Education in South Africa
All South Africans have the right to a basic education, including adult basic education
and further education. According to the Bill of Rights of the country's Constitution, the
state has an obligation, through reasonable measures, to progressively make this
education available and accessible.
South Africa has one of the highest rates of public investment in education in the
world. At about 7% of gross domestic product (GDP) and 20% of total state
expenditure, the government spends more on education than on any other sector.
Three bands of education
South Africa's National
Qualifications Framework (NQF) recognises 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. General
Education and Training runs from grade 0 to grade 9.
Under the South African Schools Act of 1996, education is compulsory for all South
Africans from the age of seven (grade 1) to age 15, or the completion of grade 9.
General Education and Training also includes Adult Basic Education and Training
(ABET), which is available to adults who want to finish their basic education.
Further Education and Training takes place from grades 10 to 12, and also includes
career-oriented education and training offered in other Further Education and Training
institutions – technical colleges, community colleges and private colleges. Diplomas
and certificates are qualifications recognised at this level.
The matric pass rate, which was as low as 40% in the late 1990s, has improved
considerably. A total
of 511 152 candidates sat the matriculation exams in 2012,
73.9% of whom passed. This is an increase of 13.3% since 2009 (60.6%).
Structure and responsibilities
Since 2009, the national Department of Education has been split into two ministries:
Basic Education, and Higher Education and Training. Each ministry is responsible for
its level of education across the country as a whole, while each of the nine provinces
has its own education department.
South African Communist Party secretary-general Blade Nzimande is the minister of
Higher Education and Training, while former Gauteng Education MEC Angie Motshekga
oversees the Ministry of Basic Education.
The Ministry of Basic Education focuses on primary and secondary education, as well
as early childhood development centres.
The Ministry of Higher Education and Training is responsible for tertiary education up
to doctorate level, technical and vocational
training, as well as adult basic education
It also oversees public and private FET colleges, which cater for out-of-school youth
and adults. The government aims to have 1-million students enrolled at colleges by
The split also saw the sector education and training authorities (Setas) move from the
Department of Labour to Higher Education, aiming to foster a more co-operative
approach to skills development.
The central government provides a national framework for school policy, but
administrative responsibility lies with the provinces. Power is further devolved to
grassroots level via elected school governing bodies, which have a significant say in
the running of their schools.
Private schools and higher education institutions have a fair amount of autonomy, but
are expected to fall in line with certain government non-negotiables – no child may be
excluded from a school on grounds of his or her race or religion, for
The Umalusi Council, which is appointed by the minister of Higher Education, sets and
monitors standards for general and further education and training, while the Council of
Higher Education keeps an eye on higher education and training, including
accreditation and quality assurance.
South Africa relies on the matric pass rate as a significant marker of what's going on
in its schools. The matric pass rate, which was as low as 40% in the late 1990s, has
improved considerably. A total of 511 152 candidates sat the matriculation exams in
2012, 73.9% of whom passed.
The latest available statistics from the Department of Basic Education show that in
2012 South Africa had 12 428 069 pupils and students (also known as "learners"),
enrolled in public and independent schools (known as "ordinary schools), attending 25
826 educational institutions and served by 425 167 teachers and lecturers
Of the total enrolled learners, 11 923 674 (96%) were in public schools and 504 395
(4%) were in independent schools.
In South Africa, the average ratio of learners to teachers is 30.4 to one, which
includes educators paid for by school governing bodies. Without those extra posts, the
ratio would be 32.3 to one. In general, public schools generally have larger classes
than those in independent schools.
Higher education and training
Higher Education and Training, or tertiary education, includes education for
undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, certificates and diplomas, up to the level of
the doctoral degree.
A matric endorsement is required for the
study of university degrees, with a minimum
of three subjects passed at the higher, rather than standard, grade, although some
universities set additional academic requirements. A standard school-leaving South
African senior certificate is sufficient for technical qualifications and diplomas.
South Africa has a vibrant higher education sector, with 23 state-funded tertiary
institutions: 11 universities, six universities of technology, and six comprehensive
institutions. There are also new institutes of higher education, the Northern Cape
National Institute for Higher Education, and the Mpumalanga National Institute for
Many of South Africa's universities are world-class academic institutions, at the
cutting edge of research in certain spheres. Although subsidised by the state, the
universities are autonomous, reporting to their own councils rather than government.
According to figures from the Council of Higher Education, 892 936 students (726 882
undergraduates and 138 610 postgraduates) were enrolled in South Africa's public
higher-education institutions in 2010. Staff employed by these institutions numbered
127 969, with 46 579 of those academic staff.
In 2010, the public higher education institutions produced 153 741 qualifications at all
levels, with 74 612 qualifications in the human and social sciences; 41 724 in business
and commerce; and 37 405 qualifications in science and technology.
Higher education is also offered at private institutions, of which there are 88
registered and 27 provisionally registered with the Department of Higher Education to
confer specific degrees and diplomas.
Since 2009, the Department of Higher Education and Training has also been
responsible for Further Education and Training (FET), which covers training provided
from Grades 10 to 12, including career-oriented education and training offered in
technical colleges, community colleges and private colleges. There are currently
around 450 registered FET colleges in South Africa.
The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) was established in 1999 to make
higher education possible for financially disadvantaged students through loans and
concessions, such as not charging interest on student loans until 12 months after a
student has graduated.
Spending and challenges
Compared with most other countries, education gets a very large slice of the public
pie – around 20% of total state expenditure. It receives the largest share of
More money is always needed to address the huge backlogs left by 40 years of
apartheid education. Under that system, white South African children received a
quality schooling virtually for free, while their black counterparts had only "Bantu
education", a keystone of the overall apartheid system.
Although today's government is working to rectify the imbalances in education, the
apartheid legacy remains. Illiteracy rates currently stand at around 18% of adults
over 15 years old (about 9-million adults are not functionally literate), teachers in
township schools are poorly
Despite the challenges, much has been achieved since apartheid legislation was
scrapped. For example, in 1993 nearly half of all students in higher education
institutions were white, but since 1994, black African enrolments have nearly doubled,
growing by 91% (or 4.4% a year) and overall enrolments have grown by 41% (or
2.3% a year).
However, South Africa's student participation rate – that is, the proportion of 18- to
24-year olds in higher education – is a low 16%.
Equity has yet to be achieved: almost 58.5% of whites and around 51% of Indians
enter higher education. The rate for coloureds is 14.3%, while blacks are even lower
at 12%. The reason for this is generally understood as poor quality primary and
secondary schooling, which is a priority for the current government.
The greatest challenges for schooling lie in the poorer, rural provinces such as the
Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Schools are generally better resourced
in the more
affluent provinces such as Gauteng and the Western Cape.
Action Plan to 2014
The government's newest strategy for turning education around is known as "Action
Plan to 2014: Towards the Realisation of Schooling 2025", which aims to improve
learning and the work of teachers.
With a new curriculum at its heart, the focus is on literacy and numeracy. Known as
the national Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS), the new curriculum
provides very specific guidelines to streamline what is taught in schools with the aim
to close the divide between well-resourced and poor schools. Curriculum
implementation is supported through the national educational portal, Thutong
(Setswana, meaning "place of learning").
Other measures include the introduction of standardised assessments of grade three,
six and nine to better track progress; an emphasis on early child development and
universal access to Grade
R; ensuring learners have access to good quality textbooks;
and improving school infrastructure and strengthening school management.
Teacher education and development programmes have also been strengthened,
including funding for bursaries for trainee teachers.
The education of the poorest of the poor remains a priority, and includes two notable
programmes. One is no-fee schools, institutions that receive all their required funding
from the state and so do not have to charge school fees. These have been carefully
identified in the country's most poverty-stricken areas.
The other is the National Schools Nutrition Programme, which gives more than 8.8-
million schoolchildren a cooked meal five days a week.
Reviewed: 28 February 2013