When the late Nelson Mandela led South Africa from apartheid to democracy, one of his driving goals was improving education. In international rankings, the country’s schools remain close to the bottom. Charges of corruption, and teachers who are too apathetic and under-qualified are blamed for hampering Mandela’s goal. Additionally, the majority of instructors lack adequate training and a powerful union limits government oversight. Also, according to the Treasury, 61% of school spending goes toward salaries.
According to the World Bank, South Africa spends about a fifth of its budget on education, a higher proportion than Germany or Finland. Because the system isn’t producing young people with the necessary training, companies recruit abroad for skilled employees such as engineers, or leave jobs unfilled, despite a fourth of the workforce unemployed. Of the 148 countries ranked by the WEF, South Africa’s mathematics and science education was the worst, with the country only beating Yemen and Libya in an overall assessment of school quality. Five years ago, it was 25 spots from the bottom. As Franz Wild and Mike Cohen of Bloomberg report, 3,544 of South Africa’s 24,793 public schools lacked electricity, 2,402 had no water supply, 11,450 used outdoor toilets, 22,938 didn’t have stocked libraries and 19,037 had no computer centers.
The government says it’s still overcoming apartheid’s legacy and that most of the budget is consumed by current expenditure, leaving little room for new investment. According to Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, almost all South African children now go to school and more than 8 million poor children get a free meal there.
“Education was not normal in this country,” President Jacob Zuma told reporters in Cape Town on Sept. 12. “It was used as an instrument to subjugate and suppress the majority. No one could think we could have solved this problem, which is a problem of centuries. The fact that we have diagnosed it correctly and we have prescribed the real remedy, it tells you we are moving.”
While Mandela and subsequent administrations made headway in expanding access to education and desegregating schools and universities, they didn’t fare as well in improving quality. Many pupils were left functionally illiterate and innumerate after the 1998 introduction of a system that didn’t require teachers to follow a set curriculum and let them utilize a wide range of teaching methods. In 2010, it was scrapped. According to the most recent census data, the proportion of children with no schooling was cut in half between 1996 and 2011. Between 2001 and 2012, enrollment at universities and colleges surged 55 percent to 935,000. Additionally, the number of pupils signed up for a preparatory grade surged from 300,000 to 800,000 over the past three years.
According to Minister Motshekga, his department recently ditched required peer reviews because colleagues were covering for each other. The reasons for the lack of progress range from the massive wage bill, which leaves little for development, to changes in education policy, undertrained teachers and difficulties in teacher oversight.
“We still have major problems with the quality of teachers we have,” Motshekga said. “Our kids are not developing properly. They are not trained to analyze.”
Motshekga is challenging one of the biggest unions, an ally of the ANC, the South African Democratic Teachers Union, to try to improve that. She is also trying to introduce measures to make teaching an essential service, meaning teachers could only strike if it didn’t close schools.
In an Oct. 1 phone interview, SADTU Deputy General Secretary Nkosana Dolopi said that the problems of the education system are wider, including children’s socioeconomic conditions and a lack of teacher training.
“We have never spent a lot of time on teacher development,” Dolopi said. “It also affects the results we are getting. You can’t blame them for the problems we are having in education.”