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Causes and consequences of a failed education system and what this means for South Africa

Updated: May 13, 2022

It has been almost three decades since Nelson Mandela, as the first democratically elected black president (1994-1999), led South Africa away from a brutal history of institutionalized racial segregation, and into the democratized world.

Figure 1: Nelson Mandela wins the first democratic elections of South Africa in 1994 (Central, 2016)

During colonialism and structured apartheid from the late 1940s, Black South Africans were largely denied economic opportunities. Now, after almost three decades of liberation, how has life changed for the majority of South Africans? Although South Africa has seen growth in the black middle class, black business and political elite, most South Africans still suffer from a failed education system that leaves them ill prepared for jobs, while townships, built for Blacks during apartheid, leave them far away from workplaces (Sguazzin, 2021). When wealth and race are two sides of the same coin, black South Africans growing up in poverty and without access to tertiary education, mean that only a fraction of young adults enter the labour force. Adopting the World Bank’s international standard of poverty, namely those living under USD 1.9 a day (World bank, 2015), we find that about 64% of black people in South Africa are languishing in poverty (Nqola, 2021). In other words, in a post-apartheid South Africa, the root causes determining who is included or excluded from tertiary education are closely linked to intergenerational poverty, where a lack of access to financial resources and economic opportunities make private university fees unaffordable to the majority of black South Africans (Meiring et al, 2018).

According to Professor Rajani Naidoo (CGHE, 2017), in a post-apartheid South Africa, university access has changed from being dictated by race to being dictated by economic wealth, largely because university fees are not regulated. This suggests two youth job markets in South Africa, one for people holding a college degree, and one for those without (Bray, et al., 2015). The importance of education is further highlighted by the country’s high youth unemployment rate which now stands at 66.5% (Nodada, 2022). Although unemployment has not been limited to those with lower levels of education, it is clear that not all South Africans are impacted equally (Writer, 2021). According to the Thomas Piketty-backed World Inequality Lab, “There is no evidence that wealth inequality has decreased since the end of apartheid” (Sguazzin, 2021). As a result, based on Gini coefficients of consumption (or income) per capita, South Africa still remains the most unequal country in the world (World Bank, 2022), unable to shake the economic inequalities inherited from colonial apartheid. As a consequence, 10% of the population own more than 85% of household wealth, forcing many to ask the painful question: Has a post-apartheid South Africa failed the very people it aimed to liberate?

Contrary to other parts of the world, South Africa shines a dim light on the optimistic outlook of the 1990’s that democratization and development are mutually reinforcing. In the first dozen or so years of democracy, the biggest challenge for the new black African National Congress (ANC) government, under Nelson Mandela (1994-1999), was to maintain a commitment to growth, as well as ensuring an equal distribution of the benefits of that growth (Acemoglu et al., 2007). And indeed, gradually the economy grew, providing a fiscal means in which to address and reduce poverty, while initiatives such as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), a government policy to enhance the economic participation of black people, aimed to ensure that the black population also got their piece of the pie. Thereafter, Mandela’s successor, President Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008) continued to tackle the country’s deep economic inequalities, putting socio-economic transformation and growth, education and job creation high up on the agenda (Reddy & Zulu, 2019). Overall, over the course of the Mandela and Mbeki governance, economic growth increased and absolute poverty decreased (Levy, et al., 2021).

However, problems began almost as soon as president Jacob Zuma took office in 2009. Although Zuma inherited an economy that had just been buffeted by the 2007/2008 financial crisis, it remained seemingly stable. Moreover, the hosting of the 2010 soccer World Cup was sold as an economic story that would stave off the recession, enrich the nation’s poor and ultimately represent a beacon of hope for the future of the country (Prinsloo, 2010). But the economic story was wrong. In 2005, one in three South Africans hoped to personally benefit from the World Cup, but this fell to one in five in 2009 and one in 100 by the time the games began (Bond, 2014).

Figure 2: 2010 South African Soccer World Cup (Reuters, 2020)

From thereon, what began as a defining moment of hope and inspiration for a brighter future for South Africa quickly changed, as corruption, fraud and racketeering over the following eight years of Zuma’s presidency would serve to reverse all the economic gains it had previously achieved, reaching levels far below that of 1994’s economy (Masondo, 2019 & Southall, 2009).

Figure 3: Jacob Zuma faces charges of corruption and racketeering

Moreover, a decline in government funding for higher education coupled with a lack of social transformation to broader socio-economic and racial inequality meant that there was a higher proportion of black students successfully graduating from South Africa’s universities during apartheid than during Zuma’s second term as president (Chutel, 2017). This highlights one of the hot-button issues in South Africa’s higher education today—the lack of funding opportunities available to black students. This inevitably lead to an outcry against the rising costs of tertiary education, which culminated in the 2015 #FeesMustFall student protest, where the fact most protesters were poor, black and from the working class was a clear reminder of the class struggles and inequality staining the education system (Chetty & Knaus, 2016).

Figure 4: 2015 #FeesMustFall protest (Mkancu, 2018)

Though, this was only the beginning of the end as Zuma’s failure to provide affordable higher education for the poor, among a slew of corruption scandals, a contracting economy, failed electricity supply resulting in blackouts (i.e. load-shedding) as well as high unemployment rates translated into the #ZumaMustFall movement, eventually forcing Jacob Zuma to resign from office in 2018.

Although signalling a pause to the slide, most South Africans classified this moment as “long overdue”. In 2018 current president Cyril Ramaphosa stepped in to pick up the pieces of a broken country, vowing to rid South Africa of corruption and put the country back on a path of growth, employment and economic transformation. Almost immediately, Ramaphosa proposed the Youth Employment Service (YES) initiative, aimed to create 300 000 jobs a year. “Youth unemployment is perhaps the most pressing social and economic challenge facing our country at this moment”, said Ramaphosa in his 2019 state of the nation address (Patel, 2019), a statement that would later be repeated in 2020, 2021 & 2022 (South African Government, 2020, 2021 & 2022). However, 20 months later, the number of unemployed South Africans increased by 1.1 million (Gqubule, 2019), with the onset of Covid-19 adding fuel to the fire. In other words, South Africa entered the Covid-19 pandemic with already shockingly low levels of employment and a decade of weak job creation (The World Bank, 2021). In fact, some even state that initial forecasts indicated that South Africa would fall into a recession even before the pandemic hit (Cotterill, 2020).

Figure 5: Covid-19 challenges Cyril Ramaphoza’s leadership (Vandome, 2020)

The Covid-19 pandemic exposed severe structural weaknesses in the job market, as inequality meant that while relatively few were able to move seamlessly online, the majority were left stranded. Features such as the digital divide and the high cost of mobile data have meant that current policies, aimed to curb the spread of the virus, such as the “work from home” policy, have had a compounding effect on existing inequalities (Research ICT Africa, 2021). With 56% of South Africans living on less than R41 (2.8 USD) a day, data prices are simply not a part of their survival plan (Duncan-Williams, 2020). Moreover, it has been well documented that the informal economy, a means of income for at least 27% of the South African workforce (mostly black women), had been hit hardest by the pandemic (South African Government, 2021). As a result, statistics from last year reveal that around 2.8 million people in the country had lost their jobs as a result COVID-19’s impact on the economy, representing an 18% decline in employment from 17 million people employed in February, to 14 million people employed in April 2020 (Writer, 2021). While an estimated 750,000 children have dropped out of school because of a lack of access to remote education (Mlaba, 2021). On top of that, 2020 was the worst year for load-shedding South Africa had ever experienced despite lower demand because of the lockdown, meaning that power blackouts dealt heavy blows to an economy already battered by the pandemic (Xinhua, 2020). The youth unemployment rate is now 66.5%. Thus, according to all available statistics, the much-publicised Yes Programme, has failed to make a dent in these unemployment figures, while young people are now, in fact, worse off than they were before the programme was launched (Maimane, 2022).

Figure 6: South Africa shackled by high youth unemployment figures (Durmaz, 2021)

At the end of the fourth quarter of 2021, as the world slowly emerged from pandemic, South Africa’s real GDP grew by 1.2% (Stats SA, 2021). Although not enough to stem the country’s record-high youth unemployment rate, it did signal a sign that the economy was recovering. Today, potential concerns include the recent Russia-Ukraine war and its associated escalation of oil and gas prices on a global level. South Africa is already feeling the impact of the conflict on food prices, which disproportionately cut into the limited disposable income of poor households. Another consequence could mean that electricity supply will be more expensive to generate in South Africa, leading to an increase in load-shedding, which is not only concerning for the economy, but also the environment. This is because the unreliability of electricity supply, forces poor households to increasingly rely on the use of solid fuel burning for their energy and heat requirements, while higher income households and businesses make use of diesel-fuelled generators to keep the lights on (Pretorius et al, 2015). Lastly, knock-on effects have also meant that interest rates have risen, limiting government access to credit, and thus limiting essential national budgets allocated to things like health care, education, employment, and other public investments (Mlaba, 2022). Thus, it is true that the road to recovery will be difficult, and right now the Ramaphosa administration is rightly putting public health, social protection, and economic stimulus first. But if South Africa wants to rid its of the status as the most unequal country in the world, it is important that they not forget the most important tool: education.


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An article written by Dillon Martin

A South African urbanist passionate about creative solutions to sustainable development.

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