South Africa country overview

South Africa Government

South Africa information index

Education of South Africa

Primary and secondary schools

Education is mandated for all children in the age bracket of 7 to 16 years, or until the completion of ninth grade, whichever milestone is achieved sooner. Instruction commences in one of the nation’s recognized official languages. Following the completion of the second grade, the curriculum incorporates the study of an additional language.

The nation’s constitution enshrines the entitlement to fundamental education. A centralized educational framework is in place to regulate the educational standards across various provinces. The educational infrastructure encompasses both state-funded and independent institutions. Historically, during the period of apartheid, educational facilities administered by departments predominantly serving the white population were better equipped within the public sector. Moreover, private institutions with a white demographic focus benefited from considerable governmental financial support. Post-1990, despite some of these institutions opening their doors to Black students, a combination of informal resistance from the white community, capacity constraints, and the introduction of fees—often perceived as a tactic to maintain exclusivity—has largely precluded Black students from accessing these historically white-dominated public schools. Private education, renowned for its exceptional academic offerings, continues to be financially out of reach for the majority of the Black population due to prohibitive costs.

In a concerted effort to address historical disparities, the government has committed substantial investment to enhance both the infrastructure and the quality of education provided within the school system. This commitment was further demonstrated through the adoption of a progressive national curriculum in the early 21st century.

By continental standards, South Africa boasts commendable literacy rates. Since the 1970s, literacy has seen a significant increase, rising from 50% to 80% of the population.

Higher education

South Africa boasts a diverse array of tertiary educational establishments. The preeminent and most expansive of these is the University of South Africa (UNISA), which, having been founded in Cape Town, now operates from Pretoria and provides distance learning programs in both English and Afrikaans. Among the earliest residential universities are the University of Cape Town, the University of Fort Hare, Stellenbosch University, and the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Notably, Stellenbosch University originated as an institution primarily instructing in Afrikaans, whereas the University of Fort Hare was initially founded to cater exclusively to Black students. Additional notable institutions include the University of Pretoria, North-West University, the University of Johannesburg, and Nelson Mandela University.

Historically, the majority of Black South Africans who attained postsecondary qualifications did so through UNISA or the University of Fort Hare. English-speaking universities such as the University of Natal, with campuses in Pietermaritzburg and Durban, and Rhodes University, admitted a limited number of Black students. However, this changed in 1959 when apartheid laws curtailed their admissions, a move which these institutions strongly contested. Subsequently, the government established new universities and technikons specifically for Black populations, including the Universities of the North, Zululand, Western Cape, Durban-Westville, and Vista, as well as the Medical University, and expanded the number of technikons focused on technical industrial education. Additionally, the autonomous regions of Bophuthatswana, Transkei, and Venda founded their own universities.

Following the abolition of apartheid, the racial and ethnic composition of many postsecondary institutions continued to reflect their historical legacies. The integration of Coloured and Indian students into traditionally white institutions occurred at a swifter pace than that of Black students. Professional and postgraduate programs remained predominantly at the historically white universities until a comprehensive restructuring initiative was launched in the early 21st century. This government-led strategy aimed to consolidate various universities and technikons to enhance educational access and quality for all students, irrespective of racial background, to reduce redundant services, and to align with the nation’s anticipated labor market needs.

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