Johannesburg - At first sight, Unity Secondary School pupil Robert Molepo comes across as quiet and reserved, almost timid.
But the young, slim man, who is his school's top achiever, is articulate and firm - and far too mature for his age.
Here, right in the middle of the East Rand township plagued by gangsterism, under-age drinking and numerous social ills, young Robert has become a role model for many of his peers.
Earlier this year, Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi had to intervene following the rise of gang-related violence at Unity Secondary School, which interrupted teaching and learning, and claimed the life of a suspected gang member who was set alight near the high school.
Still, Molepo, a 17-year-old who originally hails from the village of Ga-Molepo outside Polokwane, achieved a total of six distinctions in subjects including maths, physics and life sciences.
The school recorded a pass rate of 90.87% and bagged a total of 129 Bachelor's passes.
Molepo, like other pupils, stayed up all night on Thursday, anxious about his results. He was taken out of his misery when a friend brought him a newspaper just after midnight.
“I could not believe it, even though I worked hard. It's a dream.”
His family, who were still on holiday in Limpopo, thought he was playing a trick on them when he broke the good news to them.
“I phoned my mother first. She did not believe me. She knew that I would pass fairly well, but she never expected distinctions. I also phoned my aunt. She thought I was joking.”
He is modest about his achievements and attributes his success to the collective hard work of the school's teachers and other pupils.
“We had maths and physics classes on Saturday and Sunday. We had lots of housework. Our maths teacher, Mr Loveday Gweshe, gave us tests almost every Friday to track our progress.”
Molepo already boasts numerous trophies in his family cabinet for his stellar performance throughout the year. He has already been accepted to study astrophysics at Wits.
“I have just received notification that I was accepted at Wits. I simply cannot believe my life right now.”
The school's second top achiever, Mbali Maseko, attained five distinctions in subjects including maths, physical science and life sciences.
Yesterday, she was surrounded by friends who were celebrating her achievement with her.
“You don't understand. We were disturbed by issues of gangsterism in this school. We have actually done well despite the problems. It was hard having to come to school every day when our lives were at risk.”
Although she studied hard, the exams were challenging: “I expected one or two distinctions. At some point, I stopped believing in myself, but I think if I pushed harder I could have achieved much better results.”
However, Maseko is happy that her results are good enough to help her realise a dream of a career in aviation.
“I always wanted to be pilot. I hope I can get a bursary to help me achieve my dreams.”
Unity principal Wandile Makhubu blames the rise of gangsterism at the school for disturbing the flow of the academic programme.
Last year, his school attained a matric pass rate of 96.3%.
“Most of my students stayed away because they were scared for their lives. We had police guarding our school from gangsters, but some were still not convinced that their safety is guaranteed.
“But I don't want to use that as an excuse. I'm taking responsibility for these results.”
His school has drawn up plans to help it improve the results.
“We are above the national, district and provincial average, but this is not our school as we know it. We normally achieve 95% and above. "
Progressed learners - pupils who fail the same grade twice and are promoted to the next grade - pose a weakness for the school. However, this year, plans are afoot to help them.
“We need to manage progressed pupils.
"We will have special sessions. Teachers are ready to help them. We will also ensure that they stay and study after school.”
Makhuba appeals to parents to be involved in their children's school work as some pupils disappear during exam time.
“There are pupils who did very well, but just did not show up to write English or IsiZulu, and in the end, they are either no resulted, or they fail.”