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A South African Student Looks for Balance

ED GORDON, host:

Democracy is still very young in South Africa. A little more than a decade ago, segregation was the law and racial equality just a dream. But change is happening, and black college students are at the forefront. At the University of Cape Town, black students are more than 50 percent of the student body. But it's not always easy for them to assimilate to academic life. Youth Radio's Nishat Kurwa profiles one student who's helping change South Africa's universities while dealing with the legacy of her country's apartheid past.

NISHAT KURWA reporting:

When Noamkulaleko Sitole(ph) decided to attend the University of Cape Town, she became a pioneer of sorts, part of the small percentage of young people in her hometown that leaves for college. Noamkulaleko's family was a bit different from most in her town. Many of the men there came from rural areas to become miners. But her father became a police officer and earned a reasonable salary. Noamkulaleko's dad was her hero and in turn, he doted on her.

Ms. NOAMKULALEKO SITOLE (South African College Student): Little things that I remember about my father that he used to do and I knew that he loved me--he used to pick me up and hold me up to the sky and kiss me. And I was, like, huge. I was heavy.

KURWA: When Noamkulaleko was 11 years old, her father committed suicide. She was there. He shot himself in their home as his daughter sat watching.

Ms. SITOLE: When he passed away, there was just me. There was just this big open space left in my heart that no one ever bothered to fill and no one knew was there.

KURWA: That's when the loneliness began and the real hardship. After the funeral expenses, her mother had to raise two kids on a meager salary. But she was committed to her children receiving a higher education. Noamkulaleko had never traveled more than three miles outside her hometown until she went to Cape Town for college.

Ms. SITOLE: It was an emotional awakening. I could see the sea, and the air was so fresh. So many miles away from my home and it feels welcoming, only to find out that it's not really that welcoming.

KURWA: Black students from certain township schools are required to take remedial English classes when they first get to college. In high school, Noamkulaleko was told she had an excellent command of English. But a tutor at the university shattered that notion.

Ms. SITOLE: She actually opened up and said to me that it would actually take a longer time for me to grasp academic writing because I come from a black school. From thinking that I was one of them who had the proper tools to make it, I was boxed out and, you know, told that I actually don't have what it takes.

KURWA: Noamkulaleko's confidence sagged. In class, she withdrew and that resignation spilled over into her social life.

Ms. SITOLE: I started devaluing myself. Here I was in an environment that is mostly middle class. I couldn't even afford to buy myself a pair of slippers.

KURWA: Noamkulaleko took a break and returned home. But when she went back to school, a deep depression stayed with her. As she searched for answers, trying to come to terms with her father's life and death, she reached a turning point in her own life. Her father wasn't the hero Noamkulaleko thought he was.

Ms. SITOLE: He was a policeman for the apartheid state. So he was implicated in some killings. There were like a lot of people, especially those who were rebelling against apartheid, who just--they wanted to see him dead.

KURWA: As a child, Noamkulaleko knew her father and his colleagues were hated by anti-apartheid activists, the comrades who she scornfully watched burning tires, singing freedom songs and throwing stones at her father's car windows while she rode shotgun. Only when she was older did she realize the role her father played in her country's repressive policies. Noamkulaleko says the more she digs up about her dad, the more she comes to despise him.

Even though young people like her embody the hope of the post-apartheid era, it's not so easy to leave the past behind. She's still sorting through all the emotions that come up around her father's history, but she's trying to stay positive and make her family proud by finishing school.

Ms. SITOLE: It's important for one to believe in something, because then it gives you light. So if I believe that I'm going to make it in this world, that belief will guide me to my destiny.

KURWA: Noamkulaleko will be graduating from college next year. She's thinking about making a documentary profiling those people who fought against her father. She says as a black person, she's free because of them.

For NPR News, I'm Nishat Kurwa in Cape Town, South Africa.

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nishat Kurwa
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