It’s January, and that means the start of a new school year in South Africa. In less than a week, students (or learners, as they’re called in South Africa) and teachers will fill classrooms, hoping to embark on a new year of learning, enlightenment, and growth. It’s a good time for students to ride the momentum gained with last year’s record-breaking high school pass rate. For those of us in the United States, Canada, and other Western countries, it’s a good time to learn about the educational experiences that our young South African friends will have this year.
Primary education is mandatory in South Africa. According to the country’s Constitution, South Africa has an obligation to make education available and accessible. All South Africans have the right to a basic education, including adult basic education and further education.
School in South Africa begins in grade 0, or grade R. It’s the equivalent of our kindergarten, a time of school preparation and early childhood socialization. Grades 0 to 9 make up General Education and Training, followed by Further Education and Training (FET) from grades 10 to 12. Students either stay in high school during this time, or enter more specialized FET institutions with an emphasis on career-oriented education and training. After passing the nationally-administered Senior Certificate Examination, or “matric,” some students will continue their education at the tertiary level, working towards degrees up to the doctoral level. Over a million students are enrolled in South Africa’s 24 state-funded colleges and universities.
With a solid educational structure in place, South Africa continues the long and arduous process of overcoming the discriminatory legacy left behind by 40 years of apartheid education. Under that system, white South African children received a quality schooling virtually for free. Black students, on the other hand, had access only to “Bantu education”, a system based on the unjust philosophy that there was no place in South African society for black Africans “above certain forms of labor” (a quote attributed to HF Verwoerd, the architect of the Bantu Education Act of 1953). In the 1970s, government spending on black education was one-tenth of spending on whites. By the 1980s, teacher to pupil ratios in primary schools averaged 1:18 in white schools and 1:39 in black schools. Even the standards for education were different between black and while schools: while 96 percent of all teachers in white schools had teaching certificates, only 15 percent of teachers in black schools were certified. Not surprisingly during apartheid, high school graduation rates for black students were less than half the rate for whites.
Bantu education was abolished with the end of apartheid in 1994. Nevertheless, South Africa continues to struggle with inequality and educational disparities. Seventeen years after the end of apartheid, the vast majority of poor black children are denied a quality education at severely deprived public schools. Over three-quarters of these schools do not have libraries, and even more do not have a computer. Around 90 percent of public schools have no science laboratory, and more than half of all pupils either have no text books or have to share them. Over a quarter of public schools do not even having running water.
More affluent South Africans (read: White South Africans, along with a small but growing contingent from the black middle class) can afford to send their children to so-called former “Model C” schools, publicly funded schools that were previously allowed only for white students. These schools charge extra school fees to supplement teachers’ salaries and buy extra resources. Not surprisingly, these former white-only schools have far superior facilities and quality of education.
School outcomes tell the story of South Africa’s educational inequalities. In 2009 just over half of black students passed the high school final exam, compared with 99 percent of whites. Of the South African population over 20 years old, 65 percent of those who are white and only 14 percent of those who are black have a high school degree or higher. The disparities remain at the university level. Although black Africans account for 80 percent of the whole South African population, they make up less than half of all university students. Less than one in 20 black South Africans ends up with a degree, compared with almost half of all whites.