It's almost noon in Zola, one of the rougher neighbourhoods in Soweto, Johannesburg's biggest township. Kids grow up fast and hard here in the midst of poverty - ambition for some is merely to die with something more than what they were born with. Role models are kwaito stars, performers of a distinctly South African mix of hip-hop and electronic/house music, or criminals and the common denominator between them is a fast car.
Lungi Moleleki, who teaches Life Orientation classes at Zola's Kwadedangendlale Secondary School, is making her daily rounds of the classrooms. The Life Orientation (LO) curriculum covers nutrition, physical education, career guidance and sex education, among other subjects. In a scheduled biology class Moleleki opens the floor to a very frank conversation about sex.
"Please, if a girl passes by wearing a short skirt, Ma'am, you feel as if, eish, this girl is breaking my feelings," says one boy. "As time goes by, you'd like to experience what God created."
“In short you would like to have sex,” Moleleki replies with her face deadpan. The class erupts into laughter.
I was a teenage mother and I'd like to spare these kids what I went through
Kwadedangendlale, a converted primary school, lacks a library and science labs, and students read about chemistry reactions they will probably never see. Despite these limitations, the school has one of the country's best pass rates in the state's high school exit exams. Nevertheless, Kwadedangendlale struggles with many of the issues plaguing schools from the suburbs to the townships, not the least of which is teen pregnancy.
"I was a teenage mother and I'd like to spare these kids what I went through in my teen years," said Moleleki. "My mother was a principal but I never remember her talking to me about sex. You have to be open with kids, you have to talk."
Teachers like Moleleki have their work cut out for them. HIV prevalence among youth aged between 15 and 24 is estimated at about 10 percent, according to a 2005 study by the Human Sciences Research Council, a statutory research agency focusing on human and social development. Other studies by the Medical Research Council, the country's public health research agency, estimate that about 40 percent of school-age children have had sex.
The Department of Education first acknowledged its role in the fight against HIV/AIDS in 1997. Five years later, in 2002, it introduced South Africa's first LO curriculum.
"In developing the curriculum we looked at what other countries were doing, and we looked at what our kids needed in terms of things like HIV, career skills and life skills," said Penny Vinjevold, deputy director-general of further education and training in the national department of education. "New problems that we felt young kids were facing today were also addressed, so the socioeconomic context of South Africa very much informed the curriculum."
Socioeconomics is something Moleleki cannot escape, and it is one of the hurdles she faces in trying to get her message across. Her pupils know how you get HIV, how you get pregnant, and how to use a condom, but they also know what it's like to be their family's sole breadwinner; sometimes they tell you it's hard to negotiate safe sex with someone who is feeding your family.
Challenges in and out of the classroom
A 2005 study by the University of Pretoria noted that schools' ability to carry out LO classes successfully and according to national standards often depended on the teacher's passion for the subject and support from administrators – two problematic variables, said Peter Fenton, chief education specialist manager of HIV/AIDS education for South Africa's Western Cape Province.
"When it comes to doing the school timetable, invariably the school principal will look at maths and science as most important," he told IRIN/PlusNews. "Then, when it comes to teaching LO, they'll ask who's not teaching a full load; you'll find an arts or a physical education teacher picking up the class."
|You don't sit in your classroom waiting for people to come and train you|
The LO curriculum is so broad that the subject can be in danger of becoming become a dumping ground for discussing everything from the country's upcoming Soccer World Cup to global warming, often leaving a knowledge gap of the core subjects, Fenton said: "They [students] know what HIV stands for, how babies are made, but not all of them know what contraceptives are."
Betty Dlamini, who teaches LO at Soweto's Jabulani Technical High School, agreed that the subject was not for everyone. "If you take an educator from another learning area and put that educator in LO, it's difficult, because we have to talk freely about issues that affect us every day," she said.
Teachers also vulnerable
Teachers have not escaped South Africa's HIV epidemic. According to studies by the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), the country's largest educator union, about 13 percent of teachers are HIV-positive.
"We provide our teachers with ARVs [antiretrovirals], but there is still a high level of stigma, and teachers are reluctant to access treatment," said SADTU's head of education, Shermaine Mannah. The union's statistics indicate that the country loses approximately 4,000 teachers annually to HIV and AIDS.
Dlamini admits her biggest lesson has been to learn how not to judge. Mannah said although Dlamini may have learned to put aside stigma and prejudice, not all teachers had.
"As a teacher, you have to have an understanding [of the subject] yourself, and sometimes you even have to shift your own moral framework to teach these things," she said. "Sometimes you find that the trainers themselves are not trained, and you find that the teachers teaching this don't even believe in the message they are taking into the classroom."
Training the trainers
Life Orientation is not compulsory in studying to become a teacher, and the Department of Education has largely outsourced this training to organisations like the Planned Parenthood Association of South Africa (PPASA) or universities.
Training usually takes place outside of working hours, but most teachers are already overstretched and in short supply. When PPSA first started running weekend workshops for the education department, a lack of available time and a wealth of competing football matches posed the biggest problems, said PPASA's training director, Vivienne Gongota.
Vinjevold, of the education department, said there had been extensive efforts to train teachers, but admitted that more needed to be done and that much of the onus to seek out training still rested on teachers: "You don't sit in your classroom waiting for people to come and train you."
Moleleki said she was always looking for information, reading books and looking for workshops to attend to supplement the slender training she had received, but not everyone was as motivated, and not every school was as supportive as Kwadedangendlale.
SADTU and the other teachers' unions are pushing for a Life Orientation module to be included in all teacher training and for training to be carried out in a less piecemeal manner.
"Teachers are trained but then they go back to school and they are only one [who has LO training]," Mannah said. "Teachers may encounter resistance from management to what is being taught, and so we think everyone should receive training. We have to have a whole-school focus."