama noPretty” (Pretty is her brother). It ends, “I love you very very much”.
Fortunately for the over-burdened car, Afika’s packing has been positively Spartan. He will travel to Sea Point later, he explains, to meet up with his mother so she can buy him sheets for his new res bed and some toiletries, because it’s payday.
“Goodbye home,” he says softly as we pull away from his house, but then more forcefully: “Thank God I’m out of this hood, I would have become a criminal.” It’s not quite clear whether he intends this seriously. Later I hear him on the phone to a friend, chattering in Xhosa before he breaks into what seems to be a parody of an mlungu accent in English, saying “I’m not going back to Khayelitsha, it’s full of criminals! I’m going to Austraaaaaalia!”
Will they miss Khayelitsha? “No,” they answer confidently, in unison. But then they amend this by listing the family members they will miss.
“I won’t miss my old friends,” says Unathi. “They all have sugar-daddies and have dropped out. I have been trying to run away from them.” What does she think will happen to them? “Maybe find work at Shoprite,” she speculates, unsure.
“Eighteen years I’ve been stuck here,” Unathi sighs melodramatically as we turn on to the highway to leave Khayelitsha behind. But as we drive further, some of the bravado seems to evaporate and they grow quieter. “I’ll miss this road,” says Yolanda. When she and I become Facebook friends later that night, I see that her final Facebook status before leaving is heavy with nostalgia: “Amazing view of Khayelitsha’s beauty. Just had to visit that place for the last day in my kasi,” she has written, from the vantage point of Lookout Hill. “I will always be proud to be a Khayelitsha product.”
The three are under no illusions that the path ahead for them will be difficult in parts.
“We’re not privileged,” says Afika. “We’ve never been told anything much about UCT.”
Yolanda chimes in: “It will be hard to adapt. I’ve always had my family around before.”
Unathi sums up her fears poignantly: “UCT is so big and I’m so small.”
Yolanda and Unathi have been temporarily placed in one of the oldest, most prestigious women’s halls at UCT. For the next two weeks, until their placement is sorted, they will share a large dormitory with 12 other students. As we carry their bags up countless flights of stairs, other girls have already been gathered together in the residence’s lush, ivy-draped internal quad to practise “war cries” that they will later be trying out against the residence of their male counterparts.
As they make their beds, we pick through the welcome pack the girls have been given. There are beaded bracelets that they put on immediately. There’s a free sample of base, intended only for white skin, that they laughingly offer to Rosenthal. I read them a snippet from their “O Week Survival Guide”: “Make friends with the gentlemen across the parking lot (you just might find your future husband!)”
“We’re not here to find husbands,” Unathi says primly. “No chance,” Yolanda concurs.
Just then, Rosenthal’s phone rings. She ends the call to deliver the news to the three: their friend Asanda, sister of Amanda, has been offered a last-minute place at UCT, in res. There is screaming, and hugging, and phoning of Amanda, who says she “can finally be happy”. Yolanda now claims she always knew it would work out, because the ancestors told her – a statement which earns her much good-natured mockery. As we take our leave, they are celebrating in the teenage way which transcends all cultures: jubilantly updating their Facebook statuses to record the good news. DM
Main photo (L-R): Unathi, Yolanda and Afika with friends Nombulelo and Amanda. (Rebecca Davis/iMaverick)
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