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Following the end of white minority rule, one of the most pressing needs for South Africa’s new government was to build an education system for all its citizens that would redress the devastating legacies of apartheid. Decades of racial discrimination had channeled resources to the white minority, while the black majority was deliberately impoverished and undereducated. Black schools, which had been the focal point of the anti-apartheid struggle, had endured decades of protest, boycotts, and violence. In many black townships, there were not enough schools or no schools at all.

One township that would face all of these challenges was Orange Farm, established in 1988, when people began moving there to escape the overcrowding of nearby Soweto. Although the community was promised a new high school, called Aha Thuto, the principal arrived to find there was no building. Students were forced to share space with another school. Then in the early 1990s, violence in the classroom grew so extreme that the principal closed down Aha Thuto. This drastic measure forced parents, teachers, and students to come together to reaffirm their commitment to learning and to building a thriving educational environment.

After years of lobbying, in 1996, the community of Aha Thuto finally received its own building. At the end of the 1997 school year, Aha Thuto was the highest-ranking school in its region, scoring a pass rate of 90 percent on the national matriculation exams. In 1998, its pass rate was over 96 percent. For Aha Thuto’s students, however, the victories have been bittersweet. The continuing legacy of apartheid means that graduates face massive unemployment and lack of money for higher education. Graduates of Aha Thuto now see themselves at the forefront of a struggle for economic justice and development.