South Africa

Matric is the New Orange

By Rebecca Davis 8 January 2015

Top-achieving Matrics smiling shyly, school principals beaming, government officials shaking hands. These are scenes that have played out across the country over the past days – but with a few subtle differences at a hall in Cape Town on Wednesday. On this occasion, the Matrics grinning for the cameras were wearing prison overalls. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Njabulo Gumede proudly displays a piece of paper on which his Matric results are scrawled.

They reveal that for Gumede, like most South African pupils, Maths is not his strong suit. It’s his weakest mark, though at 43% it’s a pass. For Accounting he has managed 64%, and for the rest of his seven subjects it’s all Bs and one A. Gumede is 2014’s top performer among inmates who wrote the Matric exams.

The 22-year-old is frank: if he hadn’t ended up in prison, after being convicted of robbery in Pinetown, he probably wouldn’t have finished Matric. It was only when the principal of the Usethebeni Youth School informed him that he could complete his secondary education that he even contemplated the possibility.

“I was sitting here without doing anything and I thought maybe if I am out there I won’t get this chance,” he says. “When I was sentenced I didn’t think there was a school in prison. You can’t spend all your sentence sitting around.”


Photo: Sbonelo Maphumolo, the second highest-performing Matric, is congratulated for his achievement by Justice Minister Michael Masutha

Gumede was one of 185 prisoners who wrote Matric exams at the end of last year – an all-time record, Justice and Correctional Services Minister Michael Masutha told journalists at Goodwood Prison on Wednesday. Their pass rate was 68,9%: lower than the national average, but a substantial improvement on the previous year’s 58,8%.

“The Department of Correctional Services has placed education and training at the centre of its rehabilitation agenda,” Masutha said, with over 108,000 inmates having participated in formal education programmes since 2009. Basic education has been compulsory for inmates since 2013. The department announced at the time that they wanted offenders to “read, read, read, study, study, study and work, work, work”.

In 2009, there was one full-time prison school in South Africa. Today there are 14. All of them cater for male students currently – due to the huge numerical discrepancy between incarcerated males and incarcerated females. Of the 116,000 sentenced offenders, Correctional Services chief deputy commissioner James Smalberger explained, only around 2,000 are female.

The top-performing prison school in the country was the Emthonjeni Youth Centre at the Baviaansport Prison in Gauteng, which achieved a 100% pass rate. Principal Remember Ramohoebo beamed with pride when he was awarded a trophy by Masutha.

It was the Usethubeni Youth School in Durban, however, which produced the two highest-achieving Matric pupils. Principal Dominic Zulu is no stranger to this kind of success: in 2013 his school produced one student with five distinctions. Indeed, Zulu confessed he was a little disappointed with last year’s outcomes.

“Initially when I received the results I wasn’t so impressed,” Zulu said. His students achieved 21 Bs and 50 Cs. “The only distinction we got was in Life Orientation, which doesn’t have any points when you go to university.”

Zulu says that students at his school tend to be motivated by the number of previous inmates who have gone on to further study. “Our history works for us,” he says.

The school doesn’t experience discipline problems which are different to any normal school, he says.

“But they all fear Maths and Accounting,” Zulu chuckles. “We want pure Maths, no ‘Maths Literacy’.”

Top student Gumede wants to study Accounting further. Because he won a bachelor’s pass, he would be eligible to do so at South African universities, but he says his parents probably can’t afford to pay for tertiary education. He’s hoping for a bursary or some form of scholarship.

The second highest-performing Matric, 22-year-old Sbonelo Maphumolo, also has aspirations of future study in the field of sports management. “Perhaps some people can help,” he tells journalists.

Maphumolo achieved all Bs and Cs, apart from his 54% for Maths. But Maths is, he says, his favourite subject.

When asked for what crime he is serving his eight-year jail term, he answers softly but distinctly: “Rape.”

These men may have received credible Matric results, but there are few illusions about the fact that their prospects in the job market, once released, are minimal.

After 10 years crime-free on the outside, former inmates may be considered for a pardon which expunges their criminal record.

“I deal with [applications] almost on a daily basis,” says Minister Masutha. “But of course ten years is a very long time.”

The department aims to intensify a campaign to encourage employers to give rehabilitated offenders a chance. Masutha acknowledges that as things stand, a criminal record is viewed as a severe deterrent.

“This as a policy issue is something that has given me sleepless nights,” he says.

When Masutha says that, you get the impression he actually means it. The softly-spoken Justice Minister, who reads his speeches with his fingers – via Braille – also addressed the issue head-on of the ethics of being seen to publically reward prisoners who may have carried out terrible deeds.

“In parading these learners for their achievements, we are doing it with all the sensitivity [we can] for the victims involved,” Masutha said. “I was given assurance that there has been reaching-out in KZN to ensure that the affected victims are consulted as we project the offenders in this manner.”  

Siphiwo Vundisa, a pupil at the Brandvlei Prison School in the Western Cape, will write Matric this year, and expects to be released shortly afterwards. Vundisa was convicted of armed robbery. When asked what he thinks his chances are of securing employment when he gets out, Vundisa heaves a big sigh and looks at his friends, who are shaking their heads wryly.

“Yeah, that’s an issue,” he says. “A big one.”

Vundisa never completed Matric on the outside due to “mischief”, he says. He admits to struggling most with Life Sciences (formerly Biology). “It’s very complicated,” Vundisa says.

For 40-year-old Andre Jaggers, a bespectacled inmate from Brandvlei who will also sit Matric exams this year, his Achilles’ heel is Afrikaans, but he loves History.


Photo: Andre Jaggers, 40, says his best subject is History and his worst is Afrikaans

His personal history is dark – Jaggers, too, is a convicted rapist – but he says that when he gets out, he’ll be focusing on other people’s futures: a project to “encourage young men to show them there is a better life”.

On one point, Jaggers is insistent: “I need to be educated,” he says. DM

Read more:

  • Prisoners achieve a 69% matric pass rate, on City Press

Main Photo: Top student Njabulo Gumede, 22, hopes to continue his studies in Accounting


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