The terror of exams rules many children’s lives, especially at this time of year as the 2008 school calendar draws to a close. For 17-year old Daniella de Wee of the small Western Cape town of De Doorns [the thorns] it was to prove fatal.
It started last Tuesday as a black south-easter covered Table Mountain in a thick dark cloud and whipped through the peninsula. Unlike the “Cape Doctor” as the familiar south-easter which blows during the dry summer months is known, the black south-easter combines both wind and rain. Soon the rains spread inland. Rivers came down in flood, six of the seven bridges in the Hex River Valley washed away and the Breede River reached its highest level in a 100 years.
De Doorns is the heart of the Hex River Valley faming community – an area rich with fruit farms and vineyards that account for more than half the country’s export grape crop.
A little more than two months ago, Daniella de Wee attended her matric farewell [the equivalent of the US high school prom] in a golden brown dress. As any South African learner will tell you, the matric exam is the all-important test that will determine one’s options after leaving school. The exams are standardised across the country for all Grade 12 students, and missing any one of them without a valid excuse has grave consequences.
Last Wednesday it was the Afrikaans exam, Daniella de Wee’s home language, and she headed out into the rain. The bridge she usually walked over to get to Hexvallei Secondary School was underwater and her father helped her as they made their way across. But the flood waters surged, tore her them apart and carried her away. A week later, police divers are still looking for her body.
News reports say that more than 36 matriculants were unable to reach their schools and missed their exams last week. In Touws River, which was split down the middle by the flooded Donkies River, rescue personnel transported exam papers by boat to students and alternative venues were hastily organised.
In January 1981 when black south-easter conditions caused similar floods at Laingsburg on the banks of the Buffels River on the edge of the semi-arid Karoo, 104 people lost their lives. In 2008 only one life was lost, but this offers little comfort for the De Wee family.
The pressure around matric exams is intense, and, some would argue, out of all proportion, especially when weighed against the fear and dread it often invokes in students. Matric is a serious business, but it’s not life and death. This kind perspective is crucial if we are to avoid the occasional suicides that have preceded or followed matric exams in years’ past.
The same perspective is as important for families living in small communities where school principals hold power and influence. And last week, as the rains fell and the rivers rose, education authorities should have put out the word to families that their children’s safety comes first.
Better awareness of the power of radio could have made a difference. In a situation of extreme weather, with people particularly eager for news, a series of radio and television announcements could have delivered the all-important information – how dangerously the rivers were flooded, what to do about the next day’s exams, where to go, and most important of all, not to risk one’s life for the sake of an exam.