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South Africa's teens fight for better schools

A new generation of South Africans are organizing — this time for better education.

"They feel intimidated by the teachers who seem much more educated, even if they're failing their kids," Dwane said. "You don't really need to be educated to understand that there's something wrong."

Libraries are a case in point. Studies show that regular access to school libraries has a direct and significant impact on school performance. Latest data for the Western Cape province, where Cape Town is situated, show literacy pass rates of 39 percent for third graders in poor black communities, which by sixth grade drops to just 26 percent (compared to 89 percent and 86 percent,  respectively, in formerly white schools).

In other words, for many kids, a library at the end of high school is too late to have much impact on their academic careers. But for a largely illiterate community, the importance of a library is not necessarily evident.

Aside from the reality that no access to reading materials stunts literacy, the curriculum requires students in older grades to do outside research. In Khayelitsha township — Cape Town's largest with nearly 750,000 residents and 54 schools — there are only five community libraries. They’re typically packed in the afternoon, and are not geared toward student needs.

In contrast, Masiyile’s new collection of books was culled from donations made to the Bookery, an Equal Education outpost a minute’s walk from parliament.

Samukelo Nombembe, who has been an English teacher at Masiyile High for a decade, emphasized the need to create a regular library period for each class so that it doesn’t wind up as some sort of ornament to show off for visitors.

Masiyile is the third school library that Equal Education has helped to open this year. While it’s a step in the path to creating a culture of literacy at one school, it also represents a community cutting their teeth as education activists.

"Ultimately,” Dwane said, “these young people must take action on other issues in their communities."