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Posted January 12, 2006
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Jeffrey Barbee for The New York Times

Phillip Chauke, 84, lives with his wife, Magaret, in a one-room apartment. He studies in the garage at night so she will not be kept awake.
Diepkloof Journal
A Man Who Has Passed Many Tests Vies With One More 


DIEPKLOOF, South Africa, Jan. 7 - Every November, thousands of young South Africans troop to school to be tested on what they have learned in 12 years of education, then spend the next month waiting fearfully for the results. These are the dreaded "matrics," a brace of examinations that determine not only whether one graduates from high school, but whether one's future lies in a university, a technical college or a too-quick trip into South Africa's crowded job market.

Phillip Chauke took his matrics in November and, like everyone else, spent all December in a state of apprehension. Otherwise, however, Mr. Chauke is not at all like everyone else. For one thing, he is 84 years old, not 17. For another, his journey toward matriculation is not so much about the future as the past.

Mr. Chauke was a father to five children and an activist for racial justice, an African National Congress delegate at the approval of this nation's historic Freedom Charter in 1960. But for almost all his life, he was also functionally illiterate, his education halted at the sixth grade, in 1953, with the assistance of South Africa's apartheid police.

His is a cautionary tale about how cruelly history has hobbled the aspirations of this region's people, and how very difficult it is for them to play catch-up.

Mr. Chauke's minimal education was no shame. Even now, the United Nations' educational organization Unesco says, 4 in 10 African adults - 136 million people - cannot read or write. Twenty-one African nations have illiteracy rates higher than 50 percent; 13 of them are in sub-Saharan Africa.

In apartheid-era South Africa, government policy was to prepare blacks for a lifetime of hard labor while whites parlayed the nation's fabulous riches into the continent's wealthiest and most technically advanced society.

One result is that modern South Africa has a first-world economy - and a labor force in which one in three people over age 15 is functionally illiterate, having failed to advance past grade seven, and one in six cannot read or write at all.

Moreover, the number of illiterate and functionally illiterate South Africans is growing with the population, even as 24 percent of government spending, excluding interest payments on debt, goes to education.

In that respect, Phillip Chauke is unusual only in that he has done something about his lack of education. Born in 1921 in what is now southern Zimbabwe, he lived too far from any school to learn to read or write, and moved to Johannesburg at age 18 with no education at all. When his first employer refused to pay him for three months, he was unable to protest, he said, "because I was unable to express myself" either in written Tsongo, his native language, or in Afrikaans or English, both foreign tongues to him.

In his second job, as a gardener, his employer's children persuaded their parents to send Mr. Chauke to night school. Over the next 13 years, in on-and-off night classes after two jobs, he advanced to the brink of a sixth-grade degree.

In August 1953, with examinations two months away, Mr. Chauke went to his 8 p.m. class in downtown Johannesburg only to find the door blocked by a dozen or more police officers. "The apartheid law was strict now," he said, "and we were no longer allowed to be seen in town at night." He and a fellow classmate found a school in a black township, reachable by train, where the classes ended before nightfall.

That November, he took and passed his graduation exam in a Johannesburg technical school. White, Indian and mixed-race students occupied the examination room. Mr. Chauke and other blacks sat at desks pushed out of the room, in the school's hallway.

In 1960, after he and several hundred other African National Congress members approved the Freedom Charter in Soweto's Kliptown neighborhood, Mr. Chauke found himself a marked man, followed by government agents, his house under surveillance. He and his family left for Zimbabwe, where he found work in a Bulawayo clothing factory, and he did not return until Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1991.

He did not abandon schooling - in Zimbabwe, he took correspondence courses in accounting and English - but Mr. Chauke was not seized with the idea of completing his matriculation until 1999, when he resumed studies with the aim of passing grade eight. In 2001, he went back to night school with a vengeance, five days a week, doing his homework in the corrugated-roof garage of his Diepkloof apartment in the evenings so as to not wake his wife, Margaret.

In November, Mr. Chauke finally wrote his matrics, in a big hall with other, much younger students. In late December, South Africa's education minister flew him and Margaret to Cape Town for a ceremony honoring students who pass the annual ordeal.

It would be nice to report that Mr. Chauke passed, too. He almost did. "I've got economics, I've got English, I've got my own language, Tsongo, and I've got history," he said. But his results in mathematics and accounting, he said sadly, were "very poor, very poor."

So Mr. Chauke intends to try again next November. He hopes to enroll this month in an intensive course for the two subjects he needs to complete matriculation. That assumes that he can find the 3,400 rand, or $540, that he needs to pay his fees by this month's end, no easy feat for an old retiree on a slim pension.

One might reasonably ask why an 84-year-old believes he needs to pass his matrics. Mr. Chauke's answer lay in his garage - two slim paperbacks, "Writing the Short Story" and "Novel Writing," laid atop a stack of papers next to his homework table.

"I want to write books about the life of Africans," he said. "About the way we were treated during those colonial years. Because I am one who lived during a very wasted time, and people can learn from me.

"When you matriculate, or when you have a B.A., they recognize that this book has been written by a person who has matured," he said. "It always gives dignity when you read a book by a man who has such a standard of education."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, International, of Tuesday, January 10, 2006. 

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