Education in South Africa



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All South Africans have the right to a basic education, including adult basic education and further education. According to the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 (Act 108 of 1996), the state has an obligation, through reasonable measures, to progressively make this education available and accessible.

At about 5.3% of gross domestic product, South Africa has one of the highest rates of government investment in education in the world.

Sections in this article:

Three bands of education

South Africa’s National Qualifications Framework (NQF) recognises three broad bands of education:

  • General Education and Training
  • Further Education and Training
  • Higher Education and Training

School life spans 13 years or grades, from grade 0, otherwise known as grade R or “reception year”, through to grade 12 or “matric” – the year of matriculation. General Education and Training runs from grade 0 to grade 9. Under the South African Schools Act of 1996, education is compulsory for all South Africans from the age of seven (grade 1) to age 15, or the completion of grade 9. General Education and Training also includes Adult Basic Education and Training.


HIGHER 8 Doctors Degree
7 Masters Degree
Honours Degree
Postgraduate Diploma
6 General first degree
Professional first degree postgraduate
Bachelor’s degree
5 First diploma
Higher certificate
FURTHER 12 4 Diploma
11 3 Certificate
10 2 Certificate
GENERAL 9 1 Grade 9
Adult Basic Education and Training level 4

Further Education and Training takes place from grades 10 to 12, and also includes career-oriented education and training offered in other Further Education and Training institutions – technical colleges, community colleges and private colleges. Diplomas and certificates are qualifications recognised at this level.

The matric pass rate, which was as low as 40% in the late 1990s, has improved considerably. A total of 581 573 full-time students and 38 595 repeat students sat the matriculation exams in 2009, 60.6% of whom passed.

General and Further Education and Training

Newly-elected president Jacob Zuma announced in May 2009 that the national Department of Education would be split into two ministries – Basic Education, and Higher Education and Training.

South African Communist Party secretary-general, Dr Blade Nzimande, is the new minister of Higher Education and Training, while former Gauteng Education MEC, Angie Motshekga, now oversees the Ministry of Basic Education.

Each ministry is responsible for its level of education across the country as a whole, while each of the nine provinces has its own education department.

The Ministry of Basic Education focuses on adult basic education and training in addition to primary and secondary education. The Ministry of Higher Education and Training is responsible for tertiary education up to doctorate level, and technical and vocational training. It also oversees the numerous sector education and training authorities.

The central government provides a national framework for school policy, but administrative responsibility lies with the provinces. Power is further devolved to grassroots level via elected school governing bodies, which have a significant say in the running of their schools.

Private schools and higher education institutions have a fair amount of autonomy, but are expected to fall in line with certain government non-negotiables – no child may be excluded from a school on grounds of his or her race or religion, for example.

The Further Education and Training (FET) branch is responsible for the development of policy for grades 10 to 12 in public and independent schools, as well as in public and private FET colleges.

It monitors the integrity of assessment in schools and colleges, and offers an academic curriculum as well as a range of vocational subjects. FET colleges cater for out-of-school youth and adults.

The branch oversees, coordinates and monitors the system’s response to improved learner participation and performance in maths, science and technology. It also devises strategies aimed at the use of information and communication technology (ICT), and supports curriculum implementation through the national educational portal, Thutong (Setswana, meaning “place of learning”).

The latest available statistics show that in 2007 South Africa had 14 167 086 pupils enrolled in all sectors of the education system, attending 35 231 educational institutions and served by 452 971 teachers and lecturers.

The breakdown of schools includes 26 065 ordinary schools and 9 166 other education institutions – namely, special schools, early childhood development (ECD) sites, public adult basic education and training (ABET) centres, public further education and training (FET) institutions and public higher education (HE) institutions.

Of the total enrolled pupils, 12 048 821 (85.0%) were in public schools and 352 396 (2.5%) were in independent schools. Of the pupils in other institutions, 761 087 (5.4%) were in public HE institutions, 320 679 (2.3%) were in public FET institutions, 292 734 (2.1%) were in public ABET centres, 289 312 (2.0%) were in ECD centres, and 102 057 (0.7%) were in special schools.

The total of 26 065 ordinary schools comprised 15 358 primary schools, with 6 316 064 pupils and 191 199 teachers; 5 670 secondary schools, with 3 831 937 pupils and 128 183 teachers; and 5 037 combined and intermediate schools, with 2 253 216 pupils and 74 843 teachers.

Other educational facilities included 2 278 ABET centres, 50 public FET institutions, 4 800 ECD centres and 23 HE institutions.

In state-funded public schools, the average ratio of pupils (also known as learners) to teachers (educators) is 31.5 to one, while private schools generally have one teacher for every 17.5 scholars.

Tertiary education

Higher Education and Training, or tertiary education, includes education for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, certificates and diplomas, up to the level of the doctoral degree.

A matric endorsement is required for the study of university degrees, with a minimum of three subjects passed at the higher, rather than standard, grade, although some universities set additional academic requirements. A standard school-leaving South African senior certificate is sufficient for technical qualifications and diplomas.

South Africa has a vibrant higher education sector, with more than a million students enrolled in the country’s 24 state-funded tertiary institutions: 11 universities, five universities of technology, and six comprehensive institutions.

These have recently been integrated, with the country’s former 36 universities and “technikons” being amalgamated into larger tertiary institutions. Higher education is also offered at hundreds of private institutions, which are registered with the Department of Education to confer specific degrees and diplomas.

Many of South Africa’s universities are world-class academic institutions, at the cutting edge of research in certain spheres. Although subsidised by the state, the universities are autonomous, reporting to their own councils rather than government.

South Africa’s universities

Recently restructured, South Africa’s 21 public higher education institutions offer a range of study and research options for both local and international students.

The restructuring focused, and in some cases reconfigured, the educational programmes on offer – which previously still reflected the structure and priorities of the old apartheid-based system.

The restructuring also brought in comprehensive universities, a new type of institution designed to cater for the merger of some universities with former “technikons”. Comprehensive universities offer a broad range of degrees, diplomas and certificates, and will help widen access to tertiary education in the country.

Here’s a quick rundown of South Africa’s 21 universities, in alphabetical order.

Cape Peninsula University of Technology

Incorporating the former Cape and Peninsula technikons, the university is the largest in the Western Cape, with over 25 000 students on two main campuses, in Bellville and Cape Town.

Central University of Technology

Incorporating the former Technikon Free State and Vista University’s Welkom campus, the university is based in Bloemfontein. Over 100 courses are offered in three faculties: management; engineering, information and communication sciences; and health and environmental sciences.

Durban University of Technology 

Incorporating the former ML Sultan, Natal and Mangosuthu technikons, as well as the former University of Zululand’s Umlazi campus, the university has major campuses in Durban and Pietermaritzburg as well as satellite campuses in Umlazi.

Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

The university has more than 20 000 students and about 2 000 staff members spread across eight campuses in the Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape and George in the Western Cape. It incorporates the former PE Technikon, University of Port Elizabeth and Vista University’s Port Elizabeth campus.

North West University

North West University has more than 45 000 students spread over four campuses. It offers parallel instruction in Afrikaans, English and Setswana, and is experimenting with simultaneous instruction on its Potchefstroom campus.

Rhodes University

Based in the Eastern Cape town of Grahamstown, Rhodes University is over a century old and is best known for its journalism department. The university has some 500 academic staff and 7 000 students.

Stellenbosch University

Situated in the wine-growing region of Stellenbosch, 60km from Cape Town, Stellenbosch University has four campuses: the main campus at Stellenbosch, the health sciences faculty at Tygerberg Hospital, the business school in Bellville, and military sciences faculty in Saldanha.

Tshwane University of Technology

Incorporating the former Northern Gauteng, North West and Pretoria technikons, Tshwane University of Technology offers masters and doctoral programmes in addition to degrees, certificates and diplomas.

University of Cape Town

South Africa’s oldest university, founded in 1829, has one of the most picturesque campuses in the world, situated on the slopes of Table Mountain’s Devil’s Peak and overlooking Rondebosch in Cape Town. The university is regarded as one of the top research institutions on the continent, with more “A” rated scientists than any other South African university. The university is home to Groote Schuur Hospital, where the world’s first heart transplant took place in 1967.

University of Fort Hare

Fort Hare, dating back to 1916, is the oldest historically black university in the country. It has been the academic home of many of South Africa’s most prominent leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, and Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Fort Hare has three Eastern Cape campuses, in Alice, Bhisho and East London. The university offers a range of degrees and diplomas in its faculties of education, science and agriculture, social sciences and humanities, management and commerce, and at the Nelson Mandela School of Law.

University of Johannesburg

Incorporating the former Rand Afrikaans University, Technikon Witwatersrand and Vista University’s Johannesburg campuses, the university offers both technical and academic programmes for around 45 000 students.

University of KwaZulu-Natal

Incorporating the former Durban-Westville and Natal universities, the university covers five campuses in Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

University of Limpopo

Formerly the University of the North, and based in South Africa’s northern Limpopo province, the university provides training in three faculties: humanities; management sciences and law; and sciences, health and agriculture.

University of Pretoria

Established in 1930, the university is one of South Africa’s largest, with almost 40 000 students, including over 2 000 international students from 60 countries. The university’s Gordon Institute of Business Science, established in Johannesburg in 2000, has already earned an international reputation, while its faculty of veterinary science at Onderstepoort is the only one of its kind in South Africa.

University of South Africa

Unisa is one of the largest distance-learning universities in the world, made larger by the recent incorporation of the former Technikon SA and Vista University’s distance education division. Based in Pretoria, it offers distance education programmes – both academic and technical – to students across the country, the region and the world.

University of the Free State

Established in 1904, the university is home to around 20 000 students, 16 000 on the main Bloemfontein campus and 3 000 enrolled in the university’s distance and internet learning programmes.

University of the Western Cape

Originally established in 1959 as an ethnic college for coloured students, the university provides facilities for over 12 000 students across 68 departments and 16 institutes, schools and research centres.

University of the Witwatersrand

Based in Johannesburg, Wits University is one of the country’s leading research institutions, attracting students from across Africa. Since full university status was granted in 1922, Wits has produced more than 100 000 graduates across a range of disciplines. The university offers degrees in the faculties of engineering and the built environment, humanities, health sciences, science and commerce.

University of Venda

The University of Venda for Science and Technology, situated in Thohoyandou in Limpopo, offers career-focussed programmes in the fields of health, agriculture and rural development; humanities, management sciences and law; and natural and applied sciences.

Vaal University of Technology

The university has around 15 000 students spread across its main campus in Vanderbijlpark, 60km south-west of Johannesburg, and four satellite campuses, which include the Sebokeng campus of the former Vista University.

Walter Sisulu University

Incorporating the former Border and Eastern Cape technikons and the University of the Transkei, the university has around 20 000 students spread across its campuses in East London, Butterworth, Queenstown and Mthatha. It offers a range of degrees, certificates and diplomas in 11 faculties, and hosts an MBChB programme in Mthatha.

Spending and challenges

Compared with most other countries, education gets a really big slice of the pie – usually around 20% of total government expenditure. In the 2008/9 national Budget education received R140.4-billion, amounting to 18.5% of total spending.

More money is always needed to address the huge backlogs left by 40 years of apartheid education. Under that system, white South African children received a quality schooling virtually for free, while their black counterparts had only “Bantu education”.

Education was viewed as a part of the overall apartheid system, which included the “homelands”, urban restrictions, pass laws and job reservation. The role of black Africans was as labourers or servants only. As HF Verwoerd, the architect of the Bantu Education Act of 1953, conceived it: “There is no place for [the African] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. It is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim, absorption in the European community.”

Although today’s government is working to rectify the imbalances in education, the apartheid legacy remains. The greatest challenges lie in the poorer, rural provinces like the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Schools are generally better resourced in the more affluent provinces such as Gauteng and the Western Cape.

Illiteracy rates currently stand at around 18% of adults over 15 years old (about 9-million adults are not functionally literate), teachers in township schools are poorly trained, and the matric pass rate remains low.

While 65% of whites over 20 years old and 40% of Indians have a high school or higher qualification, this figure is only 14% among blacks and 17% among the coloured population.

The government is in particular targeting education for the poorest of the poor, with two notable programmes. One is fee-free schools, institutions that receive all their required funding from the state and so do not have to charge school fees. These have been carefully identified in the country’s most poverty-stricken areas, and will make up 40% of all schools in 2007.

The other is the National Schools Nutrition Programme, which feeds about 7-million schoolchildren every day, including all those attending primary schools in 13 rural and eight urban poverty nodes. The programme was extended in 2009 to 1 500 secondary schools around the country, feeding 1-million secondary school pupils from grades 8 to 12.

Under the programme, the Department of Education has also established almost 2 100 school gardens with the support of the Department of Agriculture, local government structures and a number of NGOs.

Other priorities include early childhood development, HIV-Aids awareness programmes in schools, and adult basic education and training.

Useful links

General and Further Education and Training

Tertiary education

South Africa’s universities