Silver streamers shimmy across the threshold of the ballroom. Light bounces off the walls from the spinning strobe above the dance floor. Flowers and candlelight adorn formally set tables on this sparkling night here, a night of any schoolgirl's dreams.
Air kisses and teenage squeals break out all over the lobby of the Wanderers golf club, a staid old English place now filled with a sea of spandex, and satin and lace gowns cut appropriately low, in a conspicuous display of young womanhood. It's the Parktown High School for Girls' "matric" dance, the equivalent of the senior prom.
The girls are blond, brunet, buoyant and pampered, for this is their world. This is a world bequeathed to them by 75 years of Parktown Girls history and its place in three centuries of white presence in Africa's southern region.
A sprinkling of African, Indian and mixed-race girls arrive--beautifully coiffed and cornrowed, as glittery and glamorous as all the rest. But they are less buoyant, more reserved, as if floating above this scene, as though this place is not really for them. Soon they are absorbed in the gaggles and clutches of girls just being girls--until it's time to sit at tables, when the separateness sets in again.
Zanele Mogorosi, with a queenly entrance befitting the glamorous dress that she herself designed, finally arrives with her entourage of friends. They are more than fashionably late, but for practical reasons. Transport from the Chiawelo section of Soweto, on Johannesburg's south side, is long and difficult, especially for teens dependent on other people's cars and unfamiliar with this area that was once off-limits to blacks.
But theirs is a journey of more than just distance. It is across worlds, across cultures, across the new South African bridge, from the underprivileged world of the black majority to the still-privileged world of the white minority, spanning a history that once would have made nights such as this impossible.
This is a place where South Africa's cultures collide, and this is the story of Zanele Mogorosi, one 17-year-old girl among legions of black children bravely integrating white schools that only recently excluded them, making personal compromises as well as achievements in the process.
Never mind for tonight that the South African bridge they cross is one-way. Tonight is not the night to remember that it is blacks in the new South Africa who are moving into the previously all-white world and not vice versa. Or that Zanele and others like her must struggle against white expectations that blacks must conform to their world.
Zanele navigates these contradictions every day, but despite the struggle, she embraces Parktown Girls as her own. She is here tonight to be a part of its revelry.
Shouts and cheers break out from the dance floor. A school ritual is about to begin. Her school "house," named for the dryads, Greek nymphs of the trees, is taking up position for the Greek dance of Zorba. Zanele rushes down, where girls are kicking off their platform shoes and spike heels, and locks arms in the broad circle--white, brown, black. And they dance, round and round.
Friction and Accommodation
Zanele is in her school uniform: dark blue blazer, royal blue jumper, white shirt, striped blue-and-white tie, sensible lace-up black shoes. Her braids, with the hair extensions, are tied back in a bun. School policy: no loose hair. She's wearing her green Dryad pin and her name tag, too--another school policy.
She moves comfortably through the school hallways and grounds, showing a visitor its labs, library and computer center, its photo displays of the school's long history, its separate restrooms and gates for each grade level, its auditorium and outdoor amphitheater, tennis and netball courts, swimming pool and tree-lined sports ground.
There's nothing like this in Soweto.
"That's how it is," Zanele shrugs, seated on one of the three terraced lawns of the school grounds. She is explaining why she believes that predominantly white schools in the new South Africa offer the most solid education. It's not how she'd like it to be, just "how it is." The schools in the black townships have facilities that are decrepit, equipment in short supply, overcrowded classes and teachers with less training.
From the apartheid days, she says, "that thing has been put into our heads, that anything having to do with white people has higher standards, and anything having to do with black people comes crashing down.
"In time," she says, "people are going to be more comfortable with each other and that white domination thing will fade away. . . . I'm really depending on time to change everything."
Since apartheid's slow dismantling in the early 1990s and its ultimate end with the 1994 election, a tidal wave of black students like Zanele has surged into schools that once were all-white. There are no statistics yet to chart this demographic move, but it is evident each day in South Africa's white neighborhoods. Where once the sea of uniformed students spilling onto the streets was white, in many places today it is black and brown. The highways around the big cities are clogged with minivans and buses carrying these children to schools in the white areas from communities like Soweto.
But in the move from Soweto to Parktown, Zanele penetrates a staunch white-minority milieu often heavily focused on European culture rather than African. In ways large and small, these integrated schools have become "theaters of struggle," as the South African Human Rights Commission concluded this year in a report on racism and desegregation in South Africa's schools.
Rather than setting the stage for multiculturalism, too many schools, said the report, operate "as laboratories for cultural assimilation where black learners are by and large tolerated rather than affirmed as of a right." These elite schools behave as European outposts, not as part of the South African renaissance that South Africa's president-in-waiting, Thabo Mbeki, would like them to be.
Parktown Girls, a school of about 800, began accepting black students in 1991. Today it is about 40 percent nonwhite.
"We're very pleased because we are one of the few [formerly white schools] able to maintain this balance," the principal, Anthea Ceresto, says of Parktown's racial "balance."
She explains that similar private schools have become basically all black because of the rush to get in, while others have placed restrictions on nonwhite entrants. According to the human rights report, predominantly white schools restrict black enrollment by barring those who don't speak English as their first language, by charging exorbitant fees or by busing in whites to fill up enrollment.
But Zanele says she feels comfortable at Parktown. "We get along quite well, actually," she says. "We've never had any racial fights."
She has white friends there, though she's never been to their homes and they've never been to hers. Soweto and Parktown always have been separate worlds: the former symbolizing the racial engineering and deprivation that apartheid's architects used to hem black people in; the latter symbolizing the privilege and exclusion of the white enclaves here. The maids and gardeners in Parktown come from places like Soweto.
It is against the backdrop of this socioeconomic divide that Zanele and her schoolmates interact.
Well, yes, she says, there are moments of friction. Class discussions of apartheid make "the white girls get so upset" about what happened in the country's past, and discussions about current issues such as affirmative action spark debates about new rights and race.
There are cultural collisions, too. The deejays for school socials tend to be white. "We have to beg to get black deejays," Zanele says. And the snacks sold in the school shop are not the super-sweet multicolored popcorns and imitation fruit drinks available everywhere in Soweto.
"We've got vegetarians in school, whereas in Soweto I don't think there are any vegetarians," she says of her community of 3 million.
Initially, teachers seemed never to have the time to figure out how to pronounce her Tswana surname properly. "Yes, ma'am, I'm here, but that's not my name," Zanele says, play-acting her defiant response to the mutations of "Mogorosi" she's had to bear during roll call.
Deeper cultural misunderstandings center on certain African rituals. Some black girls have gotten into trouble for wearing goatskin bracelets, breaking the dress code. It had to be explained to school officials that wearing such bracelets is a mourning ritual.
"So they've accommodated us," Zanele says.
But she knows, also, that she accommodates them. "Black people are regarded as very loud," she says. "When black people come in contact with white people, we have to adjust."
Back in Soweto, she must also adjust. Kids there speak to her in English these days, not in her native Tswana. To her, it's tantamount to being called white, though no one in Soweto has said this to her face.
But she and her black friends at Parktown joke about it.
"Maybe you come to school with a healthy lunch, an apple, a cheese-and-lettuce sandwich, and we'll say, 'Oh, what's with the healthy food, whitey?'
"That's a way to wake us up and bring us back." Back, she says, to black.
Nights of Fear
When Nelson Mandela walked out of jail in 1991 after 27 years of political imprisonment, Zanele was 9 years old, too young to know the anti-apartheid struggle firsthand.
What she knows, she learns from reading or from her classes--"we're dealing with the apartheid era in history"--or from her mother, Connie, a receptionist at a human rights law firm.
Zanele can remember nights of fear in her small apartment, when gunfire and mayhem would break out in the areas surrounding Chiawelo as township "comrades" battled apartheid's police or each other.
"As soon as the elections come, this is all going to end," her mother would tell her reassuringly. The election came in April 1994, and Zanele has come to be a student of Mandela's life.
"I think he's the most tolerant person. I read his book 'Long Walk to Freedom.' He could have easily said 'Fine. All those things you white people did to us, now you're gonna get.' " But he didn't, which is why she admires him.
"I really look up to that man," she says, adding, "but not as much as I look up to Winnie."
That's Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Mandela's former wife, known by many as "mother of the nation" because of her long years of persecution while Mandela was in jail, known by others as the woman convicted of kidnapping in connection with the disappearance of a youthful "comrade" who later was found dead. Zanele sees in her a strong spirit of resistance that she admires.
In preparing for her oral exams in school recently, Zanele decided to speak on the theme of change. She's written out key words as prompts, but otherwise will speak extemporaneously about "how we are privileged compared to our parents and that our children will be even more privileged than us. . . ."
"The way we had to live our lives to the comfort of the white person, how a black person could never be something that they wanted to be . . . and how they [whites] are always trying to explain." She stops her thought and throws out a retort to whites. "There's no need to explain. If you're feeling guilty, well, sorry."
She lowers her voice. Her speech, she says with conspiratorial delight, is "gonna be very, very sensitive."
Zanele's mom pays 5,077 rand (just under $1,000) a year for Parktown Girls tuition, a tenth of her salary. Getting her children--she has a 25-year-old son--properly educated and into adulthood has been her life's goal.
Zanele started school at L.C. Ngidi Primary in Soweto, but the teachers used corporal punishment there, and some instructors left before the day was over, mother and daughter say.
"When she was still here, she would fake sick because she was afraid of being punished at the school," Connie Mogorosi says. Going to schools outside Soweto "was for her own good."
Zanele transferred to the posh Houghton Primary seven years ago when she could barely speak English, and then moved on to Parktown Girls.
She has a two-hour commute each way because the school bus makes many stops to pick up other black and brown girls heading from their downtrodden townships to Parktown.
The sacrifices and inconveniences that come along with this arrangement don't faze her mother, who believes that these experiences will make Zanele "more independent. I don't mind. Whatever she wants, she can do. I'll just pay for it," Connie Mogorosi says, laughing, saying her daughter is still "just a Tswana woman" unchanged by being at this cutting edge between those who can afford to branch out beyond Soweto and those who cannot.
Despite leaving Soweto and sometimes struggling with identity issues, "there's nothing to regret, really," Zanele says. "The standard of education is totally different, so it's really my gain. . . . All the early mornings and the long travel, it's going to be worth it for me. It's making me more responsible."
Zanele plans to go to college and earn a business degree. She hopes to get a job as a flight attendant. She'll see the world. Then she'll morph into management and rise through the ranks, she says, maybe one day managing an airport.
That's Zanele's plan. She reads the newspapers--the school keeps a stack of them--and sees lots of opportunities in tourism marketing and management or, as a fallback, banking management.
Asked if she foresees any limitations, a look of puzzlement crosses her face. "I've never actually thought about that."
But whatever happens, she says, she wants to always remain in or very near Soweto. Those fancy suburbs, with their walled grounds and swimming pools, are not the place for her.
Going to white neighborhoods for a better education is one thing, but she wants to live among her own people, with her own language and cultural rituals. Whites do not understand or appreciate African customs, she says, and that would be a hassle.
"Let's say I get married and we have to slaughter a cow. They will call the police." She laughs, but it happens.
CAPTION: "When black people come in contact with white people, we have to adjust," says Zanele Mogorosi, at the prom for the once all-white Parktown High School for Girls.
CAPTION: Zanele Mogorosi, center, snacks with classmates at formerly all-white Parktown Girls school. Though she has white friends, she's never been to their homes.