Education in South Africa: hits and misses over the past 25 years


State of the Nation addresses are delivered at the start of South Africa’s parliamentary year. They focus on the current political and socio-economic state, highlight progress made and signal new policy directions for national government. It is a grand red carpet event, and the public (and markets) expectantly await reports of progress and new hope.

Vijay Reddy, Human Sciences Research Council and Ncamisile Zulu

We reviewed 25 years of the education priorities set out in the annual address since the first by President Nelson Mandela in 1994. The review revealed that there’s been success in early childhood development, infrastructure and social protection. But quality and learning outcomes remain elusive. We found that while it’s easy to report on access and inputs, it’s much more difficult to achieve educational quality and meaningful outcomes as there are many intangible factors that impede progress.

The first 10 speeches eloquently articulated the centrality of human resources and skills development to catalyse economic growth. But the country has made very little progress. A report released last year showed that there wasn’t enough alignment between the skills being taught in education and training institutions and what was needed to grow the economy.

This is where the country needs to focus its attention.

The question is: will President Cyril Ramaphosa’s latest state of the nation address, to be delivered on 20 June 2019, simply repeat the perennial issues? Or will he have the wherewithal to take the next step in tackling the more complex challenges?

One of these is the mismatch between education outcomes and what the economy needs. While we think that SONA would articulate the needs of the economy, it is important that government convinces post-school institutions to align their programmes to the needs of the economy. The second is how to improve educational quality.

The findings

Mandela’s administration (1994-1999) focused on establishing democratic institutions, enacting legislation, improving infrastructure and increasing access. His 1994 address highlighted human resource and skills development. The aim was to grow the economy and decrease unemployment. At the school level, he expressed concerns about the culture of teaching and learning.

One of the key social protection programmes, the Primary School Nutrition Programme, was introduced. Given the levels of household poverty and hunger, this had two objectives: food security and education.

The 1999 policy address highlighted the non-delivery of textbooks, an issue which has embarrassed government many times thereafter. Mandela called this “inexcusable” and went on to say:

If our administrations are unable to carry out such straightforward projects, then … ordinary citizens like myself will feel justified in calling for heads to roll.

Former President Thabo Mbeki’s administration (1999-2008) recognised the country’s deep economic inequalities. It’s therefore not surprising that he focused on socio-economic transformation and growth, macro-economic stability and job creation.

The importance of education and skills responsive to the needs of the economy were key to stimulating job creation. Mbeki highlighted the importance of human resource development, releasing a strategy paper that outlined the vision for early childhood development, primary and secondary education, technical and vocational education, adult education, skills development and unemployment.