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South African Education System the “Worst in Africa?”
Apartheid-era Foreign Minister Pik Botha, known for his bluster, recently set the cat among the pigeons by saying that South Africa’s education system is “the worst in Africa.” He went on to say that Mugabe’s Zimbabwe has a better system. He also said that South Africa spends more per student than any other African country. Many South Africans resent criticism from apartheid-era figures like Botha, seeing it as implying the blacks are incompetent at governance.

Kate Wilkinson has published a rejoinder to Botha in “Africa Check.” She provides a useful introduction to the complexities of education evaluation in Africa. Her bottom line: South Africa’s system is not the worst in Africa–but its performance is relatively poor. South Africa is among the fifteen countries in the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ). Of these, South Africa’s average student reading score placed it tenth. Tanzania’s was the highest. South Africa’s math score placed it eighth. Wilkinson also shows that South Africa’s per pupil expenditure (US$1,225 per primary pupil) is not the highest; that honor goes to the Seychelles (US$2,089) and Botswana (US$1,228), both of which have tiny populations. She does confirm that Botha’s assertion that Zimbabwe scores better than South Africa.

This conversation appears to be about primary education and covers the entire pupil population of the fifteen countries in eastern and southern Africa.

The South Africa educational reality is complex. There is a high quality education system left over from the apartheid era that runs through all levels. Access to it, once restricted to whites, is now in effect restricted by the ability to pay the fees. Schools remain “white” in character, though they now include substantial enrollment from other races. They provide education for elites, with some exceptions. But, the vast majority of South Africa’s children are educated in the successors to the former black-only township and homeland schools. It is widely recognized in South Africa that the education system for most South Africans is not meeting their needs–nor the needs of the country. The unemployment rate ranges from 25 to 40 percent, depending on how the counting is done, yet there are chronic shortages of skilled labor.

Under apartheid, there were separate school systems for whites, blacks, coloureds, and Asians. In addition, there were separate systems in the independent and self-governing homelands. One estimate is that there were altogether some seventeen different school systems. Consolidating and rationalizing these systems on a non-racial basis has been an immense challenge. Nevertheless, there has been substantial progress, especially at the tertiary and secondary levels. But, the provision of high quality primary education for the impoverished mass of the population still has a long way to go.