A trip to Soweto, a largely black-concentrated community in southern Johannesburg, South Africa, brings you face-to-face with the stark reality of the classes. Nearly every tour guide starts out with the upper class with beautiful and secured duplexes, then the middle class with shared apartments, and slowly descend to the lowest class where the shanks with squatters dominate.
But no matter the marked differences in their living conditions, their children will most likely meet in the same primary and secondary schools.
The South African government is fundamentally responsible for funding primary and secondary education in the country. They do not just fund the schools and provide educational materials, they also provide meals; breakfast and lunch for the students that remove an enormous amount of pressure from their parents or guardians and leave them with no excuse for not sending them to school.
Hakim, a tour guide with a big travel company says with pride, “I can say South Africa has no out-of-school children.” After a second thought, he adds slowly, “Unless you want to include those who were unable to proceed to the university, because they couldn’t afford it. There are many of them that are out of school.”
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), defines out-of-school children as children of official school age who are not in primary or secondary education. Children in pre-primary education or non-formal education are considered out of school.
It is estimated that 244 million children and youths between the ages of 6 and 18 worldwide were out of school in 2021, of which 118.5 million were girls and 125.5 million were boys. Nigeria has the largest number of out-of-school with 20 million children with no formal education or in any formal education system. It is one of the thorny issues that leaders in the most populated country on the continent have persistently shied away from.
South Africa, however, has a literacy rate of 94.37 percent as of 2020. In 2019, primary school enrolment was 98.57 percent of the primary school-age population and secondary school enrolment was 77.52 percent.
The right to basic education is underlined by the country’s constitution. It enshrines education as a human right for the public good. In the preamble, a commitment to establishing “a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights” is underscored. The constitution also mandates the state to unleash the potential of each person, while the founding provision includes a commitment to equality.
Beyond its constitutional backing, it has remained a top priority of governments in South Africa. In 2008, education was identified as an apex priority in the Presidential State of the Nation Address. It featured prominently in the National Medium-Term Strategic Framework, and improving the quality of basic education was identified as one of the 12 priority development outcomes on which the government will focus between 201 and 2014. Education also features prominently in the National Development Plan 2030, which maps out South Africa’s development trajectory. It specifically targets improving the quality of education and equalising educational opportunities for children marginalised through apartheid policies, including black African children, girl-children and children with disabilities.
Education has also been prioritised by the current administration administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa. In his State of the Nation Address, he re-echoed the objectives of the basic education programme by stating that “access to education for all is the most powerful instrument we have to end poverty.” The country’s budget of R298.1 billion ($15.75bn) for basic education during 2022-2023, represents an expenditure of R22,213.16 ($1,174.15) for each of the 13.4 million learners in the public school system and 4.63 percent of GDP.
However, over the years questions have risen about the quality of basic education being provided to students by the government. According to a report by the Mail and Guardian in April 2023, only 20 percent of public schools in South Africa are properly functional, with an enormous gap between the results they achieve and the outcomes of the other 80 percent of public schools.
“For example, children in the top 200 schools achieve more distinctions in maths than those in the next 6,600 schools combined,” the report noted.
It also argued that run-down schools, characterised by poorly maintained buildings, dysfunctional and unhygienic sanitary facilities and a lack of basic equipment and learning material, do not provide a conducive learning environment.