Khayelitsha matriculant conquers the language barrier with strategic plan for survival

Khayelitsha matriculant conquers the language barrier with strategic plan for survival
Thina Gabavana of Bloemhof Girls’ High School in Stellenbosch.

Thina Gabavana took up the opportunity to enrol at Bloemhof in the Cape Winelands town at the foot of the Stellenbosch Mountain, more than 50km away from her home in Khayelitsha on the Cape Flats of Cape Town, and was determined to succeed.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

When the bell struck 2.20pm, signalling the end of a school day at Bloemhof Girls’ High School in Stellenbosch, Thina Gabavana would run to read her books. It was her routine. Out of class, to her room, with the books, until midnight – or later. She was running to recount and make sense of the day. It was a strategic plan, for survival.

Gabavana is one of the pool of matriculants who received their National Senior Certificate (NSC) results this week, on 23 February.

The matriculant, a mother tongue isiXhosa speaker, joined the Model C Afrikaans girls’ high school in 2016, after receiving a scholarship from the network the MAD Leadership Foundation. At that time, she spoke little to no Afrikaans.

“Ja, nee en dankie, was her only vocabulary,” says principal Wilna van Heerden. Gabavana became an alumnus of the Afrikaans school with an overall aggregate of 80.83% and left the school hall on Tuesday, fluent in Afrikaans.

Each year, when the results are released, stories about the youngsters who walk out of the NSC examinations with stellar results are lauded. Heads turn. Classmates cheer.

It was no different this year. But the 2020 results came with greater hoorays as the figures rolled in under the dark shadow of a global pandemic that disrupted the academic year.

In 2015, Gabavana had taken up the opportunity for enrolment at Bloemhof in the Cape Winelands town at the foot of the Stellenbosch Mountain, more than 50km away from her home in Khayelitsha on the Cape Flats of Cape Town.

“I remember the first day, the prefects, everyone spoke Afrikaans, and I remember the reality sinking in … I remember thinking, ‘Oh. My. Goodness,’” Gabavana recalls. “I couldn’t hear a word they were saying, I started to doubt this decision I made [to come to the school].”

For Gabavana, the language barrier triggered alienation. It wasn’t that the “predominantly white” and Afrikaans school wasn’t supportive or considerate. They were, she says. But communication is how people live, says Gabavana.

“I felt like people had to compromise. I had to be the exception in a conversation.”

According to Gabavana’s sister Lindiswa, Gabavana would often call her crying. Lindiswa remembers comforting her sister after a sports day at the school where everyone was singing Afrikaans liedjies, which left her feeling excluded. Such culture shock, for someone from a completely different reality in Khayelitsha, hit hard for Gabavana.

“In Stellenbosch, everything is so different,” she says about the town that epitomises Afrikaans culture. People did things differently in the school hostel she stayed in. People spoke differently. It was draining.

“For five days, you are with people who are totally different, they have a different way of living, and then you come home and you are again in a different environment,” Gabavana says. “You have to switch the brain completely.”

Gabavana lived for a time between places. She says it took a year to feel comfortable in what felt like a totally strange universe.

At the high school itself, the educators and learners work at a very fast pace, explains Van Heerden. 

“Thina’s academic backlog together with the language barrier could be a big problem. I asked her if I could phone the English-medium school next door, but she insisted: ‘No, thank you, Ma’am, I want to be at Bloemhof,’” Van Heerden remembers the conversation five years ago.

Gabavana was determined to stay at the school. She was determined to succeed there. She stayed.

“In the last five years Thina worked without stop. I had to call her in and asked her to take some time off to relax. The girls in the hostel, the teachers, her mentor at MAD, everybody supported her,” Van Heerden says.

According to Gabavana, success is relative. That 80% aggregate was her success, because that was what she had set out to achieve for herself.

But before Gabavana attained her A-mark, it was about understanding a language of instruction and relearning things herself.

“I had to learn that my success doesn’t look the same for the person sitting next to me. I am the one who is in charge of my success, I am the only one who knows what success looks like to me,” she says.

Still, Gabavana’s success is about more than personal gusto; it says something about the status quo.

“In the bigger picture, this can be a wake-up call to our South Africa that we can work together. You know Bloemhof – let’s be honest – is predominantly white, and me being able to be at Bloemhof, and survive in Bloemhof, shows that as South Africans, if we have perseverance, if we set our minds on something, we can [succeed],” she says.

“It doesn’t mean that success will happen overnight – in this case, a few years. It might take a bit long, but if we all have hope in our country, then in the end we can work together,” says Gabavana, who plans on pursuing a political future for herself, starting at the University of Cape Town this year.

When DM168 went with Gabavana to her old school, it was easy to tell that she was well-loved there.

“Thina! Hoe gaan dit? Hoe was die punte?” “Thinaaa, jy’s terug.” “Thina, almal praat van jou.”

Indeed, Gabavana has set an example, both for her niece, who wants to be “just like” her aunt, Lindiswa says, and for her old school.

“Thina sets an example for those who might think Bloemhof wants one-size-fits-all, that every square peg must fit in a round hole,” Van Heerden remarks. “She is respected for never giving up. She is popular, with her infectious laugh and broad smile. She is being loved for being different, for being herself.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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