Top Achievers

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The class of 2021: Resilience and excellence in the face of overwhelming odds

The class of 2021 deserves to be celebrated; perhaps more so than any matric group before them. This was according to South Africa’s Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga, speaking at the release of the 2021 National Senior Certificate (NSC) examination results.

Motshekga said the high-quality results achieved were a hallmark of the performance of the cohort, and that the classes of 2020 and 2021 produced among the best results of quality in the history of the NSC exams. “We are of the strong view that, had it not been for the Covid-19 pandemic, these two classes could have been the best performers since the inception of the NSC exams,” she said. “The unquestionable resilience our school community has shown against such a devastating pandemic cannot go by unnoticed.” 

These classes, she added, persevered against monumental challenges, and obstacles that the system had never been exposed to in the past: “It is without doubt that the 2021 academic year will be remembered as the year that, not only presented major health challenges, but as the second year in which the entire world was held ransom by Covid-19. To date, the class of 2021 has been most affected, as they had to endure two consecutive years of harsh exposure to the unrelenting pandemic. These learners have characterised the resilience of the system, which withstood an unprecedented test of administering an examination of the largest number of candidates, all while faced by the worst pandemic in human history.” 

The class of 2021 felt the effects of lost learning and teaching time in their grade 11 year, and faced the same harsh realities while completing matric. “We continued with differentiated timetabling, trimmed curriculum delivery for the school communities below grade 12, regular provisioning of school feeding and psychosocial services, as well as extra tuition and support provided to the matric class of 2021, which were all intended to mitigate against the risks brought about by the prolonged absence of learners from schooling.” 

Motshekga said the government, in collaboration with the Basic Education Department and other strategic partners, worked tirelessly to strike a balance between saving lives and saving the academic year. 

For this reason, when celebrating the successes, it is essential to contextualise the hostile environment within which the class of 2021 sat for their National Senior Certificate examinations — an environment, added Motshekga, that none of the previous cohorts of learners had ever been exposed to in the past: “The 2021 and 2020 academic years will remain extraordinary years for all sectors in the world, and our Basic Education Sector in particular.” 

Despite this, the department said it was happy to report that Umalusi, the Quality Council in General and Further Education and Training, declared “no systemic irregularities reported that might have compromised the credibility and the integrity of the November 2021 NSC examinations, administered by the DBE”. 

The Executive Committee of Umalusi further approved the “release of the DBE November 2021 NSC examination results, based on the available evidence that the examinations were administered in accordance with the examination policies and regulations”.

In celebrating the achievements of the class of 2021, the minister also paid tribute to the principals, teachers and support staff for the work they have done and continue to do, and applauded their ongoing sacrifices. But, she said, the battle is far from won: “All hands must be on deck, as the class of 2022 may face three consecutive years of hardship, brought on by the pandemic and its variants.” 

She encouraged all learners aged 12-17 who are eligible for the vaccine to get their shot, and reminded educators and support staff to get boosted for additional protection. “This is the best way we can protect our school communities from Covid-19 and its variants,” she said. 

She concluded her address by thanking the class of 2021 for their hard work, and offering some words of support as they enter this new phase of their lives: “Your future is in the palm of your hands, so make the correct choices. I wish you all the best in your youthful lives!” 

She also had encouragement for those candidates who did not perform as well as hoped. “Do not despair; there are lots of life chances available,” she said. “Those who wish to improve their results can enrol for the Second Chance Matric Programme, where you will receive support from the DBE and our partners — we won’t leave you to your own devices!”

Top Achievers 2021: In a class of their own!

The top matric learners in South Africa represent much more than just academic excellence; they carry the entire basic education system on their broad shoulders and embody the hopes and aspirations of their schools, families and communities. This was according to Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga, who addressed a celebratory breakfast in Houghton, Johannesburg, for the top achievers from South Africa’s public schools. 

Motshekga says that to excel at this level is no mean feat: “You must understand the magnitude as a top learner, because the class of 2021 is literally and figuratively in a class of its own. It is the only class so far that studied for two consecutive years under the state of disaster measures to mitigate against the spread of Covid-19.”  These annual celebrations were not a time for modesty, she said, but instead a time to shine: “Honouring the top learners is not an act of vanity but affirmation, because as a nation we affirm that honesty has its rewards; we exalt the virtues of hard work and we truly celebrate the gallant efforts of a select few among us who tower above all the rest.

“These awards focus on 12 years of blood, sweat and tears, and those who make excellence a habit become top learners.” She said it takes dedication to shine as a top learner in the largest public examinations in the SADC region. 

The successes of the top achievers, however, are not theirs alone, Motshekga said: “We know that there is an exhausted teacher, principal and caregiver behind every top learner, and we salute all of you as true patriots. All of you — top learners, teachers, principals and caregivers — represent what it means to be an achiever in the basic education sector through deeds, not words.” 

Motshekga said although completing the NSC examinations was a great mountain to summit, it would serve learners well to remember the words of former president Nelson Mandela: “After climbing a great hill, one finds that there are many more hills to climb.” The journey to tremendous success has only just begun; and she said she looked forward to seeing how these learners tackle the hills that still lie ahead, namely tertiary studies, the world of work and adult life in general. 

While the journey may be far from over, Motshekga said she rests assured knowing that learners have been given a solid foundation early in life, and a springboard to take their dreams to even greater heights. “Indeed, a good beginning makes a good ending, and public schooling teaches beyond academics; it incorporates teaching about life and building a truly democratic, non-racial, non-sexist, united and prosperous society based on justice and equality.” 

She urged learners, especially these top achievers, to grasp the opportunities available to them with both hands. “After 12 years of learning, you have mastered the art of knowledge acquisition; your next step in life is knowledge production! As you begin your journey towards adulthood, history demands you to espouse the values of hard work, honesty, truth, integrity, humility and selflessness as you march to victory and conquer your fears.” 

Free State still top dog – for third consecutive year

When it came to provincial performance and pass rate, the Free State province remained top of the league for a third year in a row with 85.7%. The Department of Basic Education announced that Gauteng came in second with a pass rate of 82.8%, despite a 1% decline from 2020. The Western Cape came in third, followed by the North West province, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, the Eastern Cape, the Northern Cape and Limpopo.

Sazi Bongwe from St John’s College achieved nine distinctions

Public schools competing for South Africa’s best matric results have a high bar to meet — they need at least three distinctions per learner just to make it into the top five! This is according to Gradesmatch, a career guidance platform that monitors and analyses the country’s matric results annually. In 2021 the KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng schools shone: nine of the country’s top 10 schools are situated in these two provinces. 

In first place, with 3.75 distinctions per learner, was Eden College in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. From the same province and in close second was Inkamana School, with 3.73 distinctions per learner. With 3.4 distinctions per learner the Gauteng-based Afrikaans Hoër Meisieskool came in third, followed by Al-Falaag College in KZN and Tshwane Muslim School, with 3.1 and 3.09 distinctions per learner respectively. 

Just outside the top five, Westville Girls High in KwaZulu-Natal achieved almost 2.9 distinctions per learner, with the province’s Star College hot on its heels. In Gauteng, Hoërskool Menlopark boasted 2.88 distinctions per learner while SAMA High School had 2.68 distinctions per learner. Rounding off the top 10 performing public schools for the 2021 academic year was C&N Meisieskool Oranje in the Free State with 2.82 distinctions per learner — the only school to feature on the list from a province other than Gauteng or KwaZulu-Natal. 

Private schools shine with IEB results

The IEB (Independent Examinations Board) matric results showcased the performance of independent and private schools, and there is reason for celebration! This cohort boasts a 98.38% pass rate, up from 98.06% for the class of 2020. 

According to Gradesmatch, of the 12 857 full-time and 968 part-time candidates who wrote the final exam, 89.2% achieved university exemption and are eligible to study for a degree. A further 7.82% qualified for entry to diploma study, while 1.37% achieved entry for study at the Higher Certificate level. 

Takudzwanashe Sithole got eight distinctions and 100% for maths

Among the schools that achieved a 100% pass rate were: Gauteng-based CBC Mount Edmund, St Benedict’s College, St Stithian’s College, Trinity House, St David’s Marist Inanda, Crawford International Sandton, Brescia House School, Redhill School, and Dainfern College; in KwaZulu-Natal, Clifton School, Kingsmead College, St Patrick’s College, Reddam House, and Wykeham Collegiate; Uplands White River in Mpumalanga; and Mitchell House School  in Polokwane, Limpopo. 

Western Cape boasts top maths students 

The Western Cape secured bragging rights of its own. According to Education MEC Debbie Schäfer, the province’s matriculants achieved a provincial pass rate of 81.2% — higher than the national pass rate of 76.4% — and also had the highest percentage of Bachelor’s passes in the country, with 45.3% of learners eligible to study at university. Schafer said the province also retains more learners in the system year on year. 

In terms of individual performances, Ziyaad Banderker from Rondebosch Boys’ High scored the highest national marks for mathematics, while Anna Christina Kriel from Rhenish Girls’ High achieved the country’s second highest maths score. The third-best maths learner in South Africa was Ruan Hermann Buhr, who attended Paul Roos Gimnasium.

Individual achievements

The top three learners in quintile 5 also hail from the Western Cape. Simone Wessels from Stellenbosch High School and Ahyoung Moon from Renish Girls’ High came in second and third place nationally, while Ulrich le Roux, 18, from Hoër Jongeskool Paarl took the top spot in South Africa. Le Roux achieved seven distinctions and an average of 97.86%. Speaking to the media, he said that he was pleasantly surprised when he was announced as South Africa’s top learner: “I never considered I would be the one top learner in the country, but as you can imagine I am very happy and I am looking forward to all of the challenges of this year and I will continue with my studies.” He plans to study actuarial sciences at Stellenbosch in 2022. 

Matthew Shahim got eight distinctions and was in the top 1% for six subjects

Innocent Mathonsi, who was a top achiever in technical sciences and placed third in the category of technical mathematics nationally said he was nervous when he heard what he had achieved, but that that feeling soon gave way to happiness because he knows so many people wish they were where he is. He attributed his success to the top achievers from DD Mabuza Comprehensive School in Mpumalanga who came before him: “They came to motivate us to work hard and I took their advice, stayed motivated and never looked back!” He added that he could not believe that all his hard work was finally paying off, and acknowledged that the support he received at home and the fact that he had access to a computer and the internet made a big difference to his studies.

St John’s College took to Twitter to congratulate its top student, Sazi Bongwe, who achieved an average of 95.9% and raked in nine distinctions. This achiever has his sights set on Harvard. His classmate Takudzwanashe Sithole achieved an 89.4% average with eight distinctions, most notably a result of 100% in maths! One third of the college’s class of 2021 achieved six or more distinctions, while of the 140 matric students, 15 had an average above 90%. 

Mohamed Zidan Cassim from St David’s Marist Inanda bagged 10 distinctions and can count himself in the top 1% for both accounting and English. In a video posted to Twitter, he attributed his success to the phenomenal support he received while pursuing his dreams: “My advice to the class of 2022 would be to support each other and rely on the people around you — your teachers, your parents, your family and your friends — because really that is what got me through the year.” He said he plans on studying computer and electrical engineering at UCT, but added that he has also applied to a number of international institutions, as he has set his sights on studying abroad.  

Mohamed Zidan Cassim from St David’s Marist Inanda bagged 10 distinctions

An equally impressive achievement from St David’s came from Matthew Shahim, who achieved eight distinctions and placed in the IEB Outstanding Achievers top 1% in accounting, Afrikaans, CAT, IT, maths and physical sciences.

Kwamhlanga Secondary School’s Angela Kgothatso Mpaka was hailed as 2021’s overall top achiever in Mpumalanga, beating almost 67 000 other learners in the province, and is also the national leader in the quintile 2 schools category. She obtained seven distinctions, with marks of 95% for IsiNdebele home language, 88% for English first additional language, 100% for mathematics, 94% for life orientation, 99% for accounting, 97% for life sciences and 100% for physical sciences. She was awarded a bursary, a new car, a cash prize and a number of electronic items to assist her on her learning journey going forward.

Resilience in the face of hardship: When Plan A doesn’t pan out

Incorrect study choices, poor self-knowledge and self-expectations as opposed to parental expectations are some of the most common challenges that school leavers face. This is according to counselling psychologist and founder of The Career Guidance Company, Zakiyya Essa. Essa has been working with youth since 2011 to develop self-esteem and mental wellbeing to empower them to make healthy, holistic and well-informed academic and career decisions. She specialises in career counselling, employability training and psychometric assessments. 

Zakiyya Essa, counselling psychologist and founder of The Career Guidance Company

She said poor self-knowledge is about much more than just personal and professional interests. “It also has to do with personality strengths and limitations and values,” she explained. Poor career and study awareness relates to career trends, the opportunities that are out there and the academic and vocational routes available to access these opportunities. “Incorrect subject choices in high school can also result in limited tertiary study options for school leavers.” 

When young people are making a career choice, Essa said there are two important things to keep in mind: “Firstly, it is important to take ownership of your career choice process. This means doing your research beforehand so that you are well-informed about the world of studying and work before making a decision. Secondly, you must look at your personality, your interests, your abilities and your personal values; these will guide you in choosing a study direction and career path that is suitable for you.” 

Even with maximum preparation, even the best-laid plans can sometimes go awry —  learners may not perform as well as they had hoped, or they might not be selected to study their preferred course or at their favoured institution. This can be devastating, said Essa,  but should not be seen as a disaster. “Young people and their parents should change their mindsets around how they see failures and disappointments,” she advised. “Great people fail at things all the time and use the opportunity to re-strategise and see how they could do things differently.” 

She said it is necessary to acknowledge the disappointment and it’s normal to feel sad when things do not work out the way they have been planned, but added: “It’s okay though because there is always a Plan B (and C and D) to get to where you need to go! Let’s call it taking the scenic route! Our ‘GPS’ might get mixed up or go off-road, but it’s taking us on a journey of discovery, growth and may potentially open up new opportunities and doors that we didn’t even think would exist. Seek out support from those around you and consult a career counsellor on how to plan your next step so that you are better informed and prepared going forward.” 

She cautioned against seeing rejections or failings as the end of the world: “Rejections and failures can be very enriching experiences. Embrace them, work with them and try to extract the lesson from the experience. You might never know what you are truly capable of if you just run in a straight line; after all, it’s much more of an adventure to clamber over the rocks, crawl through the nets, dip your feet in the water and climb up the trees! At the low points, side points and high points you get different perspectives.” 

And these new perspectives may make all the difference. 

Dr Simangele Mayisela is an educational psychologist and a senior lecturer at Wits University. She said young people should be encouraged to expose themselves to new experiences and ways of thinking and explore the world beyond their comfort zones and frames of reference. 

This exploration should be encouraged by parents, who may have to do some exploring and research of their own to properly support their children. A child might, for example, approach their parents with an interest in pursuing a career in fashion design. “If that child comes from a very conventional household, then their parents might say to them that they should pursue a ‘real’ degree because surely they don’t want to end up sewing dresses next to the side of the road,” she said. “They will say that not knowing that a degree in textiles, fashion design or visual arts could be a decent and sustainable way to earn a living — all because they are as parents are also unfamiliar with the options that exist.” This, she says, is why the exploratory journey should be a collaborative effort between parents and their children, and not a one-sided crusade. 

Building resilience 

Essa described resilience as the ability to adapt well to adversities and challenges, while dealing with setbacks in a healthy manner. “In order to cultivate resilience, you need to develop a strong self-awareness, emotional awareness, good coping skills and learn how to problem-solve,” she says. “Developing a growth mindset will take you a long way!” 

Mayisela agreed, but added that resilience is cumulative; it cannot be built overnight or be based on a single event. “Within the family, and within the cycles of a child, they are being prepared as they  grow and they are being empowered, because they observe the disappointments of others — especially their parents — and learn based on that how to react to disappointments of their own,” she said. “In short, dealing with disappointments is modelled on the behaviours of those around us.” 

She cautioned parents that they are not just setting an example through their actions, but also through their words and the language that they use when it comes to performance: “What do these parents say when the matriculant from next door doesn’t do well? What conversations are taking place at the dinner table? When another child does not perform well, do the parents say that they are not good enough, instead of that their performance is not satisfactory; do they say the child is a failure, rather than the child failed at a task? As children listen to these types of statements, they are absorbing and internalising them. When we say ‘failure’ it is a continuous state, an identity even; if we say ‘failed’ then it refers to an event that is passing and not enduring.” 

Advice for parents 

Essa’s advice for parents, family and friends of learners who may be experiencing some difficulty coming to terms with disappointment, is this: “First, try to empathise with what our learners are going through — it’s a very competitive world out there and they may have tried their best, but they cannot control the outcome of the process. Support them by demonstrating that it’s ok to not get things underway the first time and that this is a part of growing up, and learning how to make contingency plans! Empower them to look for alternatives and come up with creative solutions. There are other options out there, they just need some help to see past the disappointment and find an alternative that works for them. Help them to access information and provide network opportunities for them or enlist professional counselling services if you aren’t able to access the accurate information and resources to assist them.” 

She said parents, teachers and the community at large need to step in to support students who are struggling to cope. “Making a career decision shouldn’t be a rushed choice, and learners should know that it’s ok to take a year off after school to explore, experience what’s out there, upgrade their marks and then apply for tertiary studies,” she said. “It’s easy to forget that they have the rest of their lives to work and learn even more, so it is okay to take some time out to just focus on their mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing.” She said parents may be pleasantly surprised with the results that this type of decision may yield. “The knock-on effect will enable your child to more optimistically engage with their academic, occupational and social wellbeing.” 

Mayisela said parents should also have realistic expectations of their children, and facilitate a safe space for discussion and debriefing. Parents should also be prepared for the fact that their child might arrive home after one semester of varsity and tell them that their study choice was a mistake and that they would like to change direction. This might be disappointing, but can also be terrifying for a child who wants to make their loved ones proud. “Here, it’s important to remind yourself and your child that learning is a lifelong journey, and in today’s world it is not unheard of for a person to change careers multiple times throughout their lives,” she said. “We should be encouraging them to explore and be dynamic and adaptive in this ever-changing world.” 

When to seek help

Essa said it’s natural to feel sad — or even angry or despondent — when things do not work out. “Seeking professional help might be an essential part of the process when someone is starting out in life, and will help arm them with the most updated resources and tools to help them make good decisions.” This is especially true if a young person is feeling stuck or overwhelmed, or seems unable to shift their focus away from the negatives. “This is when it helps to enlist the assistance of a professional to assist them redirect themselves and realign their goals.”  

Mayisela said when the thoughts and feelings of failure become increasingly pervasive and all-encompassing, then it might be time to seek professional help for your child. “There is a difference between reflecting and negative obsessing with no solution-focused outcomes — this can become a consuming mentality,” she said. Other warning signs include social withdrawal, a lack of personal hygiene and grooming, a loss of interest in regular activities, sleeping too little or sleeping too much, and physiological symptoms such as lethargy, stomach pain, body aches or nausea. Parents and friends may also pick up on negative or self-harming thoughts through social media posts. 

If you are worried about your loved one, you can contact the following numbers for advice: 

Lifeline – 0861 322 322

Childline – 0800 055 555

SADAG (South African Depression and Anxiety Group) – 0800 456 789

Top online learner proves schooling can be pandemic-proofed!

Online schools have seen enrollments increasing dramatically since the start of the global Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, with some parents still concerned about how these remote options measure up to more traditional schooling options. Those who still have reservations, however, need only to speak to Teneo Online School’s Skye Austin. Austin was recently announced by The South African Comprehensive Assessment Institute (SACAI) —  the assessment body that assesses the National Senior Certificate (NSC) qualifications for distance and online schools — as its top achiever for 2021, beating more than 4 000 other candidates who wrote the NSC matric final. 

Skye Austin, Top Achiever for 2021, is an avid horse rider

Eighteen-year old Austin, from Sedgefield in the Western Cape, received the highest average of the group, raking in seven distinctions. This is no mean feat, especially considering that she only transitioned from a traditional brick-and-mortar school to online schooling in her grade 11 year. Austin has managed to secure one of the highly contested spots to study veterinary science at the University of Pretoria.

 An avid horse rider, Austin has spent most of her life competing, and thrived in an environment that gave her control over her own time. “I found that online students have more freedom to plan our time and how we use and prioritise it, which is an essential life skill, and this made balancing school with training sessions manageable,” she said. “It helps students to pursue other interests and passions, and my passion for horses and animals is what has led me to want to study veterinary science.”

 She said she is elated with her results. “I’m ecstatic to finally hold my matric certificate, after years of hard work.” She achieved 96% in mathematics and 88% in life sciences — marks that, combined with her passion for animals, helped her secure a coveted admission to South Africa’s prime veterinary institution.  

  “Aside from wanting to protect my family from being exposed to Covid-19 while I was at school, I was also concerned about how the unpredictability of the school year would affect my results.” She explained that her online schooling was divided between live classes with teachers and other students as well as self-study time, which was greatly beneficial to her. “I learn best when studying by myself, from the comfort of my own home, with far fewer distractions than I would have in a physical classroom. The class recordings are also a great help when it comes to revision,” she added.

Despite all interactions being virtual, she said she still forged fantastic relationships with teachers and her peers which she values, and that she was encouraged to form bonds with students to make friends from different walks of life, from all over the country.

When looking for the right school for her, online infrastructure was important to her. “lt is important to consider whether the school has what is necessary to support academic activities so that engaging classes and remote exams are seamless, no matter how many students are on the system at the same time,” she explained. She said it is also important to consider whether extra-curricular and social activities are important and how the school offers or supports these activities. “As my own sports were external to the school, online schooling did not stop me from following my passions and was therefore a good decision for me.” 

She said while she understands that many people might still have reservations about leaving brick-and-mortar schools behind, she has not regretted her decision: “I think South Africans are starting to see the benefits of online school, but many are perhaps still a bit hesitant to take the leap. I would like to tell them that it offers the same standard of teaching, if not higher,  than any physical school does, and gives more curriculum options. At the end of the day, you walk away with the same National Senior Certificate that will unlock your future.” 

A year to bridge the gap

Even top achievers might feel the need to take a break from formal education structures after 12 years of hard work. When done correctly though, a gap year offers the opportunity to have a year on and not a year off. 

For some, the gap can become too wide and it may become more difficult to restart an academic career or enter the job market. Here, motivation is key. Post-matric youth must establish why they want to take a gap year, and what they hope to gain from the experience. 

De Wet Krige took a gap year after matric for the purpose of his personal and spiritual development

For those who want to make an impact, various structured and informal opportunities exist for volunteering. Here, young people can give their time and skills to assist at non-profit organisations without any desire for financial gain. This is a great opportunity to gain work experience before going to study further, while also exploring professional and personal interests outside of the education system. 

There are also a number of fellowships available to school-leavers who want to change the world and make their mark. One of these is the Global Citizen Fellowship for young Africans. This is an opportunity to engage in a year-long, paid fellowship aligned to Global Citizen’s pillars of creativity, campaigning, rewards and marketing. The fellows leave after their year of completing a multiphase curriculum better equipped with the skills and tools needed to excel.  

Some young people might take a gap year in order to raise some money to study further. Finding a job straight out of school can be a challenge, so many school-leavers opt to start a small business of their own to help generate an income. Others look to retail or child-minding jobs like being an au pair or babysitter for extra money. Today, there is even a market for pet-sitters, dog-walkers and house-sitters. 

For those who can afford to do so, travelling is another option. This is a phenomenal opportunity to be exposed to different people, places and cultures and gain a better understanding of the world outside of your comfort zone. This can also be a chance to learn a new language or pick up a new skill, like cooking. For those who don’t have the financial means, travel plans can be combined with volunteer work to ease the burden. The concept of a gap year has always been closely linked to travel; in the 17th and 18th centuries young people of considerable wealth and status would undertake what was known as “The Grande Tour” — visiting Europe’s main cultural hubs before settling down back home.  

A variety of gap year programmes exist in South Africa and abroad, and offer young adults the opportunity to get to know themselves, explore their options, pursue their passions and gain some real-world experience before embarking on further studies — all in a safe and structured environment. 

Gap years don’t just happen, and require a lot of planning. Depending on the type of gap year, they can also be expensive, costing as much, if not more, than a year at an institution of higher learning! 

Taking time to figure it out

De Wet Krige, 19, matriculated in 2020 from Helpmekaar College in Johannesburg. Unsure about what he wanted to do after completing high school, he decided to enrol in the Cape Town-based PNX Pneumatix Gap Year, a one-year programme for post-matric youth between the ages of 18 and 25. Programmes like this expose young people to more than 30 careers and more than 100 industry professionals over the course of a year. 

De Wet described his life-changing experience: 

“I didn’t quite know what I wanted for my future, both in terms of my career and my life, and I didn’t want to rush into anything and make big, life-changing decisions that I would regret later. I decided that the best thing for me to do would be to take a year to discover who I am, what my interests are and gain a better understanding of my options going forward; that would be the wisest decision for me. 

I decided on the PNX or Pneumatix Gap Year programme based in Somerset West near Cape Town. The gap year programme focused on personal development, but also on spiritual development through Christian ministry. The programme also has an amazing adventure element to it, as well as a strong career focus. 

When it comes to adventure we did it all; from the big adventures such as skydiving and bungee jumping, travelling to Mozambique and surfing, and road trips to the most amazing places. We also did smaller adventures like laser tag and bowling. 

The programme was a year long and I can honestly say it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, especially because it focused so intensely on personal and career development, as well as guiding me to help make career choices that would work for me. During the course I was exposed to numerous career and life coaching sessions to help me in my decisions. 

The programme can be quite expensive, which is something that must be considered, but I’d say the benefits I received made it all worthwhile, as I have much more clarity about who I am as a person and what my interests are. I’ve also learned so many valuable skills over the past year — I am now first aid certified! I also completed numerous courses, including an internationally accredited nutritionist course and a life coaching course. I also gained many other basic skills, such as cooking. 

The only disadvantage I can think of is that a lot of my peers have started studying already, so I sometimes have to remind myself that I’m not ‘a year behind’ because the skills that I’ve learned are so beneficial and will help me make up for any lost time. 

I would definitely recommend a gap year, but also tell people to make sure that they are doing it for the right reasons; I think just wanting a year off or not wanting to study is the wrong motivation. I think a gap year should have a purpose, and there should be a plan and a goal for what you want to get out of your gap year. Some people think that just staying at home loafing is a gap year, but there are a lot of other options. 

I think it’s important for parents to know that a gap year isn’t a bad thing, as so many parents think it is, especially not if you do a programme like I did. I know that my peers and I grew tremendously over the past year — spiritually, physically, emotionally and in maturity. I also know that we left feeling more motivated to get started with our futures, to enter studies or the workforce and to start doing something with our lives. It might seem like a big decision, but it is the best one if you are unsure about what you want. It is an amazing opportunity to take that bit of time and breathe; reassess, reevaluate, rediscover and develop skills that will take you and your dreams to new heights.”

Growing pains: Why even top achievers may struggle post-matric

Young people have always faced certain challenges as they adjust to the post-school adult world, but the classes that matriculated since the start of the pandemic are in a unique context. This is according to Dr Simangele Mayisela, an educational psychologist and a senior lecturer at Wits University. “They were under immense stress, and we cannot deny that they were highly traumatised,” she explained. “There has been so much unpredictability, and with unpredictability comes anxiety.” 

Dr Simangele Mayisela, an educational psychologist and a senior lecturer at Wits University

This unpredictability, she said, may also have led to some students resigning themselves to the fact that they would not perform as well as they could have under “normal” circumstances — but many of these learners ended up surprising themselves! 

“They underestimated their expected performance, and were caught unprepared because they had not made plans to apply at universities, because they did not expect to qualify,” she explained. This means that even learners who exceeded their own expectations and the expectations of others might be experiencing uncertainty and disappointment at their prospects. “The challenge lies in this discrepancy, because you are sitting with good results and you should be proud, but you haven’t prepared, so you haven’t applied at the appropriate institutions or for programmes that would have been your first choice if you had known that you would have performed as well as you did.” 

This is an interesting conundrum, she said, because most parents are at least marginally prepared to deal with a child’s disappointment at not performing well, but few know what to do in face of the turmoil of performing better than expected! This scenario, however, comes with a set of challenges of its own. “Suddenly learners are going back to the drawing board and feeling pressured to apply for courses just because they can — but this is a hasty decision that many of them have not thought through properly and might end up regretting.”

While these learners and their parents might find it disappointing that applications for some courses have already closed, Mayisela said this might actually be a saving grace. “It helps them, because it forces them to sit back and consider what they actually want to do, instead of rushing into a decision.” 

These rash decisions and the regrets that follow are often driven by young people who have a false sense of perception of self. This, she said, isn’t a stretch of logic because “even their results and their expectations do not show a true perception of who they are”. For these youths, a break between school and studies would be appropriate for them to gain a sense of self-knowledge, self-awareness and better understanding of their skills, abilities, values and interests. 

This, she said, does not necessarily mean taking a full gap year, but could mean enrolling for short courses or for programmes that have their first intake in the second half of the year. “At the end of the day, it is about exposure and developing interests outside of the school environment.” 

From a small pond to a big one

Natalie performed exceptionally well throughout her high school career, often competing for one of the top three academic spots in her grade. She was the school hockey captain and in her matric year was elected head girl. She matriculated with six distinctions and received a bursary to study a competitive and prestigious undergraduate degree at her favoured institution. 

Her mother said despite this, she noticed a change in her child in the months after she completed high school: “She used to be motivated and driven, but she seemed to become more listless and less herself. She wasn’t my bubbly, chatty little girl anymore and when she got home, she withdrew into her own world. I noticed that she seemed more anxious than before, and had a much shorter temper.” 

Counselling psychologist Zakiyya Essa said this is not an uncommon narrative. “There’s a lot of uncertainty when you enter a new environment like university or college,” she explained, adding that this uncertainty has increased exponentially since the start of the pandemic. “You’re out of your comfort zone, have newfound independence, you are exposed to diverse people and to much more than your safety bubble at home and school.” 

For this reason, she said, even the most well-adjusted, top-performing students may find themselves struggling with anxiety, emotional regulation and with taking personal responsibility for themselves and their academic learning path. Some may be subject to peer pressure and have poor social support. 

Mayisela agreed; the transition from being a big fish in a small, very comfortable pond to suddenly being a guppy in an unfamiliar ocean can be a jarring one, and can leave even the most accomplished of learners questioning themselves, their abilities and their identity: “You have worked your entire childhood to establish yourself and your identity as a sports star or an academic top achiever, and everyone knows you for that and validates you in that identity.” 

At university, however, this all changes: “Remember, now you are one student in a class filled with all the top students and team captains from all the schools, from all walks of life. You are suddenly just a student like all the other students, and nobody knows you or knows how excellent you are. And then comes the first assignment…” For a student who is used to being first in class, the realisation that the social and academic hierarchy has changed can be a painful reality to adjust to. 

Mayisela said this is why orientation week is so important, as it helps students adjust to the new social and academic setting they find themselves in and helps them form bonds that can carry them through the initial adjustment to post-school life, and beyond. 

This is also an opportunity for them to become acquainted with student support services such as counselling, which they can access should they feel more help is needed to adapt to student life and all the excitement and anxieties that come with it. 

Essa said that the best way to mitigate the stress is for new students to find social anchors and familiarise themselves with their new routines and environments as soon as possible.“Being able to succeed in the bigger ocean of life requires you to develop a healthy self-esteem, emotional intelligence, good social network, organisational skills, adaptability and resourcefulness,” she said. “Good financial management habits are also important.” 

She encouraged young people to try to be open to these new experiences, viewing them through a curious lens rather than seeing it as a tough road ahead. “And remember to ask for help if you are not coping; there are ample support structures in tertiary institutions and in the workplace to facilitate a healthy adjustment.”  

The class of 2021 is living in unprecedented times, and while this might be terrifying, Essa said it is also exciting: “We are living in dynamic times, with exciting opportunities and advances in the world! There is so much room for creativity, innovation and collaboration in the world of studying and the world of work. Seize the opportunities and look ahead with enthusiasm and optimism. You are unique and the world needs your uniqueness; you’ve got what it takes to create a meaningful impact in the world.” 

Primestars Matric Top Achievers #StandingWithTheClassOf2021

Thousands of grade 12 learners have undergone the eduCate programme over the last 10 years, which offers additional support in maths and science revision to learners from under-resourced public schools in preparation for their final matric examinations. eduCate has a proven track record of successfully implemented revision programmes across all nine provinces, with increased demand annually. Emphasising the effectiveness of the programme, the independently conducted annual sample Impact Study has demonstrated that maths and science annual marks increased by a minimum of 10% in participating schools.

Last year, the programme innovated to successfully pivot its implementation model to align to national safety regulations without compromising the reach and impact amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Their #StandingWithTheClassOf2021 campaign was aimed at offering additional support to the matric xlass of 2021 — particularly those in under-resourced communities — after they had missed out on critical contact time with teachers due to the lockdown regulations. Over 30 000 matriculants benefitted. Martin Sweet, Director of Primestars, said: “The class of 2021 were at a great academic disadvantage, as they lost class time in grade 11 and again in 2021. Thanks to the support of our committed stakeholders, we dedicated more resources to helping the class of 2021 while still adhering to strict health and safety measures. Congratulations to the class of 2021 — and to the class of 2022, get ready, we’re #InItWithYou”. 

The programme’s proven track record has resulted in more schools requesting support this year. If new financial contributions can be secured from co-investors, Primestars aims to reach more learners through:

  • National Cinema sessions  
  • In-school (screenings in rural schools) 
  • WhatsApp content delivery.

“Primestars is extremely passionate about this programme, and we are honoured to have sponsors on board that share the same passion for the programme and the potential it holds in offering young South Africans a better future. 

“We extend our sincere gratitude to sponsors including Sanlam Foundation, Sasria, Omnia, Liberty, African Bank, PPS, Bidvest Services, Cell C, Standard Bank, WDB, Anglo American, Spar, Attacq Foundation, BCW, PwC, Sizwe Africa IT Group, Rohlig Grindrod, Shoprite, HCI Foundation and Brits Nonwoven,” concluded Sweet.

To join the movement and enable more learners in need, contact Primestars on 011 430 4740. 

As testament to the phenomenal year of hard work and dedication, these are a few of our Top Achievers in 2021

Retshepile Likhoele

BLOEMFONTEIN HIGH SCHOOL

Retshepile Likhoele

83% maths 

75%  physics 

Retsheipile Likhoele had an extremely challenging year and thus is very proud of her results. She worked hard and it’s all paying off. Her biggest challenge in 2022 was access to resources and online WhatsApp classes. Luckily her family managed to secure a limited access WiFi package that helped her when she was unable to attend classes at school. She has been accepted into further studies of her second choice. Her first love is medicine, but she says she will find her way back to it.

Nelisiwe Ndlovu

KWA DLANGEZWA HIGH SCHOOL, RICHARDS BAY  

Nelisiwe Ndlovu

83% maths

80% science 

Nelisiwe  Ndlovu said it took many sleepless nights, lots of hard work and determination to obtain the results she wanted. She says the matric revision programme was really helpful in preparing for her final examinations. She  is registered for further studies and hopes to one day be in dental therapy.

Lubabalo Ngcobo

WALMER HIGH SCHOOL, EASTERN CAPE

Lubabalo Ngcobo

Five distinctions

87% maths 

84% science

Covid-19 brought so many challenges to the year, which was mentally and physically just exhausting. With the help of the Programme, his teachers and his family, Lubabalo Ngcobo was able to achieve five distinctions. He is waiting for feedback on his application to university to study medicine.

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