Education in South Africa: One Learner at a Time

The system of education in South Africa is a particularly sensitive subject for me.  Having lived in South Africa for 4 years it is clear to me that while everyone seems to be in agreement about the devastating inequality in standards of education across the country, I have come across a million and one opinions about how to fix what is broken.

Are we, as ordinary South Africans, on the right track to fixing things in education yet?

Some Interesting Facts

Under the apartheid 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.

Under the South African Schools Act of 1996, the education in South Africa is now compulsory for all South Africans from the age of seven (grade 1) to age 15 (grade 9).  For those students who continue education to their final year of schooling, grade 12, a series of Matric exams are required for each subject taken. These exams determine access to higher education, jobs, and ultimately future success.  It is good news, therefore, that the Matric pass rate, which was as low as 40% in the late 1990s, has improved considerably to 73.9% in 2012 and 75.8% in 2014.

Also standing in favour of the education in South Africa is the fact that this country has one of the highest rates of public investment in education in the world. With a 2014 budget of around R254 billion, the education department received the largest share of government spending.  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.

Challenges carried forward from our past

Despite better pass rates and the significant budget set aside for education reform in South Africa, the new South African government has been struggling to remedy the huge issues left by 40 years of apartheid education.  This got me wondering what other factors contribute to this persistent problem.

In 2011, just before the beginning of the grade 12 Matric exams, South Africa’s education minister Angie Motshekga issued an open letter apologizing to students in the context of a failure of hundreds of schools to receive textbooks on time. She wrote, “I know 2012 has not been an easy year for you. I also understand that you may feel I, Minister of Basic Education, have let you down. I apologize unreservedly for all you have been through as a learner.” There clearly is a crisis when the government has to apologize to students for failing them, for not delivering on their duty to South Africa’s youth.

The following statistics support that there is indeed a crisis; that while legislation has changed, equal access to education has yet to be achieved.

  • Illiteracy rates currently stand at around 18% of adults over 15 years old (about 9-million adults are not functionally literate)
  • South Africa’s student participation rate – that is, the proportion of 18- to 24-year olds in higher education – is a low 16%.
  • 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%.
  • Of the total enrolled learners, 11 923 674 (96%) were in public schools and 504 395 (4%) were in independent schools, which reflects the vast extent of income disparity in SA
  • In South Africa, the average ratio of learners to teachers is 31 to one, which includes educators paid for by school governing bodies although this figure is a lot higher in public schools

What struck me

A few months ago I was inspired by the documentary Testing Hope”Created by Molly Blank, the film chronicles the lives of four young people in Nyanga township, just outside Cape Town, as they work towards their crucial Matric exams, which one student calls “the decider.”  These students began school in 1994, the same year apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela became president. While this is the new South Africa, many vestiges of apartheid persist.  “Testing Hope” explores what hangs in the balance if students pass Matric and what awaits those who do not. How do they achieve their dreams in a country where so many obstacles remain?

I wasn’t the only one moved at the film screening. However, when the question arose how to address the problems, the majority of the audience pointed fingers at the failure of the Government, calling for a significant top to bottom reform in our education system in the form of urgent change in the attitudes of those who run our country, the end of corruption, better training for teachers, more investment in education facilities and infrastructure, and so on and so forth (the list goes on).

I thought to myself, surely there is something we can do in the meantime.

Molly Blank says in her documentary, “Sometimes the answer is quite simple”. One principal told her that the main reason his school works is “because students are in class on time, teachers are in class on time and they are teaching.”

There is still hope

To reiterate my point, everyone seems to have answers and a solution to the challenges listed above, but what are they doing?  What has actually been implemented and what difference has been made?

Three worthwhile initiatives that I have encountered working at fixing some of the malfunctions in the system of education in South Africa from a different angle and perspective are Partners for Possibility, Spark Schools and SA Back Office (SBO).  Not only do they share Simanye’s vision for finding grassroots solutions to social problems, but they have managed to effect change on a large scale within a relatively short time frame.

Partners For Possibility (PFP)

The Partners for Possibility (PFP) programme is essentially a creative solution that facilitates the transferring of skills from Business professionals to Basic Education Principals, instilling change through effective and well informed leadership.

There is a direct correlation between good school leadership and educational outcomes. Most School Principals in South Africa have not been equipped with the skills and knowledge for their critically important leadership role.  PFP is specifically designed to address this: Principals are partnered in a co-action and co-learning partnership with Business Leaders who bring their knowledge and skills about change leadership to the school.

Please watch this video to understand more.

Spark Schools

While pursuing an MBA at Gordon Institute of Business Science, SPARK Schools co-founders Stacey Brewer and Ryan Harrison decided that, instead of waiting for others to create the change in education, it was up to them to do so. Ryan and Stacey wanted to create schools where they would be proud and confident enough to send their own children. Although Ryan and Stacey did not have experience in the education sector, they believed that their fresh approach to education combined with their business acumen would offer a sustainable, high quality solution to the education crisis in South Africa.

SPARK was born, with a mission to provide access to high quality education for all South Africans through the accessibility of affordable education.

SPARK Schools is a network of primary schools dedicated to delivering accessible, high quality education.

Please watch the following video to learn more about Spark Schools.

SA Back Office

SA Back Office (SBO) is a joint effort between Simanye and the BEE Shop and was setup to cater for the Skills Development requirements of companies under the new BEE codes. But the change and impact seen is proving to be an innovative and practical solution not only to educating the youth of our country but also to equip them with realistic hands on experience in the work place.

SBO is a business process outsourcing service provider that connects employable, unskilled youth to a real workplace environment while offering clients simple, cost effective solutions for their everyday back office needs.

It does it in such a way that it has a direct impact on the living conditions of the newly employed youth by improving their lifestyle, increasing confidence levels and contributing significantly to their professional development and future employability.

My 2 cents:  Taking responsibility as a “quick fix”

When watching Molly’s documentary, I personally felt like I was being selfish. Here I was sitting with my international education and taking it for granted. I looked around the auditorium and I saw academics and professionals looking just as moved as I was.

It dawned on me that there are South African students taking public exams that determine their future, and I can help them pass!  There are students in large numbers that have the will, the drive and the brains to become whatever they want to become, but because they were born into extremely challenging social circumstances, this dream can soon become impossible.

Surely it is only fair that educated professionals like me give other deserving individuals at least a chance at realizing their full potential.  If Molly Blanks, who taught grade 4 English in USA can teach grade 12 Matric English in SA, I am sure there is some knowledge I and thousands of others can impart.  I mean, surely doctors can teach biology, engineers can teach physics, and hopefully accountants can teach accounts.

This does not mean we should all give up our day jobs and become teachers.  We can, however, offer a few hours of our time over the weekend to teach, to mentor and to go through past exam papers with one learner at a time.   I for one found it extremely beneficial learning from peers and seniors that just wrote exams I was about to sit.

So what we need is the following:

We can all play a part in giving disadvantaged Matric students the extra help or support they so deservingly need to secure a place in tertiary education in South Africa.

  • We need a facility/facilitator to target students that want our help.
  • We need a curriculum designed for non-teachers/professionals to pick and choose subjects/topics they are comfortable in taking responsibility for
  • We need awareness and a group of professionals dedicated to this cause and who will see it through to the end. Distinctions in matric for the students we teach should be the goal!

To end with an overused but effective quote from Mahatma Gandhi, “let us be the change we wish to see in the world.”



Written By:

Thomas Erumeda

B. Comm, ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants)


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