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Conditions of the Educational System in South Africa

Holistic Think Tank

South Africa is a country with a rich, albeit turbulent, history. The country’s first democratic election in 1994 saw dramatic reforms across the social and political landscape of South Africa. Over the past few decades government has had the difficult task of transforming the political and social landscape of the country after the fall of a segregation based, almost totalitarian government policies aimed specifically at the exclusion of all races apart from the Caucasian minority.  The context of the education system in South Africa must be understood within this history, as the policies that were in place dramatically impacts the education system to this very day. It is also vital to gain clarity on the socioeconomic problems many South Africans are faced with as the impact on the country’s ability to provide quality education cannot be understated. This report aims to shed some light on the complexities involved within the education system in South Africa

The influence of Apartheid on the education system

 To fully understand the South African education system, it is necessary to understand the role that apartheid (a system of racial segregation specific to South Africa) played in the history and development of the country. Although abolished in 1994, its legacy continues to have an impact on the education system today.

The National Party (NP) came to power after the general elections in 1948. Their success and subsequent dominance within the political arena can be attributed to the official inclusion of a racial segregation based policy known as apartheid in their political platform. Prior to 1948, the supremacy of colonial Caucasians (known colloquially as whites) over all other races (classed as non-whites ) was widely held as tradition and with the discovery of gold and diamonds in the country’s interior in the late 19th century led to an informal slave trade, with African, Indian as well and other ethnicities making up the bulk of the unschooled labour force.

The Group Areas Act policies of 1950 and 1986, created and enforced by the NP, resulted in approximately 1.5 million South Africans being forcibly removed from cities to rural areas. The act enabled Whites to live and work in established, economically viable areas without competition. A direct result was that many non-whites, further segregated by different racial and cultural groups, were forced to live in rural and underdeveloped areas with limited access to government services. were also enacted  and small pockets of these groups  Residents of these areas had to commute great distances for work at very low wages, living in abject poverty- frequently without electricity, running water or basic infrastructure. These areas became known as Tuislande (Homelands).

From the 1950s up to the early 1990s the education system in South Africa mirrored its apartheid policy. Soon after the NP came to power, the Bantu Education Act (No. 47) of 1953 was enacted. At its core the act prohibited students from different races to attend the same schools. Science and mathematics were also removed from the curriculum of all non-white schools which widened the gaps in educational opportunities for the different racial groups in South Africa. Government believed that young non-whites were to be groomed for the low wage labour they were expected to perform while at the same time protecting white South Africans from competition within the skilled work force. White schools received the expected level of funding and resources compared to international standards at the time, while the funding and resources allocated to schools built for other races were oftentimes lacking in even basic infrastructure. 

Teachers and facilitators in non-white schools also faced problems within this political structure. Teachers received qualifications in line with their race, with limited access to tertiary education offered to peoples of colour. With the advent of democracy it is estimated that a mere 15% of educators working as teachers at non-white schools held recognised qualifications. Resources to aid teachers in areas such as lesson planning, research and student enrichment was extremely limited.

During the apartheid era eight formal education departments existed, each following a different curriculum and offered different standards of learning quality. Included in this count were separate departments for White, African, Indian and Coloured (mixed race) citizens, a department governing private schools and four provincial education departments. At the time, informal education departments also existed within some of the Homelands- although these did not have any legal power and mainly operated in private, attempting to enhance education amongst their communities independently and in most cases, covertly.

The conditions across the education system in South Africa operated at opposing poles for many years, with well-resourced white schools on one hand and severely under resourced non-white schools at the other, reflecting the divide which was at the heart of the apartheid system.  Some reforms came in 1984, allowing for an increase of funding to non-white schools but it would take a further decade for true inclusivity to start taking hold.

In 1991, a multiracial forum led by the president at the time, FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela- the leader of the African National Congress, began working on a new constitution. In anticipation of an impending regime change, white schools received the option to be reclassified as “Model C” schools, which offered far more limited government funding in exchange for greater autonomy. This allowed the schools to set some restrictions to the students that were admitted, as well as allowing the schools to impose their own fee structure to augment government funding.  Schools were not allowed to refuse admission to students living within the serving area of the school, regardless of admission policy dictated by Model C schools- which would, at least theoretically, allow students of all races to attend previously segregated schools. In practice, however, non-white students still lived well outside of the serving area of white schools and given the major inequality that still existed at the time, non-whites were still excluded from better quality schools.

An interim constitution was passed in 1993, which dismantled apartheid, and a multiracial democracy with majority rule began. The transition of South Africa from apartheid into democracy occurred peacefully and is one of the 20th century’s most remarkable success stories.  The country’s first multiracial election took place in 1994. The victor in this election was the African National Congress (ANC), led by Nelson Mandela.  Rectifying inequalities within the education system was one of the largest issues that the ANC government faced in 1994 and still poses a challenge to this very day.

Post-Apartheid education in South Africa

After South Africa’s first free and fair elections held in 1994 the newly elected ANC government set about reforming, amongst others, the widely unequal education system.  International specialists were consulted to advise the creation of the new system, which aimed to provide all South Africans with equitable access to basic as well as further education. South African policies were linked to developments that were taking place in the international educational environment at that time.

Government policy, legislation and the new curriculum focussed on bridging the gaps in knowledge that existed amongst learners already in the system as well as allocating resources to those schools lacking in infrastructure, teacher training and learning tools. To bring about equality of opportunity to all South Africans, education needed to have its past problems redressed.  This is the platform from which massive educational reforms were launched in the early 1990s, starting with the drafting of a new constitution (Act 108 of 1996), whitepapers (most notably the Education Ministry’s first White Paper on Education and Training in a Democratic South Africa: First steps to Develop a New System, February 1995) and Acts (The National Education Policy Act, Act 27 of 1996 and The South African Schools Act, Act 84 of 1996). These proposed to create a teaching and learning environment that would bring about desired changes in learners, whether to be more knowledgeable, better skilled or to influence their attitudes and values positively, practicing the principles enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa- creating informed, productive and progressive citizens.

With economic growth in mind and allied with the vision of establishing South Africa as a prosperous and competitive country, the National Curriculum Development Committee argued for the implementation of the Outcomes Based Education (OBE) system of education within the new curriculum in order to ensure  a vibrant economy. In 1997 the Department of Education launched its new education system, Curriculum 2005,for implementation across all schoolsby 1998. This system was marred in controversy and in 2002 the National Curriculum Statement 2002 (NCS) was introduced. Contrary to the OBE curricula, the NCS programmes required that all learners in grades 10, 11 and 12 do a minimum of 7 subjects as opposed to the 6 subjects. In the NCS syllabus, learners are expected to learn a minimum of two South African languages. In addition to the two languages, learners are expected to make a compulsory choice between Mathematics and Mathematical Literacy, and they are expected to study Life Orientation. From the Revised National Curriculum Statement, the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) was introduced in the year 2012.

Prior the advent of a democratic South Africa, there were eight different education departments, each following its own curricula and learning standards. These included a separate nationwide department for each of the notable race groups prevalent in the country as well as provincial departments. Some of the homelands, all of which were incorporated back into South Africa in 1994 also had their own, unofficial education departments.  In 1993 these were all unified under one joint national department of education with nine provincial education departments respectively responsible for governance within their own provinces. In 2009 the National Department of Education was restructured into the Department of Basic Education (DBE), responsible for primary and secondary schools, and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), which is responsible for tertiary and vocational training.

Current Governance Structure and Policies

Both education departments are headed by a director-general and policies are made by a minister and deputy-minister. Both departments are funded by central government taxes. The DBE funds a portion of teacher salaries in government schools with independent schools receiving private funding. Under certain circumstances government schools may supplement funding through school fees collected from parents and fundraising. Each school is governed by the School Governing Body, consisting of teachers, parents and support staff.

The role of the DBE and DHET is to translate the government’s developmental plans into relevant education policy and legislative framework. To achieve this, the work closely with the nine provincial education departments to ensure provincial strategies and budgets support national policies. District offices are provincial government’s main interface with schools. Not only are they central to the process of gathering information and diagnosing problems in schools, but they also perform a vital support and intervention function. District offices are key to ensuring that school principals remain accountable to the provincial offices and that accountability lines within the school to the principal and governing body are maintained.

School funding is equitably distributed through the quintile system which places schools on a scale of poverty, with poorer schools receiving more in terms of funding from government. This is done to ensure that schools receive funding according to their needs. Equity in education expenditure between and within provinces is achieved through the equitable division of national revenue between provinces, On average, 60% of a province’s non-personnel expenditure going to the poorest 40% of learners in public schools. The poorest 20% of learners receive 35% of non-personnel resources, while the richest 20% receive 5%.

Given numerous societal issues experienced within the country and throughout its history, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have played a vital role in supporting the country’s development, doing so by delivering critical services such as education to the disenfranchised majority, advocating for rights-based governance, policies and laws, and holding the government accountable for its legal and development responsibilities. Current government action plans underscores the role NGOs have to play in the development of the country, calling for NGO’s to support government in reaching key goals. Numerous organisations, both within the sphere of government and outside it work in collaboration within the legal framework of the education ministries. Non-profit organisations also work closely with government to ensure voluntary aid is dispensed to where it is required the most.

Schooling Structure

The DBE officially groups grades into two “bands” called General Education and Training (GET), which includes grade 0 plus grades 1 to 9, and Further Education and Training (FET), which includes grades 10-12 as well as non-higher education vocational training facilities.

The GET (General Education and Training band) is subdivided further into “phases” called the Foundation Phase (grade 0 plus grade 1 to 3), the Intermediate Phase (grades 4 to 6), and the Senior Phase (grades 7 to 9).

Attending school is compulsory between the ages of six (grade 0) and 15 years (grade 9). In most cases children will attend a kindergarten or pre-school facility during grade 0, primary school for grades 1 to 7 and high school for grades 8 to 12, although some primary schools also offer grade 0 classes.

South Africa has a strong tertiary sector, with more than a million students enrolled in the country’s universities, colleges and universities of technology. All the universities are autonomous, reporting to their own councils rather than government. The National Qualifications Framework (NQF) system of administering higher education broadly in the country is run by the South African Qualifications Authority.

The graph below maps out the NQF and how they relate to the education options available in South Africa:

Figure 1 DG Murry Foundation, WikiMedia Commons. Accessed 20 May 2022

Teachers in South Africa are required to study for four years towards a Bachelor of Education or may enrol for a three year Bachelor’s degree, followed by a one year Postgraduate Certificate in Education.


Schools in South Africa receive a grant from government for their operational costs, such as maintaining the grounds, administrative costs, salaries, books and educational materials, as well as extramural activities. Most schools supplement the government grant with other streams of income, such as school fees paid by parents, fundraising events, and receiving donations. Generally, higher school fees prevent poorer children from attending affluent schools. There is no legislation imposing a limit on the school fees a school may set.

The size of the grant paid by government is determined largely by the poverty level of the neighbourhood in which the school is situated, as well as unemployment rate and the general education rate of the population in that neighbourhood. Schools may not refuse admission to children who live in the immediate vicinity of the school, regardless of the parents’ ability to pay school fees. Schools may not refuse entry to children or refuse to hand over report cards even if their parents neglect to pay the school fees, but schools are permitted to follow legal options to recover fees from parents.

Since 1996, children whose parents are very poor are legally exempt from some or all school fees. Since 1998, a formula is used to calculate exemption. If the combined annual income of the parents is less than ten times the annual school fee, the child is legally exempt. If the income is more than ten times the school fee but less than thirty times the school fee, the child is legally entitled to a specific reduction in school fees. In practice, those regulations help only very poor families, not working-class and middle-income families.

Orphans and children of parents who receive poverty-linked social grants are also exempt from paying school fees. Since 2006, the Education Department offered to increase the grant to the 40% poorest of schools if no fees are charged.  The government has planned to extend this incentive to the poorest 60% of schools by 2009 but this process has not been finalised as of yet.


An independent study by researchers found that undue union influence and “critical educational factors”, including weak institutional functionality, uneducated teachers and insufficient learning time, were responsible for poor academic performance in South Africa. Due to poor academic performance, teen pregnancy and crime the country has a high dropout rate.  In 2020 there were 18 schools that obtained a 0% pass rate in the National Senior Certificate exams (grade 12 final exams). The locally dismal performance was ascribed to uncommitted teachers, proximity of schools to taverns, inactive governing bodies and the apartheid legacy.

Despite having high rates of education enrolment, the quality of education in South Africa is poor. Reports have shown that of the students who attended school for five years, only half can do basic math. About 10% of teachers across the country are absent from school on any given day and 79% of grade six math teachers do not have the content knowledge to be teaching at their respective level.

Education is compulsory until grade nine, and over the years, there have been increasing numbers of drop-out students, for a variety of reasons. The main reason is unequal access to resources as a result of poverty. The disparities between female and male students also continually present issues in the South African education system, especially with low percentages of girls pursuing careers in science, math or technology.

In addition, South African schools have struggled to teach basic skills such as reading and writing as well as early development for young children. Only 38.4% of children ages zero to four attended a school system such as day-care, playgroup or pre-kindergarten programs. The early development issue is further seen as 46.8% of parents say they do not read with their children and 43.15% say that they do not colour or draw with their children.

South Africa has struggled with high rates of poverty for many years. In rural areas in the former homelands, about 81% of children are below the poverty line and 44% of children in urban areas are impoverished. Education in rural areas suffers especially, simply as a result of the barriers presented by the location. Children oftentimes have to walk or commute long distances to get to school, a problem also faced by teachers at these schools.  Infrastructure and resource deficiencies also mar teaching at rural schools- critical resources such as water, electricity, books and technology are missing from many schools, which present obstacles for South African children to have a complete educational experience.

The most recent learner educator ratio in South Africa is an average of 33.5 students to one teacher in primary schools and 32.2 students to one teacher in secondary schools. That implies minimum class sizes of 39 and 36 respectively.

The Future of Education in South Africa

According to data, around 35.3% of South African citizens are unemployed. Around 55.5% of citizens live in abject poverty with 25.5% of the population receiving social grants from the government. Further to this, South Africa’s economy has also taken considerable strain, showing limited growth and failing to attract investment. All these problems have a detrimental effect on the quality and efficacy of the education system. Corruption within the government is a major problem as well, with South Africa obtaining a relatively low score of 44/100 according to the Corruption Perception Index. Recent revelations of state capture has also cast doubt on current government’s ability to efficiently lead the country and ensuring a better future for its citizens.

With the ANC government having lost support across the entire country during the local municipal election in 2021, it is expected that there will be an influx of new policy focussed specifically at regaining greater control in the 2024 general election. There is, however, also a possibility that the ruling party may lose further control during this election, allowing for greater influence of opposition parties to the sphere of government, which could lead to different approaches being reflected in future government policy.

Through the proposed National Development Plan, government has committed a greater focus on education within the country in line with the goal to eliminate poverty and reducing inequality, describing education as the best investment a country can make towards the future prosperity of the country.

It remains to be seen whether or not the country can overcome the challenges facing citizens in the age of the fourth industrial revolution.

Researched by: Jehan Grobler and Kelly-Ann van Schalkwyk


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  • “Curriculum reform in South Africa: a critical analysis of outcomes-based education”, Accessed 20 May 2022.
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  • Department of Higher Education,
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The following policy documents were accessed from the Department of Basic Education website:

  • Act 108 of 1996
  • White Paper on Education and Training in a Democratic South Africa: First steps to Develop a New System, February 1995
  • The National Education Policy Act, Act 27 of 1996 The South African Schools Act, Act 84 of 1996
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