Reaching for the Sky

17-year-old James Mokoena dreams of being a pilot. But the daily struggle of trying to rise up from poverty in a black township in South Africa often gets in the way.

By Michael Wines in South Africa



He lives in a part of the world where so many young people never get off the ground, but 17-year-old James Mokoena wants to be a pilot. He will fly a fighter jet, but not just to wage aerial battles. Africa is full of hungry people and people sick with malaria, he says, and many of them need a James Mokoena to bring them food and medicine.

"I haven't been in a plane," he says. "I want to be in a plane for four, five years, and to know that I am in that plane—me. That I, James, am driving it."

He is standing outside his cement stuccoed house, a four-room box on a dirt road in Masjaing (mush-a-ENG), a township of about 30,000 in central South Africa, near the Lesotho border. Inside is a single bed for him, three brothers, and a sister. His mother is ill. His father never got past the sixth grade. Everything here seems to shout that James's dream is folly.

Walking A Mile

Except James himself. Two years ago, having completed his elementary years at the township primary school, he walked the mile from Masjaing to Fouriesburg, the far wealthier town on the other side of the highway. There, he announced that he wanted a better education than he could get at Masjaing's uninspiring high school, from which few students ever graduate, and that he wished to enroll in the eighth grade.

"I asked him whether he realized there were school fees to be paid, and he said his father would pay them," says Irina Grice, the principal at Fouriesburg Intermediate School. "His father came, but oh, his clothes were torn, and he was very, very poor. But the father said, 'The child chose, and he wants to be in this school.' "

One in three of South Africa's 37 million blacks live in townships like Masjaing, slums built during the apartheid era to keep them away from white people when they were not mining their coal or cleaning their houses.

Apartheid, the government's policy of rigid racial segregation, was abolished in 1991. Today, nearly 15 years later, well over half of those township dwellers over age 15 are jobless. Of those with jobs, about 6 in 10 earn less than $250 a month. The townships are economic and social sinkholes, poverty traps in a nation where the rich-poor gap is among the widest on earth.

Escaping Masjaing

Jeremane Mokoena—he calls himself James, he says, because he dislikes his first name—wants out of Masjaing. He wants out of the underclass that apartheid created and into the world of opportunity that apartheid's demise has opened up for other, luckier youths.

Few of his friends here—boys idling on the dusty soccer for the journey James so clearly craves. For those who do try to make it out, success is rare.

Slim, with a shy, if broad smile, James resembles anything but a pioneer. But nobody should underestimate his grit or determination. "My father, he works," James says. "He keeps on telling me that life is very strong, like a rock. You have to push it forward."

His father, Petrus Mokoena, 44, is James's unlikely inspiration. A gaunt man in threadbare blue coveralls and a fluorescent red jacket, he works a split shift for the Masjaing field and clustered on gravel street corners—have the pluck sanitation department, collecting trash in the predawn hours, catching some sleep, then collecting more trash in the afternoon.

For this, Petrus Mokoena earns less than $300 a month. Fouriesburg Intermediate School wanted $40 for James's tuition, and he paid it. Apartheid, he says, kept him an indentured and ignorant laborer on a white-owned farm for his entire youth.

"I want James to see that not to go to school is a bad thing," Petrus Mokoena says, speaking in Sotho, his only language. "I want him to speak English and to write English."

No Candles

Forty dollars is no small sacrifice. Grice, the intermediate school principal, says she once asked James why he was doing poorly in one subject. "He said, 'I can't finish off the work before it's dark, and we don't have electricity,' " Grice says. "So I said to him, 'It's possible to study by candlelight.' And he said, 'We don't have any candles.' "

James also lacks the support of a well-functioning family. Petrus Mokoena passes many evenings drinking Lesotho beer. His wife, MaDibeo, is silent and vacant-eyed in her mysterious illness, leaving James to do much of the cooking and cleaning and to help raise 7-year-old Mampho and her 9-year-old brother Thabiso.

James's other two brothers are Dibeo, a handsome 19-year-old who spent four straight years in the ninth grade at Ypokaleng High, the school James escaped; and Joseph, 13, who is James's closest companion.

Trying To Fit In

James himself is in transit between two worlds, and is not really comfortable in either.

"My father told me that since I was in this school, I was beginning to lose my culture," James says. "That I am becoming a white person. That I don't eat with my hand; I eat with a fork."

Still, father and son engaged in the same ritual for the last two years to allow James to pursue his education. Each weekday night, when his father left on his trash-collecting run, he took a pen with him to mark his time sheet. And when he returned home about 6 a.m., just as James began to stir in his crowded bed, he gave his son the pen to use that day at school.

Then James donned his Fouriesburg uniform and walked the mile to his school.

All-white under apartheid, the Fouriesburg school has since become almost all black. Most of the Afrikaner (whites of Dutch descent) students transferred to prep schools when apartheid was abolished; the current student body consists mostly of better-off black students and a few white students who cannot afford the cost of private school tuition.

James fits into neither category. "The children tend to look down on him and see him as really poor," says Mick Andrew, a 67-year-old English literature teacher at the Fouriesburg school and the closest thing James has to a mentor.

On To The 10th Grade

At home, James studied. When he first came to the school, in January 2003, his grades were abysmal, in part because of his poor English. In his first term, he failed five subjects. In his second, he failed only English.

Fouriesburg classes end at the ninth grade. As the end of the term loomed last December, James made elaborate plans to enroll in the 10th grade at a private school in Tweeling, 75 miles to the north. "I chose this school because I wanted to be far away," he says.

But his dream exceeded his grasp: What James really needed was a scholarship, and his grades were not good enough to merit one.

When the new term began in January, James attended Breda High School, which is about 10 miles from Fouriesburg. It was the only school he and his family could afford that would take him in.

Ismail, another Masjaing ninth grader who was James's best friend at the Fouriesburg school, urged his friend to try to improve his grades in the future. He reminded James of his dream to soar among the clouds.

"I told him," Ismail says, " 'If you're going to be a pilot, you're going to have to study harder.' "