Realities of South Africa's Post-Apartheid Education System
Politics and Activism

Realities of South Africa's Post-Apartheid Education System

South Africa’s Apartheid ended two decades ago. But, the nation’s education system continues to leave underprivileged children behind.

S'Gela Connect

After Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he gave a series of speeches about how South Africa could become a democracy. His phenomenal leadership reverberated around the world, and in 1994 he became president in South Africa’s first all-race election. This signified a new democratic government system in South Africa and the end of the harsh systematic racial segregation that had been so prominent for fifty years before.

South Africa has changed a lot since Mandela was first elected president — and much of this change has been for the better. Many more people now have access to electricity and clean water, institutionalized racism is outlawed, and South Africa has joined the global economy. These successes have made South Africa a beacon of light for other countries in Africa that are struggling to develop. But the nation’s educational system has not undergone necessary development.

During Apartheid, South Africa’s educational system existed in total favor of the white population. Schools for black and colored children either did not exist or were in the poorest of conditions. Schools for white children, on the other hand, were given all of the advantages.

Today, not much is different.

In 2011, my family and I visited Khayelitsha, Gugulethu and Langa, townships near Cape Town. There, I met young girls who should have been in school but were instead walking barefoot down dirt roads strewn with broken glass, carrying their newborn siblings toward scrap-metal homes. Their harsh living conditions and bleak educational futures struck me. It became clear that despite Apartheid’s abolishment, the South Africa’s continual inability to organize and institute educational standards causes of other hardships, specifically joblessness and poverty. So, at the end of freshman year, I started the “South Africa Project.” The Project’s objective is to facilitate eye-opening dialogue about global issues, like educational inequality, between Hackley Students and South African students and provide resources to enrich disadvantaged South African students’ educations. Initiating this Project made me more attuned to the educational problems South Africa faces daily and how we, Westchester-based high school students, can help.

As described by “Class Action: Why Poor Parents Increasingly Send Their Children to Private Schools," a 2013 article in The Economist, the majority of public schools in South Africa remain as dysfunctional as they were during Apartheid. Predominantly located in South Africa’s townships, the suburbs of cities that were formerly designated for black occupation by apartheid legislation, these schools suffer from poor conditions, ineffective national examinations, and exceedingly low teaching standards.

Awful physical conditions of township schools inhibit students from fully engaging in their educational experience: libraries are sparsely filled with books, plumbing systems are improperly constructed and school environments are unsanitary and unsafe.

As described in Kate Wilkinson’s 2014 article “Why the Matric Pass Rate Is Not a Reliable Benchmark of Quality Education,” numbers show that since Apartheid, more students are passing the school-leaving matriculation exam. But these stats don’t take into account the weaker, more disadvantaged students who cannot take it. Census data shows that approximately only 50% of South African children who begin school in 1st Grade end up completing 12th Grade. The other 50% either drop out or fail. The grades required to pass the matriculation test are quite low. If a student passes the test, she can graduate high school. If a student receives a grade just a bit higher than a passing grade, she is eligible to attend university even though she has a low average. The matriculation test is an insufficient method of measuring students’ capabilities and levels of knowledge. How can students be expected to move on to bigger and better things when a single test, for which they are insufficiently prepared, determines their fate?

A teacher’s attitude, presence, intelligence, teaching style, and interest in making a difference completely determine how a student responds to and engages in the information they are provided with in the classroom. The standards set for teachers in South African public schools are too low, so students who want and need to learn simply cannot. More often than not, teachers are inadequately trained and in short supply. Many teachers even fail to show up on time to, or regularly attend, their classes. This problem needs to be placed higher up on their educational reform to-do list. Like us, South African young people have an earnest thirst for knowledge. That thirst will only be quenched once teachers are prepared and eager to inspire students and set them on paths towards greater opportunities.

Employers often fail to recognize that the reason job applications are unimpressive is not because of applicants’ paucity of interest or scant work ethic, but in fact because of their public school educations, which inadequately prepared them for jobs. Chronically, thousands of jobs in South Africa go unfilled. Reform of South Africa’s existing public education protocols is necessary for the success-hungry young population and the economy. If young people are well educated more jobs can be filled and unemployment rates will drop.

The South African Education Department has worked to make its public education system fairer for two decades. But, in reality these efforts have not caused significant positive change. There is still a lack of accountability among officials and teachers for the failure to properly educate young children living in the poor areas of South Africa. Teacher unions are concerned about protecting their members rather than actually training them. Many teachers believe that their students’ lack of success in the classroom is not their problem and that their jobs are to just do things by the book. This common train of thought will perpetuate the lack of true results, leading more and more students towards a dismal educational future.

Because this problem lies across the Atlantic Ocean, it can seem distant. But, it is not. When you attending college information sessions, you’ll find that admissions officers mention the college’s push for global and cultural understanding on campus. Discussing global current events, like the educational inequality in South Africa, can help us better the world in which we live. With the help of teachers and other organizations, the “South Africa Project” was a success. We brought inspiring novels and academic textbooks to disadvantaged students. But, ultimately, the meaning of the Project lies in the cross-cultural conversations it started. It brought students from different backgrounds together to talk about potential solutions to pressing international problems.

It is easy to focus on the apparent advancements that South Africa has made since abolishing apartheid in 1994. Of course, the legal mechanisms of apartheid have been dismantled, and an encouraging constitution has emerged. But students who go through the South African public school system still fall subject to the realities of apartheid. These students do not have the keys to unlock doors behind which lie life’s possibilities, even if they desire those keys.


"Class Action: Why Poor Parents Increasingly Send Their Children to Private Schools." The Economist 26 Oct. 2013: n. pag. The Economist. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.

Dugger, Celia W. "Eager Students Fall Prey to Apartheid’s Legacy." The New York Times 20 Sept. 2009: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 29 Dec. 2014.

"Education in South Africa." Brand South Africa, n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.

"The End of Apartheid." U.S. Department of State. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Jan. 2015.

Molefe, T. O. "South Africa's Failing Grade." The New York Times 15 Jan. 2014, The Opinion Pages ed.: n. pag. Print.

Myre, Greg. "20 Years after Apartheid, South Africa Asks, 'How Are We Doing?.'" NPR. N.p., 6 May 2014. Web. 29 Dec. 2014.

"Over the Rainbow." The Economist 20 Oct. 2012: n. pag. The Economist. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.

"Overview: Education and Adolescent Development." South Africa. UNICEF, n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

"Public Spending on Education, Total (% of GDP)." The World Bank. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.

Rusznyak, Lee. "South African Education Still Fails Many 20 Years after Apartheid." The Conversation. N.p., 7 May 2014. Web. 1 Jan. 2015.

Wilkinson, Kate. "Why the Matric Pass Rate Is Not a Reliable Benchmark of Quality Education." Africa Check. N.p., 7 Jan. 2014. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
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