Newsletter 261 - "Broken & Unequal" - The State of Education in South Africa - Amnesty International - PART 2


  • South Africa is failing too many of its young people when it comes to education.
  • Although it has made significant progress since the end of apartheid in widening access this has not always translated into a quality education for all pupils.
  • The system continues to be dogged by stark inequalities and chronic underperformance that have deep roots in the legacy of apartheid, but which are also not being effectively tackled by the current government.
  • The result is many schools with crumbling infrastructure, overcrowded classrooms and poor educational outcomes.
  • The state of education must be seen within the wider context of one of the most socio-economic unequal countries in the world.
  • Black South African households earn on average less than 20 per cent of white households whilst nearly half of the black population is considered to be below the poverty line compared to less than 1% of the white community.
  • Recent austerity measures have worsened the situation for the poorest and most disadvantaged.
  • At the same time corruption is a major problem impacting on both available resources and confidence in government, culminating in the Zondo Commission on State Capture and Corruption established in August 2018.
  • Many schools and the communities they serve continue to live with the consequences of the political and economic decisions made during the apartheid era.
  • The result is that a child’s experience of education in South Africa still very much depends on where they are born, how wealthy they are, and the colour of their skin.
  • A recent survey of school principals across OECD countries reported that 71% of South African teachers work in schools with over 30% of socio-economically disadvantaged students, more than treble the OECD average of 20%.
  • Problems are further compounded by the multiple languages that exist in the country with 60% of teachers working in schools with more than 10% of students whose first language is not the language of instruction, compared to an OECD average of 21%.
  • Within this context it is not surprising that in terms of outcomes South Africa has one of the most unequal school systems in the world, with the widest gap between the test scores of the top 20% of schools and the rest.
  • Children in the top 200 schools achieve more distinctions in maths then children in the next 6,600 schools combined.
  • More than three quarters of children aged 9 cannot read for meaning in some provinces this is as high as 91% (Limpopo) and 85% (Eastern Cape). Of 100 learners that start school, 50-60 will make it to matric, 40-50 will pass matric, and only 14 will go to university.
  • Yet is this surprising when thousands of pupils and teachers have to learn and teach in schools which have wholly inadequate infrastructure and an absence of essential facilities?
  • According to the government’s own statistics for 2018, out of 23,471 public schools 19% only had illegal pit latrines for sanitation with another 37 schools having no sanitation facilities at all; 86% had no laboratory; 77% had no library; 72% had no internet access and 42% had no sports facilities. 239 schools lacked any electricity. 56% of South African head teachers report that a shortage of physical infrastructure (compared to an OECD average of 26%) is hindering their school's capacity to provide quality instruction. 70% report a shortage of library materials compared to an OECD average of 16%.
  • Many of the shortcomings are in breach of not just the government’s international human rights obligations but its own Minimum Norms and Standards for educational facilities.
  • In 2013 the government enacted these binding regulations requiring the government to ensure that by November 2016 all schools have access to water, sanitation and electricity; all plain (unimproved and unventilated) pit latrines are replaced with safe and adequate sanitation; and schools built from inappropriate materials, such as mud and asbestos, are to be replaced.
  • Yet as the government’s own statistics show it has not met these targets.  The repeated failure of government – both at the national and provincial level - to meet its own targets with respect to infrastructure upgrades is not just a question of institutional accountability.
  • It has consequences for the life chances of thousands of young people who have the right to a better life regardless of their status or circumstances.
  • As the government continues to miss its own upgrading targets, Amnesty International’s research in Gauteng and Eastern Cape found numerous examples of schools with poor infrastructure and lacking basic facilities.
  • These included badly maintained buildings that had never been renovated, many of them dating back decades to the apartheid era and even previously; hazardous buildings with dangerous material such as asbestos; poor maintenance, in some cases putting the safety and security of learners at risk; unhygienic, poorly maintained and unsafe sanitation, with some schools only having pit latrines; overcrowded classrooms without basic equipment and materials such as furniture and textbooks; and lack of security exacerbating the problems of vandalism and burglary. All of these issues impact on the enjoyment of the right to education as well as pupils’ other rights such as water, sanitation, privacy and dignity as highlighted by their testimonies.

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