01.03.08. Education system overview | South Africa

01.03.08. Education system overview | South Africa

12 Aug 2022

Two national departments are responsible for education in South Africa, namely (1) the Department of Basic Education (primary and secondary schooling) (DBE), and (2) Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) (post-schooling education and training) (South African Government, 2018a). Education in South Africa is compulsory from grade 1 to 9 (age 7 to 15), and optional from grade 10-12 (Expatica, 2018). Public schools are funded by government and are run at provincial level. As a result, educational quality and standards vary between provinces and tend to be higher in bigger cities than in less developed areas (Expatica, 2018).

According to the General Household Survey of 2018, almost half of South African children aged 0-4 years remained home with parents/guardians (49.2%) with 38.4% attending grade R/day-care/educational facility outside of their home (StatsSA, 2019a). Attendance at ECD facilities was most common in major cities, such as Gauteng (49.8%), Free State (48.3%), and the Western Cape (43.7%).

In 2018, 32.2% of children and youth 5 years and older attended an educational institution of some kind, with 87.7% of this age range being in school and 4.5% in higher education institutions (StatsSA, 2019a). There is a noticeable delay in educational attainment whereby 11.4% of school-attending individuals are still attending secondary school by the age of 24, with very few entering tertiary levels of education (StatsSA, 2019a).

Women within this age range (5-24) who were not attending an education institution listed the following as their main reasons: (1) having no money for fees (25.2%), (2) poor academic performance (19%), and (3) family commitments (18.1%). Their male counterparts listed (1) poor academic performance (21.7%), (2) no money for fees (19.7%), and (3) education is useless (14%) as their main reasons (StatsSA, 2016).

According to the General Household Survey of 2015 (StatsSA, 2016), literacy was measured in terms of functional literacy (irrespective of a Grade 7 education) whereby respondents should (with reference to at least one language) indicate whether they have ‘no difficulty’, ‘some difficulty’, ‘a lot of difficulty’ or are ‘unable to’ read newspapers, magazines and books, or write a letter (StatsSA, 2016). Using this measure, literacy for persons over the age of 20 increased from 91.9% in 2010 to 93.7% in 2015 (StatsSA, 2016). The highest adult literacy rates for persons aged 20 and over were evident in the Western Cape Province (97.8%), followed closely by Gauteng (97.7%) and the Free State (94.5%).

More recently, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has released a report on the status of education for partnering countries: “Education at a Glance 2018” (OECD, 2018), summarising the following for South Africa:

  • The younger generations (25–34-year-olds) are increasing their representation at higher education levels (i.e., 76% attaining secondary education);
  • Only 6% of adults are attaining tertiary level education;
  • 16% of children (5-14 years old) are not enrolled in any form of education (South Africa rating lowest across all partner countries);
  • For children under 5 years old, few are enrolled in pre-primary education (i.e., any form of Early Childhood Education and Care services) (17%), and less than 40% enrolled in school. School enrolment increases for 6-year-olds (75%) whereas at this age it’s universal at 98% for partner countries;
  • Many learners in secondary education are over-age (21%) and 16% in upper secondary general programmes are repeaters (rating highest across partner countries for both over-age and repeaters); and
  • Compared to partner OECD countries, South Africa also has the highest rate of persons 20–24-year-olds who are unemployed or not in any form of education or training.

Tertiary education in South Africa is very expensive. Since 2015, a student-led movement termed the “FeesMustFall” led a series of protests across South African universities to stop the increase of student fees and increase state expenditure for universities (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FeesMustFall). This movement succeeded in 2015 in preventing the increase of fees for 2016. However, protests flared up again in 2016 after it was announced that fees will increase in 2017 but will be capped at 8% (universities would decide by how much they would increase). This movement therefore reflects the limitations South Africans experience in accessing tertiary education.


Expatica. (2018). Education in South Africa. https://www.expatica.com/za/education/children-education/education-in-south-africa-803205/

OECD. (2018). Education at a Glance: Country Note for South Africa. https://doi.org/10.1787/eag-2018-en

StatsSA. (2016). General Household Survey. Available from:  https://www.statssa.gov.za/publications/P0318/P03182015.pdf

StatsSA. (2019a). General Household Survey 2018. Available from: https://www.statssa.gov.za/?p=12180

South African Government. (2018a). Education. South African Government. Available from: https://www.gov.za/about-sa/education