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A crisis of opportunity: The state of education in SA

Submitted by Rachel Adams

To be excluded from the opportunities that one’s society has to offer is possibly one of the most disenfranchising experiences that one can endure. But to be promised opportunity and then never see that promise come to fruition must ultimately arouse a restlessness and hopelessness that is no doubt destructive for any society.

And while South Africa houses one of the strongest education systems on the continent, current research and statistics show that such restlessness is exactly what this system is currently creating among the majority of its learners. Whether for school-leavers or for students who have to make do with limited resources in most township and rural schools, the promise of opportunities for learning and employment is yet to be realised.

According to research, there is a ratio of about 80:20 poor to wealthy schools in the country, and many learners are merely being “warehoused” in conditions that are bound to produce drop-outs or students who are poorly prepared for work or university learning.

For the smaller percentage in this country that has been privileged enough to benefit from that part of the education system that actually works, it may not be very obvious that many apartheid-like learning conditions remain firmly in place for most learners.

While the Education Department has for a few years now been working at creating economically accessible, no-fee primary and secondary schools, many challenges persist. Curricula remain underdeveloped and where they have been developed, the training for teachers to deliver those curricula is limited or completely lacking. Learner-teacher ratios remain high, libraries are sporadically resourced or completely non-existent, computers are almost never part of education and students are forced to write science exams without adequate prior access to the necessary technologies.

For many township and rural schools, the miracle of integration that many Model C and private schools have experienced remains a dream. This means that many of our learners pass through the education system without ever accessing the lessons and opportunities that come with racial integration: the very integration that the apartheid struggle was dedicated to achieving. It is also probable that the location of most rural schools means that they are the last to receive reform and, by this time, morale may have been lost and unproductive habits embedded.

More troubling are the findings that many learners, male and female, are being subjected to sexual abuse from their teachers in exchange for grades. Unfortunately this taints the efforts of the many dedicated teachers who are committed, against all odds, to contribute to the intellectual development of their students. What becomes angering is the fact that many provincial education departments are wallowing in dysfunctionality and mismanagement, at times even failing to use the resources available to them to improve learning conditions.

And what is to be said of the many young heroes of this country (and we should indeed see them as heroes)? Despite such difficult learning conditions, these dedicated students continue to show up on the doors of their under-resourced classrooms, committed to learning what makes their country work and how they can contribute to making it work. They sit at their desks for a full 12 years, holding on to the promise that their learning will be the vehicle to lead them out of the squalor that they unfairly endure and into a career and life of which they can be proud.

The country’s current economic conditions make this realisation only available to a few. With almost 60% of matriculants unable to find employment and many others unable to meet the academic expectations of the country’s universities, it means that the education system is doing well to create a situation of despair.

Imagine what hopelessness and disappointment must arise when for the larger part of your childhood you have dreamt of pursuing the career that your education told you you should be able to achieve, but then limitations within the education system itself and larger socio-economic and political factors then stifle that dream. Does this not mean that you then are at high risk of becoming that vagrant, that robber, the prostitute, who has to resort to dehumanising means to attain some economic ability? Does this not mean that you then become a part of the population that fails to recognise what the mantra “alive with possibilities” could mean? Does this not mean that by virtue of your limitations you may then begin to question the idea of success by merit and ask why you have been excluded from the opportunities that made others successful?

And that is the purpose of this piece: hopefully to ignite a passion for all of us who read this to begin to see the pertinence (if we haven’t done so already) of creating and providing opportunities for our learners. To realise that too large a part of the young population in this country, and this continent, is being limited in their ability to contribute to the growth of our economies and the democratisation of our politics — not because they cannot, but because a system lacking in opportunity will not allow them to.

Take yourself to many of the under-resourced schools in this country and you will be heartbroken at the determination of learners to make something of their lives, starting with being in that very classroom, despite the fact that many of them may not even have had a morning meal. A fellow scholar once shared with me that in the group of five in which he used to play when he was younger, only one of them (him) had realised his dream to get to university. Two others are hardcore criminals, one was shot dead and the fourth is in a mental asylum. Yet within those young men lie little boys who once shared dreams of how they wanted to become doctors, scientists and accountants.

I, like my fellow scholar-friend, am willing to acknowledge that I have come as far as I have largely because of the opportunities that have been made available to me. Have I worked hard? Yes. Have I been an astute student? Yes. Have I dedicated myself to causes in which I believe? Yes. But not any more than the many students with whom I shared desks in the fairly under-resourced high school that I attended. Mine was a school full of committed teachers and students but it stunk with the rot of opportunity deficit. Many dreams died in that school as many progressive minds were told that this is where they would alight from the larger politico-economic world, to recede into the background along with their ambitions and capabilities.

Those students had as much zeal and determination as I did to make something of themselves in life, but something failed them. A limited number of scholarships, a scarce availability of mentoring resources, a lack of career guidance facilities, networks that could not provide information about where to apply for funding or how to apply effectively for a job (and we all know how important networks are): all of these and other factors summate what one would call a lack of opportunities, and South African learners are desperately in need of these.

For those of us therefore who have been able to benefit from the larger system, the moral responsibility to provide these much-needed opportunities lies with us. It must be acknowledged that there are numerous organisations dedicated to this cause, but there is still room for more input.

For those who are financially capable, there are numerous scholarship programmes in the country and on the continent that would benefit from more donors. For those with the skills, the creation of tutoring and mentoring programmes, after-school activities and career guidance services will help to grow the networks that young learners need. For companies that have not already tapped into this opportunity to exercise corporate social responsibility, the education arena is in desperate need of your input.

South Africa is a country that is anxious to create a larger skilled labour force and to decrease the feelings of hopelessness that have gained a plague-like status in the present day. It would seem, therefore, that the priority should lie in creating an education system whose promise for opportunity does not prove empty and whose opportunity makes the best of our learners’ potential.

Rachel Adams is studying towards her BSocSc honours degree in social anthropology at the University of Cape Town


  • Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members of The Mandela Rhodes Community. The Mandela Rhodes Community was started by recipients of the scholarship, and is a growing network of young African leaders in different sectors. The Mandela Rhodes Community is comprised of students and professionals from various backgrounds, fields of study and areas of interest. Their commonality is the set of guiding principles instilled through The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program: education, leadership, reconciliation, and social entrepreneurship. All members of The Mandela Rhodes Community have displayed some form of involvement in each of these domains. The Community has the purpose of mobilising its members and partners to collaborate in establishing a growing network of engaged and active leaders through dialogue and project support [The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship is open to all African students and allows for postgraduate studies at any institution in South Africa. See The Mandela Rhodes Foundation for further details.]


  1. Sipho Sipho 15 September 2008

    Rachel, I’ll tell you who failed them – the government and the leaders of our country.

    I agree with you, the priority should lie in the education system. Unfortunately overzealous focus on BEE and Gautrains instead of fundementals such as crime, poverty and education have lead to the emmigration of many a skilled educator. Literally thousands of SA teachers/educators are currently employed in the UK…

  2. Scrappy Coco Scrappy Coco 15 September 2008

    I’m a current varsity student at a private institute, majority of my friends are from other African nations and compared to those students, the South African students don’t perform as well as the Zambians, Nigerians and Kenyan students. Personally I think the entire education system needs to be revamped, how can they expect a 16yr old to be able to determine the necessary subjects that will allow them to get into university and map out their possible career path.

    The solution is not free education but better education so that students are equipped to handle learning at university level, especially at International institutes where the curriculum is harder and the classroom more competitive.

    The worse part is, should a student manage to make it through school, get through university whether by student loan or a bursary, we still have to struggle to find a job in this struggling economy. Employers scream lack of experience, yet no one wants to allow students to intern for free and gain exposure in their relevant career streams. So when offered a fellowship/job/internship abroad, then why return? It’s not like this economy caters for the education of their youths anyways

  3. Brent Brent 15 September 2008

    S. Korea after the Korean war was devarstated and the literacy rate was less than 30%. In just on two generations this was changed to a literacy rate of over 95% plus a wide access for adults to adult education.

    How?- firstly they decided to do so, then they borrowed billions of $ and did it. When i visited there in the 80’s they were the main Asian tiger taking over from Japan but still owed billions of $ but everyone had a basic education. Nothing; war, politics, etc etc was allowed to deviate the country from these education aims.

    So we should have a Vice President whos job is just education, from primary level up to University and there should be high goals set plus very very strict legislation put in place that prevents anyone (includuing unions) from disrupting any education for even a second. Make education a national priority that no one or no party can adversly affect.

    The motto should be; ‘let no ones future be stolen.’


  4. BenzoL BenzoL 15 September 2008

    A long story to point out a few hard facts and come to the point: (1) the education system fails the youth; (2) the youth is the victim.
    (1) This statement is too general. Proof is in the few rural or underprivileged schools which have succeeded under all those horrible circumstances. Why? They had committed headmasters who motivated the teachers to give their best. He/she did not take nonsense and absenteeism lightly. They did not accept a dysfunctional district. They fought for their children. They did not go for the popularity stakes to obtain promotion into the same district that led their children down. The difference between schools, who receive the same subsidies, is breathtakingly wide. Why? Commitment and fighting spirit of the headmasters and their staff is the answer.
    I have had the privilege to be closely associated with one of the provincial directors in Gauteng. This person –after 20 months in the job- is so frustrated by the general lack of work ethics, the dysfunctional bureaucratic systems, the need to check on every single action for corruptive manipulation and the general incompetence of staff to produce simple documents such as an agenda for a meeting. A brilliant educator, passionate about children and their well-being, on the verge of resigning a rotten system. Bringing the failures to higher management? …much of the same.

    Can it get better? Yes it should because it cannot get worse. But the early MEC for Gauteng, who failed miserably and was “re-deployed” is now the dean of the education faculty at Wits and in charge of training the new generation of teachers …..God help us all.

    (2) Students the victim? I believe that students are both victim and perpetrators. Some good willing students make it despite their disadvantaged circumstances. Others are just exploiting their disadvantaged state to get away with (at times literally) murder. They use their good brains for mischief and blame the system. Some schools are in an acceptable state despite being derelict because the students are made to care. In other schools, the just replaced windows are broken again within a week. Some students work harder out of frustration, others respond destructive.
    The good schools run courses on parenting. The bad schools don’t. The good schools involve the parents, the bad ones don’t. These activities do take lots of time outside school hours. The bad schools do not work after hours.

    While enjoying the luxury of a good education, focus on the forces behind failed societies and the forces behind successful societies. The drivers behind success are the passionate people who defeat any dysfunctional system. In your script or thesis, do an in-depth comparative study between a top school and a dysfunctional school in a disadvantaged area. You will find that the managers of dysfunctional systems cannot keep up with the speed of the passionate people. Success, enjoy and don’t forget to send me a copy.

  5. japes japes 16 September 2008

    I half agree with Sipho; the government has wasted money and attention on Gautrain etc and trained educators are leaving in droves. But why aren’t the colleges scaled down by those clowns Maharaj and Nzimande was it, back up and running, pumping out well qualified teachers. Why the silly romance with OBE instead of just sticking to the basics? Why don’t schools get their books in time? Why don’t teachers get fair treatment and better pay?

    My view; because the system is riddled with political nepotism where political appointments are often incompetent and/or don’t do their jobs. Many “Model C” schools continue to provide good education despite governments best efforts to sabotage them. We’ll have to wait and see if it’s too far gone and certainly many of today’s students will be rendered unemployable by government policy and idleness.

  6. T M T M 16 September 2008

    That’s so Rachel :)

    Well, let it be said outright that “A crisis of opportunity: The state of education in SA” is an incisive input.

    I happen to have immersed myself with Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society – a great piece of work which should be read by anyone who believes in radical change in the education system.

    Keep going, ‘fellow scholar-friend’

    T M

  7. Lionel Lionel 16 September 2008

    Great article, Rachel. Thank you.

    Another factor – which I think BenzoL also alludes to – is learners’ complicity in their own socio-economic stagnation.

    A week or so ago, here in Grahamstown, one of the local township schools was broken into by suspected former or current pupils (suspected, because they knew exactly how to get in, where to go, and what would cause the maximum damage). The science lab was trashed, and bottles of chemicals smashed on the floor such that the teachers and cops had to close the school temporarily the next morning in order to safely clean up the dangerous mixed chemicals. This happened during Matric trials week. On one of the chalkboards in the classroom, underneath where the teacher had written up the learners’ homework questions for the day, one of the burglars scrawled “The answer is fuck you!” This incident is just the latest in a long line of school break-ins and trashings that have occured in Grahamstown this year.

    It depresses me profoundly because I know a number of learners at that school whose Matric preparations have been thrown into disarray, all because of the retarded actions of their peers.

    Why would learners want to do such a mindless and stupid thing? No amount of government funding, policy shifts, imbizos, whatever, can achieve anything when faced with such an attitude on the part of some learners.

  8. GUS GUS 16 September 2008

    I’ve said it before; this continent’s biggest enemies are their own leaders.

    2 highly prominent black women recently expressed the view that Bantu education was of greater quality than the crap you get now. Verwoerd, where are you, bra?

    Change the government and things might improve.

    I don’t feel sorry for blacks, as the black leaders of this country have stolen our collective dream of the future.

  9. Rachel Adams Rachel Adams 16 September 2008

    Such a critical topic and such critical and useful feedback that will surely influence my future research. I agree with all of you that saving the education system will equally require saving the political and economic system of this country. There are too may loose ends that need tightening and the effects of corruption, nepotism, the brain drain, BEE mismanagement and other such factors are not doing too well to tighten those ends.

    I particularly appreciate your insight BenzoL. I believe that we agree on the fundamentals and if you read the piece again you will see that I acknowledge the “heroes” – teachers and students alike – who manage with incredible resolve despite the conditions under which they are made to teach and learn. Indeed my scholar-friend and myself (to differing degrees) are products of education backgrounds that were not so comfy resource-wise, but had teachers and management that were absolutely determined to make a success out of us. We were also fortunate to have a support system (parents, extended family) that allowed us to better cope with the conditions we found ourselves in and to deliver us to the space that we are in now academically.

    It is on the second point that I would differ with you though not so greatly. I think that your statement “some students work harder out of frustration, others respond destructive” reflects the crux of what I am trying to highlight here. It is the conditions that lead to that very frustration that we urgently need to get rid of. I don’t think that any child should be made to deal with some of the educational frustrations that I have seen from both personal experience and from my research. I have just finished my Masters research and some of the stories that students tell reiterate the point that these conditions surely do turn brilliant minds into victims. It’s not every human being that exercises their fighting spirit and some find it easier to give in and let the difficulties of the day determine their direction. I have not come across any research as yet that measures at what point students fail to cope and turn to destructive behaviour as a way of expressing their anger at the system failing them. I would think that research would be useful. And I don’t know if you ever experienced such anger as a child. I did, and trust me it is a thin line between conquering and giving in. It is unfair that children, based on their class and impoverished background, are having to grapple with such difficult issues, when other children, based on their wealthier status can breeze through the education system.

    TM, dear scholar-friend, thank you for your story that has forever inspired me. Let’s get in touch.

  10. Rachel Adams Rachel Adams 17 September 2008

    ….by the way, TM, I will be getting Deschooling Society on your recommendation…

    BenzoL, great research you propose at the end. I might consider that for a PhD.

    Correction to my profile: I have just completed a Masters in African Studies at Oxford University. I am not a BSocSci student.

  11. Jon Jon 17 September 2008

    Come on! Illich’s “Deschooling Society” was cutting edge golly-gosh revolutionary stuff in the late 1960’s! It’s half a century out of date along with LSD, tie-dyed lavender-purple grandpa vests and fondue parties and Hercules bicycles with three-speed Sturmey-Archer gears.

    Can’t educational radicals come up with something newer than a recycled fifty-year old faded and drug-fuelled dream?

  12. Jon Jon 17 September 2008

    What??? Ivan Illich and “Deschooling Society”?

    That was on every radical’s reading list way back in the late 1960s! That’s about as “cutting edge” as crocheted doilies and macrame pot-plant holders!

  13. Mal Mal 17 September 2008

    Great Article Rachel,

    Like all events that cause change, you need a spark that causes a fire to burn away the old forest and dead wood, so that new saps (ideas) can grow. Lets hope this article and others like it can make someone somewhere see sense and do what needs to be done to save the brilliant potential that is possible from the youth of S.Africa and other African countries.

  14. Rachel Adams Rachel Adams 17 September 2008

    Gus, I would be interested to hear what these prominent women thought was exactly good about the Bantu Education System. I am not one to throw the baby out with the bath water so if there was something positive in the structures and technicalities of the Bantu Education system, then lets hear it and use it for the current system.

    What I do know for certain is that there was much that was wrong with that system. According to Nasson and Samuel (1990), secondary school teachers in black schools in 1976 were poorly qualified to take up their positions. 1.7% had a university degree, 10.4% had a matriculation certificate, 49.3% had two years of secondary schooling and 21% had only completed primary school. These are teachers teaching secondary school students! And Verwoed allowed for this! And then there were disparities in the amount of funding that was being dedicated to white versus black education that predisposed Bantu education to failing right from the beginning. And then there was the language issue that hindered black students from engaging with the curriculum effectively. All this while students were also trying to cope with breaking family structures and an impossible politico-economic climate.

    So again I would be interested to hear what the good parts of the Bantu education system were so that we can incorporate them into the current system. But let’s not be quick to start pining for Verwoed as though his education system lacked flaws. It is the very system after all that is the root of some of the problems we face in today’s schools. What we are dealig with here is a problem of inheritance and not just current mismanagement.

    As for your lack of sympathy for blacks based on the fact that black leaders are failing: all I can say is shame. This habit of blaming black leaders for all ailments in South Africa is becoming really problematic. With regard to the education system, it has been well documented that many white parents have voted for fees in Model C schools to be raised so that these schools remain inaccessible to black students. All this for fear that black students would lower the “standards” of these schools. This has contributed to the perpetuation of ‘access-strictly-by-class’ and has kept many poor people from receiving the kind of education that they could under a fairer system.

    So let’s not pretend that all problems In South Africa are solely as a result of poor black leadership. There are also poor white attitudes that need to be challenged alongside the poor leadership that you speak of.

  15. Oldfox Oldfox 24 September 2008


    The fact that something is “well documented”, does not mean that it is true.

    I was on the Governing Body of a Model C school many years ago. Admittedly the majority of school pupils were black, by that stage, so the issue of excluding black pupils could not apply to such a school. Income from fees have to match the expenditure on essential facilities not provided by the govt. (including school desks!) and additional teachers essential for a quality education. The is basic business/accounting principles, and has nothing to do with race. If it turns out that the resultant fee structure excludes many poor children, tough. They will have to go to govt. schools. But many poor parents DID make the necessary sacrifices so their children could attend Model C schools. One of those was a domestic worker, who spent 25% of her income on the monthly fees alone for one child(and there are other expenses like books and school uniforms that add to the financial burden of such poor parents).

    The crisis in education in SA today, can indeed be blamed ENTIRELY on poor leadership by the education authorities and also others in other govt departments (e.g. those who decided to shut down teachers training colleges).

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