On December 16, 2017, former president Jacob Zuma announced that government would be phasing in fully subsidised higher education and training for poor and working-class South Africans over a five-year period.
This statement left many South Africans hopeful and eager to see an important change in their education system.
Former finance minister Malusi Gigaba’s 2018 Budget speech highlighted the education of South Africa’s youth as one of the top three national priorities. But it inadequately responded to the burning issues at the heart of the country’s education crisis.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2018 state of the nation address earlier this month similarly failed to acknowledge the crisis facing the youth who, despite being hungry for education to better their lives, face an education system that continues to isolate them. One can’t help but wonder, what is the actual state of our education system?
South Africans have been living in a post-apartheid state for just over two decades. The country is still fighting against historical inequalities. As it was under apartheid, education for black people is far from ideal. Investments continue to be made in well-resourced areas rather than in the areas that actually need investment.
In 2015, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked South Africa’s education system in the bottom two out of the 76 countries the organisation reported on. Disparities within the education system are still an issue despite the fact that there are plans, such as the National Development Plan (NDP) 2030 or the Accelerated School Infrastructure Delivery Initiative (Asidi), to improve education and foster future human prosperity.
Since the drafting of the NDP 2030, various research shows that significant changes to the education system still have not been fully implemented. The NDP states that it “will ensure that all vulnerable families will receive access to comprehensive childhood development services, free education, nutrition plans, improved school infrastructure and quality teachers”.
Last year, the South African Child Gauge revealed that a staggering 58 percent of children cannot read fluently and with comprehension at the end of Grade 4. Owing to a lack of financial support, smaller schools in rural areas have had to close.
The lack of sufficiently educated and motivated teachers, and the lack of teaching facilities, also places a huge strain on the system.
The financial burden for local governments and for the families of the pupils in previously disadvantaged populations is high. The majority of pupils still live in the poorest conditions in rural areas and in the growing townships of the major cities. However, the standard of education in South Africa varies from region to region and school to school.
A department of higher education report in 2015 indicated that a vast 47.9 percent of university students did not complete their degrees, with black students having the highest dropout rate, one-and-a-half times higher than white students. In effect, this means that only 5 percent of African and coloured young people in South Africa successfully complete university. Indeed, the education system is failing the majority of young people.
During the past 20 years, some progress has been made to raise the level of education in South Africa. But there are still issues of overcrowding and unsanitary situations that need to be addressed. The nation needs to look into investing in the social services that are imperative to ensure socioeconomic justice and equality.
To achieve a successful education system, the South African department of education should develop capacity within the teaching force and put in place internal controls to increase accountability, transparency of the learning process and the use of resources at all government levels and in the classroom. It should improve understanding of languages and, lastly, dedicate itself to improving education resources and infrastructure in townships and at rural schools.
The challenges our education system faces are not new. As a nation we need to be willing to do things differently. These dimensions of deprivation do not occur in isolation; they intersect and have a cumulative impact on young people’s lives.
An unprecedented level of cooperation between government, civil society and the corporate sector is therefore needed to address these complex challenges and drive coordinated, intersectoral action.