Current Theoretical Perspectives on South Africa’s Black Schools


South Africa’s schools are overflowing with 12.3 million students of all ages. Though this is an impressive suggestion of the importance of education, the numbers are deceiving. The truth of the matter is, repetition rates are high and development is slow, with 44.7% of students still attending secondary school[1] at the age of 20 and 10.1% attending at the age of 24. Of the 23.3 million South Africans who are 20 years or older, 2.9 million have not attended any form of schooling and 1.6 million have only completed primary education.[2] 4.3 million have received only some primary education, and only 1.9 million have some form of tertiary degree or certificate.[3]

Overall, South Africa’s population is only 10.5% white, which suggests that much of the issue with education lies within the previously disadvantaged sector of the population, the blacks, who compose 77.8% of the country’s people.  The issue is further projected on blacks by statistics revealing that 26.6% of the rural black women 20 years and older and 19.8% of rural black men in the same age category are illiterate.[4]

The problem with the quality of education in public, historically black schools and their poor outcomes can be seen in the empirical data in Figure 1, gathered from numerous international education studies, government reports, and South Africa’s Department of National Education. The statistics pertain to the results of a grade 6 evaluation test conducted by the Southern African Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality in 2000, which gathered information from 14 other participating countries. The numbers show that overall, South Africa falls in the bottom half of the group in both mathematics and in reading (Fig. 1), and that the difference in scores between socio-economic classes (SES) differ greatly by nearly 100 points in both categories.


Fig 1: Mean Scores and Scores of Poor (Low Socio-Economic Status/ SES) and Rich (High SES) Pupils on SACMEQ II Grade 6 Reading and Mathematics Tests by Country (Arranged by Mean Scores in Each Test) [5]


fig 1





South Africa’s grade 4 learners had an average numeracy score of 30%, and performed better than only 3 out of 12 other African countries in literacy.[6] One of the most blatant disparities in scores can be seen between black and white schools. In 1993, a household survey conducted for Statistics on Living Standards and Development, showed that even though blacks had achieved 78-86% of the years of education that whites had, their scores in literacy were only 50-63% of white levels, while there numeracy scores were a scanty 36-47%.[7]

Overall, white students in 2003 coming from previously white schools scored just below the international average; black students attained scores half that of white students (Fig 2). In addition, the average number of years of schooling completed by blacks is 9 years compared to 12 years for whites. This number is affected by the low average pass rate among blacks, which is 43% compared to 97% pass rate for whites.

Fig 2: Mathematics and Science Scores in TIMSS Grade 8 Tests in Comparative Perspective, 1999 and 2003 [8]

 fig 2

Source: Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) 2005


These numbers reflect a clear issue with public education and the black South African population. Why are the dropout rates so high and matriculation percentages so low in previously black schools, especially 15 years after the abolition of apartheid? Part of the problem is the way in which people have been looking at the issue of poor education in previously disadvantaged schools.  One popular idea is that these schools lack the resources and facilities that white schools have – a result of the decades spent under the apartheid government.

In South Africa, money is being poured into the development of the country’s education system, especially the improvement of public school education for the previously disadvantaged. Innovative policies and a fresh curricula are also being developed by policy makers from around the world to move black schools beyond the apartheid Bantu system and to spark a new interest in education and improve outcomes as a result. Many analysts believe that a lack of funding and resources has inhibited these schools from prospering, while others surmise that educational policies are too radical and dysfunctional and thus negatively affect the system.

Data gathered by an economics team from Stellenbosch University in Stellenbosch, South Africa, shows little to support the connection between funding and resource allocation and an increase in positive results. After the shift to democracy was made at the end of apartheid, a significant turn-around in spending was initiated by the government in an effort to cater to the needs of the poor and the majority of the population who were previously disadvantaged. The largest fiscal shift to the poor was in school education at 6% of the country’s GDP, which was, and continues to be, the largest of the government’s budget line items. The following concentration index indicates the increase in the level of government expenditure directed towards social services accessible by the poor between 1995 (the year after apartheid ended) and 2000. In concentration indexes, a negative number reflects good targeting to the poor, where they receive more than what their income allows them to return to the government and the country’s economy.[9] School funding increased over a five-year period by -.088. In this restructuring, the richest two deciles experienced reduced spending per capita, and blacks gained the most, while all other population groups saw some reduction in government support as well, specifically in terms of the teacher-pupil ration.[10]

Fig 3: Concentration indexes by program: 1995 and 2000 [11]

fig 3 
Overall a shift took place in both teacher salary and in teacher allocation. During apartheid, it was typical for a large, public black school to have an average of 24 teachers on staff; whereas, now the number of teachers per 1,000 students declined from 59 teachers to 43 in white schools and increased from 24 teachers to 31 in black schools.[12] Along with the leveling of the number of educators in these schools, the government also increased the salaries of teachers working in historically black schools. Thus, even though funding was allocated specifically for the improvement of previously disadvantaged schools, much of the expenditure was directed to salary increases to eliminate apartheid discrimination, while the amount directed towards the purchase of physical resources and the improvement of school facilities was reduced.[13] 

Despite the increase in financial support, matriculation numbers have only minimally changed. Even the improvement in teacher-to-pupil ratio in previously disadvantaged schools had little impact on outcomes, and the change in matriculation pass rates only increased by 4% over the course of a year.[14] Figure 4 shows that matriculation has only slightly increased at a slow and steady pace after apartheid. Thus, it seems that even though funding is provided, there is no guarantee that the appropriate resources will be attained, that the funding will be used effectively, or that more qualified teachers will be attracted to public schools.[15]


Fig 4: Matriculation candidates and passes: 1979 to 2006 [16]

 fig 4



One of the things I observed while teaching at Kayamandi pre-primary school was how funding was used throughout the school. Kayamandi township is located five minutes outside of Stellenbosch on a bare hill that receives little protection from the brutal sun. It was established in the 1940s as a village for black laborers who worked in the surrounding vineyards. It has since become the home of around 30,000 black South Africans.[17] The classrooms where I worked were small, not larger than 80 to 100 square feet, with a carpet in the center of the tiled floor, and plastic tables and chairs stacked against a wall. There were several books displayed on a table against one of the walls; however, for a pre-primary classroom where literacy and writing are beginning to be fostered, the amount of reading material was insufficient. Furthermore, there were no storybooks in isiXhosa, the mother tongue of the learners. In one corner of the room there was a pile of dilapidated toys, ragged from overuse. These toys consisted of several toy cars, a box of blocks, a baby stroller, and many small knick knacks. During recess times, the students would outside play with tires, sticks, and one or two jump ropes and would also play in a small, backyard-sized sandbox.

While I was teaching at the school, I was able to witness part of the governmental funding being put to use. One day when I arrived, the teacher was opening a large box that the school had received the previous day. They had been waiting for their classroom order for weeks now and it had finally arrived. Out of the box came several hula-hoops and beanbag catapult launchers, as well as a couple of new books and interactive diagrams for one of the class lessons.

These purchases surprised me. A week later the hula-hoops were bent into unusable shapes, and the beanbags were on the verge of explosion. Not only were there over 150 students using these new and exciting toys twice a day, everyday, at school, but also these toys were not durable choices to begin with. What I would have expected to see from the spending of governmental funding would be classroom resources aimed at stimulating the students’ minds, catching their attention, assisting in their understanding of the material, and other educational uses. Such resources would include more English and isiKhosa books, writing and counting workbooks, interactive games, and instructional posters.

After four weeks, there would be no more hula-hoops or beanbags, and the classroom would still be lacking isiXhosa reading books and picture posters for the walls. At first I wondered whether these township schools were being allotted sufficient funds to supply these classrooms with the materials needed and at an equivalent level to white and private primary schools; however, after seeing the ineffective spending first hand and discovering through research that these schools were receiving strong financial attention from the government, I formulated a new question as to who had control over spending and whether these people were at all knowledgeable about the appropriate resources for the schools.

Believing that reforms in education policy would elevate primarily black schools to be on par with white public schools, South Africa’s government (with the assistance of a team of education policy makers from across the globe) established and implemented several policies rather quickly after the end of apartheid. The Ministry of Education developed three reforms to the country’s curriculum at the end of apartheid. The first of these reforms called for the removal of ‘racially offensive and outdated content,’[18] and the second initiated continuous assessments throughout the public school system. The Ministry then designed the third program, deemed outcomes-based education (OBE), in the hopes of equalizing standards and outcomes across the country. Despite the efforts to change the system, these policies were more an effort to improve appearances and to prove to the citizens and to other countries that the new government was fully dedicated to responding to past apartheid schooling, than they were to reform the functioning of these schools and improve student outcomes.[19]

What policy makers failed to do was to design these programs in accordance with the systems already in existence on the township level. By involving teachers of these schools in debates over policies such as OBE, the government would have been able to devise a much more stable program that would be easily adopted by schools. Instead, the Ministry quickly established these highly ambitious and glorified policies that teachers in previously black schools did not have the motivation or the ability to enforce.

One of the issues pertaining to the ineffectiveness of OBE and other programs is the complex language in which they are written. Teachers working in township schools do not have the tertiary education themselves to comprehend the detailed policy, which is composed of 50 different concepts and labels, including unit standards and assessment criteria among other competencies. Moreover, the lexicon of these policies is continuously being altered, and teachers are required to understand how each concept relates to different agencies in the government.[20]

Furthermore, one of the lofty goals of OBE is to place teachers in a particular role where they “facilitate and mediate the educational experience…The teacher, now a facilitator of learning, will create relations between learners and facilitator which engender values based on cooperative learning.”[21] The current status of teachers in public, primarily black schools is far from authoritative and influential (discussed further in Section 4), however, and these demands do not consider the dramatic change the teaching system would need to undergo in order to achieve such goals. The team of administrators developing the objectives of these programs consists of mainly white, elite and experienced teachers, who frankly have little understanding of the circumstances of teachers in primarily black public schools. What they are unaware of is the limited access these teachers may have to information on OBE and other governmental policies that will help them to comprehend and apply concepts into their lesson plans and in their teaching methods. Public school teachers also lack official support and the support of a management system to assist them in their roles as ‘implementers.’[22]

Overall, the Ministry of Education is placing a lot of responsibility on the country’s public school teachers to assist in the transformation of the apartheid curriculum and school-system. Education agendas are an act of political symbolism, rather than comprehensive and practical programs, and require that teachers fulfill the requirements for implementation. These duties include: reorganizing the curriculum, increasing the time devoted to one-on-one relationships with the students and monitoring the student’s progress and comprehension, administering assessments, and maintaining records.[23] However, when the Minister of Education requested that a review committee examine the structure of the new policies, the results showed that a combination of different understandings of the policies and difficulties implementing the policies appropriately, led to “little transfer of learning into the classroom.”[24] Much of the issue with implementation was due to the lack of alignment between curriculum and assessment policy, inadequate training and orientation of the teachers, and a lack of quality learning support both in terms of materials for the classroom and trained personnel to assist teachers.[25]

Throughout the process of post-apartheid transformation, lack of funding and ineffective policies have traditionally been blamed for the lack of success and improvement among previously black schools. Nevertheless, statistics show that after a significant increase in funding and the restructuring of faculty distribution to previously disadvantaged schools, matriculation has barely increased. Moreover, these new policies, though ineffective, are too complex for teachers of public schools to comprehend let alone implement and, therefore, have little adverse effect on the operation of the schools or the success of the students. What then is holding back previously disadvantaged schools from improving outcomes after apartheid when the goal of the Ministry of Education and the country’s government is to resurrect these schools to the standing of white schools?

South Africa is not the only country where poor outcomes are being produced in the public schools of disadvantaged communities. In the United States inner city schools are delivering similar results with analogous statistical evidence. Students who show behavioral and educational problems have been found to be living in “low social status, large family sizes and overcrowded conditions,”[26] which consequently leads to poor attainment and delinquency. The insufficient conditions of public schools in inner city United States, like in South Africa, hinders the delivery of education for students. For example, the inner city schools, located in places such as East St. Louis, Illinois, North Lawndale near Chicago, the Bronx, and Camden, New Jersey, have been described as “overcrowded, in horrendous physical condition, and with few of the basic supplies needed to carry on even the most rudimentary of instructional programs.”[27] Teachers are also not always prepared to teach in such ill-equipped situations or with a culturally diverse class. As will be shown later, it is typical for teachers to model how they teach according to their own experience as students, referring also to the strategies and approaches of their past teachers. What they fail to do, however, is to amend these techniques and lessons to accommodate different circumstances and types of students who all come from varying backgrounds and learning abilities.

The dropout rate of inner city U.S. schools with a national percentile between 65 and 75 percent is hauntingly similar to that of South African township schools (only 21% of South African students are believed to complete their secondary school careers)[28]. In addition to this extremely high dropout rate, in inner city U.S. schools it is three times as likely for African American students to be placed in special education classes than it is for white students. Similar to South Africa, illiteracy in the disadvantaged sectors of the U.S population is a big issue, with one million urban teenagers unable to surpass a third-grade reading level and one-fourth of these teenagers unable to read at all.[29]

The correlation between poor outcomes in inner city U.S. schools and in the township schools of South Africa highlights the fact that this problem is not solely pertinent to developing countries, or countries like South Africa that are reforming education after decades of political and social inequality, but it is found in countries with established and strong educational systems as well.  Like in South Africa, research into the plausible factors in poor U.S. educational institutions points to a lack of resources and the large size of schools and classrooms as being myths that cannot be blamed for shortcomings:

It is often supposed that the lack of resources in inner-city areas constitutes the main problem and that increasing resources would provide an effective solution. The research evidence indicates that both suppositions are wrong… Another popular solutionlies in an elimination of the very large comprehensive schools and in a reduction of average class sizes. Both remedies are likely to be ineffective. The evidence from several studies indicates no consistent association between school size and pupil success, however measured.[30]


The agent of poor outcomes may not be readily uncovered in the United States, as in South Africa; however, it is the standard assumption that funding, policy, class size, and other traditional culprits are, in fact, not legitimate answers to the problems faced by both inner city and township schools.


  1. Grades 8-12
  2. Grades 1 -7
  3. Van Zyl, “South Africa: The Country and the Development of Education,” 5.
  4. Van Zyl, 5.
  5. Van der Berg, “Apartheid’s Enduring Legacy: Inequalities in Education,” 855.
  6. Van der Berg and Moses, “The Limits to Budgetary Redistribution in South Africa,” 18.
  7. Van der Berg, 854.
  8. Van der Berg, 855.
  9. The range is between -1 and 1 where 0 is equality among expenditure, and negative numbers indicate favoritism to the poorest 20% of the population. Van der Berg, Louw and du Toit, “Poverty Trends Since the Transition: What We Know,” 32.
  10. Van der Berg, Louw and du Toit, 33.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Van der Berg, Louw and du Toit, 36.
  13. Van der Berg, 872.
  14. Van der Berg, 868.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Van der Berg, Louw and du Toit, 37.
  17. The Greater Stellenbosch Development Trust, Khayamndi,
  18. Jansen, “Curriculum Reform in South Africa: A Critical Analysis of Outcomes-based Education,” 321.
  19. Pretorius, “Changing the curriculum: Outcomes Based Education and Training,” 94.
  20. Jansen, 323.
  21. Jansen, 325.
  22. Jansen, 336-327.
  23. Jansen, 328.
  24. Pretorius, 95.
  25. Pretorius, 94-95.
  26. Quinton, “Family Life in the Inner City: Myth and Reality,” 45.
  27. Singiser, “Classroom Management in the Urban Environment,” 167.
  28. Terhoeven, “The Role of the Teacher Support Team in Preventing Early School Dropout in a High School,” 12.
  29. Yeo, Inner City Schools, Multiculturalism, and Teacher Education: A Professional Journey, 30-31.
  30. Rutter, “Secondary-school Practice and Pupil Success,” 135-136.


Apartheid Transition Copyright © 2011 by Andy. All Rights Reserved.


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