by Anesu Machekanyanga


Education is seen as one of the major footstools to a growing economy. Education is essential in allowing countries to have educated leaders and an educated country. South Africa, in this sense, seems to have been missing the target.


Some of the reasons for this are rooted in Apartheid and the many decisions made regarding basic education thereafter. In the words of the late President Nelson Mandela, “Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.”

South Africa is the highest contributor in the world towards education, spending 6.4% of its GDP—this spending is 2% more than most European countries’ with education spending. However, South Africa is still at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to education. This is not to say that South Africa is a country with children who are unwilling to learn, but there are many disparities that influence the poor standards of education.

The quality of education in the poor areas of South Africa has struggled emphatically over the years; regardless of the investments that the government would have put towards education. With so much being put into education, one might then be tempted to ask where does the plan for education fail?

There are three aspects that play a major role in the current state of basic education and its future; educators, learners and learning institutions. In order to improve and possibly rectify past mishaps that occurred in the basic education sector, these three aspects need to be dealt with individually and as a whole.

Basic education covers Grade 1 to Grade 12. Though the word ‘basic’ is there in basic education, this is the foundation stage for all of South Africa. Whatever goes wrong here influences children’s likelihoods to go on in life, to attend tertiary institutions and get better jobs—simply put, to have a future. In essence, basic education is what South Africa owes its children in order for them to be able to carry on the legacies that have been built and that are still being built.

In order to understand how these three aspects affect the current standard of education, it is important to know that the School Realities 2016 report found that South Africa has 12 932 565 learners, 418 613 educators and 25 574 schools. This, in comparison to 2014, where 12 655 436 learners, 425 090 educators and 25 741 schools were recorded. The number of learners from 2014 to 2016 showed a steady increase of 2.1% nationally, while the number of educators and schools decreased by 1.5% and 0.6% respectively.


Educators have always been of great importance to any growing economy, though in most countries, they are the most unappreciated. In most developing countries, it has been shown that teaching and, equally, nursing are professions that perform poorly. There are very low expectations educationally for someone to become a teacher, which is ironic because these are individuals who are supposed to educate children. This may be one of the reasons that fewer and fewer youths now aspire to be teachers and it has become more of a failsafe.

In 2007, a study showed teachers who were made to take the tests that were designed for the 11- and 12-year-olds they taught in primary schools, failed dismally in the basics of maths and science.

What quality of education are we then offering our children if their educators barely meet the standards? This is not to solely blame the teachers but to understand why education at its most basic level seems to be failing.

South Africa has gone through radical curriculum changes and although they were all meant to better the educational standards, this has not necessarily been the case.

Studies have shown that in most cases, teachers become stressed and confused by the changes, which have then led to the underperformance of learners in some schools.

Joseph Joubert, early-1800s French Moralist and Essayist, noted that to teach is to learn twice. In order for teachers to have a better success rate when teaching, there is the need for them to also learn and understand the curriculum that they are teaching. There is a need for teachers to be offered support and to be involved in the process of creating the curriculum in order for them to be implementing it proficiently.

On the other hand, the number of teachers to students is ridiculously insufficient, with a ratio of 1:31. Assuming that each school has the same balance of students to teachers, this does not afford teachers enough capability for one-on-one interaction with their students. This brings us to the second aspect of learners.


The rise in the number of learners in South Africa is a positive, which shows that there are more people who have access to education than before. The problem arises with the quality of education that they are exposed to.

This is taking into consideration the fact that there are too few teachers and of those few teachers, how many are fully qualified to teach students and to improve the education standards?

Research has shown that in the history of South Africa’s education systems, there has always been a disparity when it comes to education in poor communities compared to the rich communities.

This has been changed in an effort to ensure that each learner has the same opportunity, regardless of status or class. There is still a lot more work to be done regarding this—in the Eastern Cape, there are still schools that are built from mud and the classes are overfilled. Teachers’ inability to have one-on-one time with their students is one of the reasons why 27% of students who have gone to school for six years cannot read.

There is a need to have more support for students, especially in communities where the opportunity to go to school is scarce. This is considering that basic education is a right for every child and mere accessibility is not sufficient if there is no support.

South Africa should not only be looking at the growth in numbers when it comes to learners but the quality of the education that is on offer to these children. We have to look at the learning environment that our children are exposed to and whether it feeds growth and bares good results.


The spaces we grow up in either allow us to dream bigger and to want more for ourselves or they box us in and make us believe that what we have is the most we will ever get, the most we will ever be. Some of the schools that learners have access to barely have the inspiration needed to learn. This is before you consider there are very few schools for the 12 million students in South Africa. The 0.6% drop in schools in 2016 is an astonishing fact, considering the 2.1% increase in learners. Most of the schools are crowded and can’t accommodate the student intake. With environments that can’t facilitate the needs of these eager young minds, the desire to learn often diminishes. Educational infrastructure is important for the growth and improvement of South Africa’s basic education standards.

In this day and age, we shouldn’t still be sending our children to learn in mud buildings. The improvement and building of more educational infrastructure—not only classrooms but also sporting infrastructure—will help to create a balanced learning environment.

The improvement of these three aspects’educators, learners and institutions—will help to better the standard of education. There are many other aspects that affect the standard of basic education in South Africa, all of which need to be investigated and improved on.

The education of South African children does not only lie in the hands of the educators, it is also the responsibility of communities and caregivers to instill the importance of education in their children.

Education does not only to help develop an individual, a community and the nation. It strengthens the foundation of our future and empowers the youth to make better choices and chase the dreams they would have never had otherwise.

South Africa owes its learners a solid foundation in basic education, it needs educators who not only have the drive to teach but who still crave to learn more as the times and educational requirements change and institutions that have a healthy learning environment for its learners. 

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