Lousy education in South Africa: what’s apartheid gotta do with it?


The South African basic education system is in crisis, a fact that was acknowledged by its minister, Angie Motshekga. TSHEPO RAMONYALUOE reminds us that for public schools, getting past historical disadvantages will be hard work, and not just for the government.

According to the 2015 World Economic Forum: Global Information Technology Report, our beloved country ranked last in the quality of maths and science education. South Africa also ranked 139th, out of 143 countries surveyed, for the overall quality of our education system.

While such surveys could be easily dismissed because, largely, they’re compiled based on perceptions of business leaders and not necessarily learner results, it should be noted that almost every education survey that has emerged lately has put South Africa at the bottom of the pile.

This cannot be a coincidence, not a time when our national matric pass rate has just dropped by another 5.1% and massive questions being raised about the state of our education.

Whether we like it or not, we have got to start talking seriously about how to fix the education crisis in this country.

In fact, “crisis” and “catastrophe” are the two words Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga, used recently to describe the situation in her department.

It seems the dysfunctionality in the education department stretches far and wide, ranging from non-performing teachers, non-delivery of textbooks and poor infrastructure, to non-existent administrative leadership. Yet despite these easily identifiable problems, this is a situation that seems to get worse every year.

As with most things in South Africa, the blame for this mess is attributed to poor leadership at the top. But there is one underlying issue at play which we cannot simply ignore. Public schools (black schools in particular) were never really in a tip-top shape to start with.

Inherited system
South Africa’s first black government inherited a decaying public school system. It is no secret that public schools are understaffed, under-resourced and underfunded. This breeds an environment that, above all else, is not conducive to learning. What this means is, over and above the pressing issue of providing credible education to our children, the education department also has the burden of correcting a monumental disparity created by the apartheid government. It was meant to be this way.

RELATED: A story of two public schools and how they shaped learners’ lives 

It could be argued that the time that could have been spent bringing meaningful innovation into the classroom, has been instead used to address the inadequacies of the many public schools across South Africa’s many townships.

It should be understood then that every second our public education administrators spend trying to modernise our facilities and teaching methodology, the private schools operating in a parallel universe use to stretch their advantage even further.

Hence, the gap in quality, delivery and output in the private and public education sectors will always widen. Another factor weighing heavily on public education is the disproportionately large number of learners the system has to accommodate. A public school will, on average, enrol twice as many learners as a private school in poorly managed classrooms, and somehow, these schools are expected to produce the same results as their affluent counterparts that boast far greater resources, and far healthier balance sheets. That is absurd.

Quite frankly, the public education system is suffering the same fate as the public health system. It is overloaded.

The education system as is stands is designed to cater for the poor populace and create an entire heap of poorly educated people.

This is a textbook example of apartheid planning coming back to bite us. The current administration has to bear the brunt of our history. Yes, one cannot shield Angie Motshekga, nor any of her predecessors for the “mess” that is our education department after 22 years of democracy, but we cannot simply fold our arms and say all this is her fault. In fact, I applaud her courage to come out and admit the system has collapsed.

As she has already put it: the department is in a crisis. What is needed now is urgent intervention. We need to start thinking along the lines of a complete overhaul of the basic education structures.

We need a new approach towards public education. A new philosophy that does not view public education as a responsibility of the government alone. We need private investors to help bolster this ship, we need appropriate training for educators and adequate resources for every learner, in every town, across the entire country.

We need commitments from all stakeholders, including those in private education boards. Education is the cornerstone of every modern society, and if we are to progress as a country, we need to start by equipping our citizens.

Tshepo Ramonyaluoe bio picTshepo Ramonyaluoe is a professional engineer and student pilot who is easily tamed by good food, good people and flying machines. He is never without a book in hand.

Featured image by Aaisha Dadi Patel


  1. I don’t buy it. I worked in the printing industry a long time ago. Do you have any idea how easy it is to not just print a large run of books (in this case text-books, which print even easier), but also have them delivered to the right place in the same go? It is not a difficult, or even time-consuming thing. It wasn’t even a difficult thing half a century ago. The Apartheid regime did create nothing but a skeletonized education system (at best) for the majority of South Africans, but when the organizations that are mandated (one would hope they actually are mandated) to deal with such things today fail even to organize the most basic things blaming the past doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t take twenty years to print (and deliver) textbooks. And if they can’t manage even that, I have to question the organization responsible, and not simply blame the problem they are supposed to be tackling. This government managed to get the revenue service sorted out in pretty much no time at all – strange how Apartheid didn’t prove much of an obstacle then.

  2. This article says nothing and tries to incorporate every single point that the author may have read on the subject without taking any stand at all nor providing any coherent explanation of the causes of the current situation. Yes, apartheid left a terrible legacy for black state schools. This is without doubt and cannot be disputed. Twenty five years later and very little has improved. The quality of teachers is appalling. The state of school buildings is desperate. Almost half of state pupils do not make it to matric. How the hell has this been allowed to happen? It is not through lack of available public funding, although now with more constraints than before on the public purse, the window of opportunity to drastically improve the problem is probably closed. It is a huge shame, will blight the future of the country and is a disgrace to the government.


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