They are the living embodiment of joy.

In Soweto, a township in Johannesburg, South Africa, a group of animated young girls warmly receives visitors. The girls greet guests with jovial smiles and open hands. Once these ambassadors have each selected a friend from the visiting group, they lead a tour.

Two girls share a laugh while one smiles for the camera in Soweto. (Javanna Plummer / MEDILL)

This tour is unique because the girls do little talking and instead find other ways to communicate, mostly through hand gestures and giggles.

Truly, these girls bring life to the area around them. When their infectious laughter permeates the air, it creates vivid imagery of joy, wonderment, curiosity, and glee.

This opening scene is a snapshot of what South Africa can be.

Rishika Dugyala, a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, holds hands with a Sowetan girl. (Javanna Plummer / MEDILL)

South Africans born after 1994 are part of the “born-free” generation because they are free of the Apartheid system. Although Apartheid has been abolished for 25 years, Black South Africans are still feeling its effects.

“The socioeconomic impacts of racism are not ending now because a majority of the Black South Africans still live under appalling conditions,” said Beatrice Akala, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Johannesburg.

 “We have the issue of land that is quite deep in this country… the majority of South Africans, Black South Africans, don’t have access to land,” she added.

This can be observed firsthand in places such as Elias Motsoaledi, an informal settlement where the young girls conduct their tour. Black South Africans formed these settlements after the government failed to redistribute land it had seized during Apartheid.

The Native Land Act of 1913 delegated 7 percent of arable land to Black South Africans and delegated most of the fertile land to White South Africans, according to South Africa history online, a nonprofit organization that tracks the country’s history.

One hundred and six years later, efforts are being made to reverse this decision.

Just last week, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa received a report that promised “a fair and equitable land reform process that redresses the injustices of the past,” Times Live, a prominent news site in South Africa, reported.

The Native Land Act was not the only legislation to advance Apartheid.

If this were 1954 South Africa, Black South Africans would be protesting the Bantu Education Act of 1953. This act created segregated schools in Bantustans, or areas designated for Black South Africans, where students would be taught in their native languages, although the curriculum would be in English and Afrikaans. In addition, they would learn only skills that could benefit the White minority in power. To Akala, Bantu education was a tool to make Black South Africans more suitable for servitude. “Bantu education was mainly for the Black people to make them not see beyond their horizons,” she said.

A memorial outside of Soweto’s Hector Pieterson Museum, named for a boy who was killed during a 1976 protest against the teaching of Afrikaans, a language used to advance Apartheid.  (Javanna Plummer / MEDILL)

Sandra Roberts, D.Litt. et Phil., also said something to this effect. She is a researcher for frayintermedia, a “pan-African communications company,” according to its LinkedIn profile.

Roberts said educational barriers persist for Black South Africans because of Apartheid and Bantu education. “A lot of the legacy continues and has not been successfully addressed even in the 20-plus years since democracy. … Our Grade Nines don’t compare with Grade Nines in other similar countries; [ours] are actually two years behind in math and science,” she noted.

Other research has pointed to similar disparities in education, especially for girls.

Nomvula Mokonyane, minister of Water and Sanitation in South Africa’s parliament, wrote, “Only 22 percent of African and coloured [sic] women have obtained Grade 12 whereas the figure is 35 percent and 40 percent for Indians and Whites, respectively.”

This racial distinction is important, but gender and class distinctions are also important to account for, since Black women experience intersectional oppressions, Akala posited in a research essay.

She wrote, “Black women, who are the main target of this article suffered triple marginalisation (sic)— race, social class and sexism.”

When discussing this research in person, Akala added, “It’s a whole lot of layers of marginalization that came with the Apartheid system.”  Black South African girls and women, it seems, face subjugation within a larger system of subjugation.

A giraffe watches over the “African home” of Beatrice Akala, a lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand and a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Johannesburg. (Javanna Plummer / MEDILL)

“If I said, ‘No, I’m not stopping here,’ then [my father] made sure I went to the next level. But that was not the case with most of my friends in my home village,” recounted Akala, who is originally from Kenya. “I know of very brilliant girls who did not get a chance to go on with education.”

 Akala realized she was the exception, not the rule. So when she later pursued a Ph.D. in education from the University of Johannesburg, her dissertation focused on gender equity in South Africa’s education system.

            While Akala fought at a microcosmic level, there are also large-scale efforts to improve the education of girls and women in South Africa.

In 2003, the Girls Education Movement, which sought to improve girl child education throughout Africa, trickled down from Uganda. That same year, the “Take a Girl Child to Work” initiative was launched. This is an annual event during which companies will invite girls from different schools, usually disadvantaged ones, to their workplaces for the day.

More recently, Judy Dlamini, M.D., became the first Black woman chancellor at the University of Witwatersrand.  To some, her chancellorship signals a step forward for South Africa.

“It’s exciting. It’s really exciting times,” noted Reatgile Mosehla, a student at the university. “South Africa is clearly changing.”