About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Free education

South Africa has roughly 12.3-million pupils, some 386,600 teachers and 26,879 schools, including 1,107 registered independent or private schools and 25,772 public schools. Of all schools, roughly 6,000 are high schools (grade 7 to grade 12) and the rest primary (grade 0 to grade 6). About 6.8 million pupils, or 48 percent, attend independent schools, and 5 million, or 42 percent, go to public "no fee" schools. By January 2007, 5,000 schools qualify for "no-fee" status, thus benefiting those parents who have struggled the most to provide their children a decent education. But because there is little or no monitoring of the implementation of the fee-exemption policy, there is no guarantee that schools receiving provincial financing will translate into good teachers and sufficient resources to provide a quality education.

South Africa's National Qualifications Framework (NQF) recognizes three broad bands of education: General Education and Training, Further Education and Training, and Higher Education and Training. School life spans 13 years or grades, from grade 0, otherwise known as grade R or "reception year", through to grade 12 or "matric" - the year of matriculation. In government-funded public schools, the average ratio of students (known as "learners" in terms of the country's outcomes-based education system) to teachers ("educators") is 32.6 to one, while private schools generally have one teacher for every 17.5 learners. Meanwhile, the government estimates a shortage of 44,700 classrooms. As for school financing, the greatest challenges lie in the poorer, rural provinces like the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Schools are generally better equipped in the more affluent provinces such as Gauteng and the Western Cape.

According to the monograph "Schools, Skills and Citizenship", prepared by JET Education Services and appearing in the IJR's 2006 Transformation Audit: Money and Morality, an analysis of the results of the annual Senior Certificate (SC) examination reveals that nearly 80 percent of schools were "essentially dysfunctional," and provide an education "of such poor quality that they constitute a very significant obstacle to social and economic development, while denying the majority of poor children full citizenship."

In spite of the fact that South Africa's productive capacity is inhibited by a severe shortage of skills, high schools continue to fail to matriculate students in math, science, and engineering, as well as provide them with those habits of mind, behavior, and knowledge required to build a modern state. Illiteracy rates are high at around 24 percent of adults over 15 years old (6- to 8-million adults are not functionally literate), teachers in township schools are poorly trained, and the matric pass rate remains low. While 65 percent of whites over 20 years old and 40 percent of Indians have a high school or higher qualification, this figure is only 14 percent among blacks and 17 percent among the coloured population.

Meanwhile, 98 percent of all scientific research in South Africa is produced by white academics, a reflection of the low PhD. enrollment rates in South African universities. Because South Africa has no official ranking of its 23 higher education institutions, it is difficult to gauge how well SA's universities compare in science education with other world-class institutions. Last year, a survey of South African universities was conducted to assess their impact in 22 broad scientific fields; the findings revealed that although six SA institutions make it into the world's top one percent, they perform well in only nine of the 22 disciplines.

Moreover, black South Africans occupy only about 30 percent of middle management positions and 23 percent of senior management positions-lagging behind target levels set two years ago, and despite the fact that 80 percent of employees recruited by companies into senior management positions during the past year are black. According to a report by a Johannesburg consulting firm that examines corporate employment practices, the slow movement of blacks into middle and senior positions is a result of skills shortages and a dearth of qualified candidates, causing some firms to pay premiums to retain capable employees or attract new ones. At the same time, research conducted by a marketing company on behalf of the higher education organization Unitech demonstrates the mismatch between knowledge and skills possessed by graduates, and the needs of the marketplace. As many as 30 percent of university graduates are unable to find jobs, primarily because they did not take appropriate courses and did not get appropriate career advice from their respective institutions, according to Unitech chief executive and general manager Caleb Maqubela. See Solani Ngobeni, "Where are all the black postgraduate students?", Sunday Times, 22 October 2006; Megan Power, "Making the grade: SA varsities rated," Sunday Times, 12 November 2006; Sivuyile Mangxamba, "Third of graduates battling to find jobs," Cape Argus, 26 September 2006; and Sanchia Temkin, "Skills gap 'keeps top ranks white'," Business Day, 7 December 2007.

The failure to improve math and science education is probably the most significant obstacle to African advancement in South Africa, according to a research report released today by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) entitled "From Laggard to World Class: Reforming math and science education in South Africa's schools". The CDE Report is the product of three years of research, analysis and discussions with more 1,000 experts.

"Despite the energetic commitment of Government and private sector over recent years to improve math and science education, our research shows that these efforts are simply not achieving the dramatic improvement in Higher Grade pass rates South Africa urgently needs," said Ann Bernstein, Executive Director of CDE, in a news release accompanying the publication of the report.

CDE's research revealed that in the period 1991 - 2003, enrolment in senior certificate (SC) math nearly doubled, from 138,659 per annum to 258,3233, but enrollment in Higher Grade (HG) math, which is required for entry to many tertiary education courses, plummeted from 53,631 to 35,959.

"Only 4637 African candidates matriculated with Higher Grade math in 2002. This reality undermines all our ambitions for the country, for expanded economic growth, for black economic empowerment, for community development," Bernstein said. See From laggard to world class: reforming maths and science education in South Africa's schools," Science in Africa Online Magazine, November 2004,  www.scienceinafrica.co.za/2004/november/scienceed.htm

A chronic problem plaguing the education system involves the paucity of qualified and motivated teachers, a situation exacerbated by the departure of roughly 20,000 each year, with only about 6,000 new ones entering the profession. See Nick Taylor, "Schools, Skills and Citizenship," appearing in Brown, ed. Money and Morality, 2006. See also Sandiso Phaliso, "Half Cape Town teachers stymied by computers," Weekend Argus, 18 November 2006. Meanwhile, schools are vandalized for building materials and saleable items, 81 percent of schools do not even have a library, and many children arrive at schools (unless they have dropped out) too hungry and deprived to be ready to learn. See Phil Hoffman, "Teaching crisis menaces our future," Cape Times, 16 October 2006.

Another problem involves violence, both school-based and that experienced by children at home. Although the report has not yet been published (it will be released in Ghana during the African Union summit to be held in July this year), early reports claim it raises critical questions on South Africa's handling of the HIV-AIDS pandemic, crime, and delivery of basic services to the people. (South Africa has become the fourth African state following Ghana, Rwanda and Kenya to face the African Peer Review Forum.) As reported by Bendan Boyle in the Sunday Times, the 300-page confidential review chastised South Africa for failing its children, particularly those whose childhood occurs amidst violence and deprivation, thus falling prey to abuse, exploitation, and HIV infection.

It also denounced SA's educational system for failing to offer a way out, with many schools becoming "frightening and dangerous places." "While expenditure on education has risen significantly – currently about 6% of gross domestic product – this is not mirrored in the results. The education system is failing to provide school-leavers with the skills and competencies they need to contribute more constructively to the economy," the panel said. "South African girls continue to be raped, sexually abused, sexually harassed and assaulted at school by male classmates and teachers. For many South African girls, violence and abuse are an inevitable part of the school environment. Although some schools try hard to respond to the problem of violence, too often school officials have concealed sexual violence and delayed disciplinary action against perpetrators of such violence at great cost to victims."

The African Peer Review Panel continued its assessment by saying that affordability should not be a factor in education, especially for a country whose progress is being hindered by lack of skills in critical sectors. "A lot more should be done to ensure that children and youth, regardless of financial status, are able to obtain a primary education, at the minimum," the report said. At the same time, government should do more, the panel said, to make colleges and universities attractive, accessible, and affordable to greater numbers of young people. The government should also ensure a better match between skills taught and what society requires, as well as improving pass rates in science and mathematics. See Brendan Boyle, "SA gets F for its children," Sunday Times, 10 December 2006 and Mpumelelo Mkhabela, "The good, bad and ugly," City Press, 17 December 2006.

In December 2006, matric results were released, showing very low pass rates in Gauteng, North West, and the Eastern Cape. See David Macfarlane, "Beware the ticking of education's time bombs," Mail & Guardian, 19-25 January 2007. This continues a pattern that has persisted for years; in 2004, 79 percent of the country's high schools fall into the poorly performing category, producing only 15 percent of all Higher Grade (HG) passes in mathematics; the vast majority of children attending these schools are poor and African. Two-thirds of HG math passes are generated by only 7 percent of total schools, the majority of which were privileged schools during apartheid. Among all high schools (roughly 6,000), only 607 African schools are classified as top (34 schools) or moderately performing (573 schools); these are considered "star performers", transcending their disadvantaged history and service to very poor communities.

Despite the absence of a benchmark similar to the SC examination at the primary level, academics conclude that South Africa's 23,000 primary schools exhibit performance characteristics similar to that of high schools. What should be done? The highest priority should be given to those "tiny band of schools situated in the poorest communities [that] provide some of the highest quality education. They are performing heroic deeds under difficult conditions, and serve as role models for the rest of the system." As for the others, in the medium to long term, better strategies for developing the poorest performing schools must be developed. "Nothing that has been tried to date, by government or the non-governmental sector, has had any effect on most of these schools, despite decades of efforts and billions of rands spent on improvement programmes." See Taylor, "Schools, Skills, and Citizenship." A .pdf copy of the report can be accessed at www.jet.org.za/item.php?i_id=235


With a stated commitment to access, quality, and democratic governance, the South African Schools Act of 1996 created an educational system of "cooperative governance," delegating substantial authority to the provincial legislatures, governments, and local, democratically-elected school-based governing bodies to run educational affairs. The Act also provides for two types of schools – public and independent – and compulsory education for children between 7 and 15 years old, or until a learner reaches ninth grade.

Yet despite this goal of cooperative governance, laws pertaining to education in South Africa were deliberately fragmented so as to accommodate various political interests. In January 2007 the Johannesburg Sunday Times reported the circulation of a proposal for sweeping changes to strengthen the education system and give the national department greater control over the running of the country's public schools. (Buddy Naidu, "More clout for school principals," Sunday Times, 14 January 2007, and SASA Review Task Team Discussion Document and Annexures, August 2006, which can be obtained at http://www.suntimes.co.za/TheVault/Documents/Document.pdf)

School fees are set at annual public meetings, with parents voting on the amount proposed; those parents who cannot afford or are unable to pay the fees are granted an exemption or reduction. In late 2002, the government promised that some poor parents would be exempted from paying school fees. In 2003 the government announced a plan of action focusing on the lowest quintile of residential areas, the 20 percent "poorest of the poor" schools, to "progressively improve access to free and quality education for all" and "greater inter provincial equity so that learners with similar levels of poverty receive the same minimum level of school funding."  Because the enabling legislation passed in 2006, it may take some time for its provisions to become fully effective since provinces are mainly responsible for overseeing its implementation.  See www.info.gov.za/aboutsa/education.htm

However, "no-fee" does not mean "free education." Despite the fact that the South African government allocates funding to 13,856 no-fee schools, parents and families are still required to furnish uniforms, books, and supplies, as well as provide transport for their children to and from school. Some help is given to truly needy families as a result of provisions made in the Guidelines on School Uniforms, published in 2006, and the QIDS (Quality Improvement and Development Strategy), a program that has distributed books to more than 4,000 schools, with another 6,000 targeted for 2007.

Until 2006 poor parents were exempted from paying school fees under certain circumstances, yet provincial education departments were frequently remiss with regard to informing parents of their rights or ensuring that they exemptions were granted. Even with the national legislation now in place, many problems remain concerning standards and norms for the fee free policy and the poverty index that provinces would use to determine which schools should be exempt from having to charge fees. ("No-fee schedule in shambles," Mail & Guardian, 13-19 January 2006)

In a submission in October 2005 to the Human Rights Commission's hearings on the right to basic education, guaranteed by the Constitution,  the Education Law Project of Wits University Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) said that only 5 percent of pupils received exemptions from school fees and that the poor had to borrow R2.7 billion to spend on education. (David Macfarlane, "Poor borrow R2.7 billion for schooling," Mail & Guardian, October 14-20 2005. In 1995, 95.3 percent of children between ages 7 to 18 were in school. (Statistics South Africa October Household Survey 1995 ; and 93.5 percent in 2003 General Household Survey 2003)

Although nationwide the commitment to equitable quality education is strong, South Africa lacks the necessary resources to make this commitment a reality. Class size is large, with 30 to 40 students per class, and school principals often do double duty as teachers. While South African educators face many problems similar to other educators in the world, one cannot overlook the effect that HIV/AIDS has had on the process of teaching and learning. South African educators daily confront the challenges associated with working to improve the lives and futures of children who have been both infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.

The overall policy goal is to ensure equitable education for all South African learners, but the dual challenge is to provide adequate funding to the most impoverished, while making sure that the quality gap between rich and poor schools does not widen and some schools are not "ghettoized". An additional concern is providing assurances that those no-fee schools having authority over their own financial affairs (possessing so-called "section 21", or nonprofit, status) are able to manage the large amounts of money that will be deposited into their accounts at the beginning of each school year, while handling the rising number of fee exemptions granted to families. (Caiphus Kgosana, "No-fee schools an 'excellent concept", City Press, 26 November 2006; Prega Govender and Buyekezwa Makwabe, "Alarm bells raised over fee exemptions," Sunday Times, 14 January 2007) According to Trevor Manuel, the inability of some parents and teachers to manage school affairs poses a real problem. In an interview with the Financial Times, he said, "The problem is [local control] works wonderfully where parents have the confidence and knowledge to be able to deal with the system. It works not at all where parents are functionally illiterate. So the desired outcome of local control does not always work." See Lionel Barber and Alec Russell, "Interview with Trevor Manuel," Financial Times, 10 April 2007.

No-fee schools tend to be located in rural and impoverished areas throughout the provinces that often are plagued by poor infrastructure problems related to water and sanitation. Only 15 percent of schools have toilets that work, 40 percent have electricity, and 80 percent don't have libraries according to Salim Vally, Education Policy Research Unit, University of Witswatersrand. ("Starvation or education is a choice facing many families," Charlene Smith, Sunday Independent, 31 July 2005) The Eastern Cape has the highest number (3,825), followed by KwaZulu-Natal (3,341) and Limpopo (2,557). Provincial departments are expected to make allocations ranging from R500 to R800 for each learner, which includes the cost of teacher salaries as well as student books and paper. This reportedly represents a five-fold increase in the annual fees many of these schools previously charged.

For a comprehensive listing of websites pertaining to South Africa education, go to http://www-sul.stanford.edu/africa/southafrica/rsaed.html.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.