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South Africa – changing the inheritance of inequality

14 Mar 2014

Low education standards are a significant bar to prosperity in post-Mandela South Africa.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela had a number of passions but he was particularly engaged on education, describing it as the most powerful weapon that could be used in the world. He saw education as the key to dignity, prosperity, health and democracy and constantly reminded young people to study and world leaders to focus on the sector as a priority policy area.

Sadly Mr Mandela’s expectations about the provision of a good education for all South African children remains unfulfilled and low education standards constitute one of the country’s biggest social challenges and development impediments.

Educational Outcomes

Across a number of international comparative indicators, South Africa significantly underperforms on education, with outcomes in mathematics and science among the worst in the world. Of the total number of students who start school only half will make it to Grade 12 and only 12 percent qualify for university entrance. The main problem is not money. South Africa spends a decent six percent of GDP on education and its teachers are among the highest paid in the world in purchasing power parity terms. Some conspiracy theorists suggest that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) coalition government benefits from a poor and uneducated population. Certainly the ANC draws much of its support from traditional, rural heartlands where school attendance rates (of both teachers and students) are low and the quality of teaching is poor. A study by the South African Centre for Development Enterprise showed that a significant proportion of teachers of mathematics, particularly in rural areas, were unable to answer questions in the curriculum they were teaching and had inadequate teaching competencies.

The Social Dividend

Even without a deliberately malevolent political constraint, the fact remains that 20 years after Mr Mandela’s election as South Africa’s first democratic President most black South African children still receive a sub-standard education that perpetuates poverty, unemployment and social inequality. Children are inheriting the social status of their parents.

Of course, the appalling apartheid legacy and issues such as language and inadequate infrastructure contribute to the problem. But without improvement in the system, South Africans will not have the skills to hold down decent jobs or develop their own businesses. And as South Africa’s National Planning Commission has noted, failure to address this critical issue has the potential to reverse gains and potentially unravel the foundational aspects of democracy.

Creating more jobs in South Africa is, therefore, crucial for its future success. Youth unemployment is particularly acute — exceeding 40 per cent nationally, and in some areas, topping 60 per cent. The general consensus is that to make a serious dent in unemployment, GDP growth needs to exceed six per cent for at least the next 20 years. While South Africa’s budget forecast is around three per cent this year, it will clearly not be enough.

South Africa has some of the right ingredients to help overcome the poor education outcomes, which, according to the OECD, are aggravating the country’s excess supply of unskilled labour and worsening income inequality. There are some very good policy initiatives, including on early childhood learning and school feeding programs, and strong private sector financial commitments.

Leveraging Change

But the existence of great policies has never been South Africa’s problem. It is the absence of political will and leadership to drive implementation that most hinders progress. Leaders are not making the right ethical choices or driving the strong action needed to address the education crisis, leverage the country’s youthful population into a comparative advantage and grow a knowledge economy.

President Zuma is struggling to motivate his government to do better on education service delivery and failing to hold ministers to account for poor performance. The likelihood that this will change in an election year is low. Some of the necessary conversations on wages and labour market reforms – requiring particularly strong leadership in cooperation with the union movement – are being avoided.

Mr Zuma needs to ensure his government makes honest decisions about resource allocation, particularly in the education sector, and fosters a better collaboration between the state and the private sector to boost literacy and numeracy levels, create jobs and grow the economy. A tougher approach to rising corruption, patronage and nepotism is needed.

There is a concern that with the death of Mr Mandela and a number of the country’s other activists and leaders of integrity, one of the constraints on greed and rapaciousness within the system will have been lifted. There will be no one left to shine a light on government performance or to remind the leadership of the most responsible, honest and courageous way to deliver a just, fair and decent society.

Such a concern is probably misplaced. South Africa has a strong media and a number of institutional checks and balances, including the Public Protector and Constitutional Court, and a strong civil society. There are communities, groups and individuals who have always had a greater fidelity to the common aspirational ideals of good governance and equality of opportunity and who will always seek to hold the government to account. These are the people who refuse to accept that the pass mark for the high school certificate equivalent can be 30 per cent and who decry the ‘poverty of expectation’ in this regard. They play a crucial and legitimate role in pressing the government to deliver a functioning and effective education system that can empower all South Africans to fulfil their potential.


Ann Harrap was Australia’s High Commissioner to South Africa from 2008-2012. She is currently the Director of AHC Consulting, Chair of the Board of learning and development company Ethos CRS and an adjunct associate professor in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland.