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Closing the Gap in Education?

The Structure and Entrenchment of Disadvantage in South Africa

Thobeka Mda

Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa

The structure

The origins and structure of the South African inequalities lie in the previous law of apartheid, meaning separation or, literally, aparthood. The separation was characterised by inequality and prejudice against one race, while privileging the other. The philosophy or ideology of apartheid was implemented through laws such as the Population Registration Act and the Group Areas Act.

The Population Registration Act of 1950 ‘required that all inhabitants of South Africa be classified in accordance with their racial characteristics as part of the system of apartheid. Social rights, political rights, educational opportunities and economic status were largely determined by which group an individual belonged to’ (Wikipedia 2010).

The Population Registration Act in turn determined the implementation of other racially based laws such as the Group Areas Act ( 2010), which mandated each racial group to reside in an area exclusively designated for the group, with amenities and services all within the area. These included schools, hospitals, stadiums, administrative offices and universities, if any. Universities were further classified by ethnicity and language, so there were universities for white Afrikaner, white English, Indian, coloured, Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Shangaan and Venda.

A government department called Bantu Affairs, and later Own Affairs, for instance, was established to administer all ‘home affairs’ (births, deaths, identification, movement and residence) of black people. In addition to these, and in support of this law, homelands – rural, urban and self-governing areas – were established for the various geographical locations of black people. This was done under the guise of ‘separate development’, which was promoted by the apartheid government as ‘separate but equal’ – of course, a lie. Through this separate development ideology, South Africa ended up with 18 departments of education for the different racial groups (African, coloured, Indian, white); the different provinces (Cape, Natal, Orange Free State and Transvaal); the ‘independent states’ (Transkei, Venda, Bophuthatswana, Ciskei); self-governing homelands (KwaZulu, KwaNdebele, Lebowakgomo, Qwaqwa, Gazankulu, KaNgwane); and the black people in the cities (ie urban).

The language laws and policies

A cornerstone of the apartheid ideology became ‘language’. Language-based homelands were created and African-language speakers were then allocated to the various homelands according to the languages they spoke, even if they had never been to those regions. Even universities were classified according to language; hence the various universities for specific language groups (eg the University of Zululand for amaZulu, and Fort Hare for amaXhosa). Teachers were trained in teacher colleges for their own language groups, and in the urban areas, where there were multiple ethnic groups, schools were classified according to language. Two languages were declared official languages and neither of them was one of the African languages spoken by the majority of South Africans. Otherwise, there were nine recognised local African languages, under which homeland areas, schools and universities were classified.

Separate development

As already mentioned, separate development meant inequalities and disadvantage for one group. There was unequal provision for schools in terms of money, buildings, teacher training and curricula. Most black teachers and university students had no background in natural sciences, having taken the ‘General’ curriculum (ie excluding maths and science), majoring in African languages (which was highly promoted among the Africans) and biblical studies and/or history and/or education. This was a natural progression from matriculation subjects, since most would have taken at matriculation an African language, English, Afrikaans and three or four subjects chosen from history, biblical studies, geography, biology, and some commercial subjects such as economics or mercantile law. As a result of these Language Laws, the black students at university and the teachers in black schools increasingly had very limited access to and competence in English or Afrikaans, the white people’s languages.

Universities for the African people (universities of Zululand, Fort Hare and Turfloop) were built in rural areas and had very limited resources compared with urban and white universities. These African universities had narrow curricula and very few esteemed academics. During apartheid, they were almost exclusively staffed by Afrikaner lecturers who blatantly promoted the Nationalist Government ideology. The managers of these universities, who seemed to have been chosen on the basis of being apologists for South African Government policies, ran the universities as police states. The black universities were not typically, or expected to be, Liberal Arts universities that would teach and promote independent, critical thinking. Neither were they universities of technology that would produce engineers and technologists, since few students had been prepared for such careers before Matriculation and/or excelled in natural science subjects.

The education of the black people provided limited career choices. For instance, those students who were good in physics, chemistry and mathematics became medical doctors or pharmacists, while others obtained BSc degrees and went on to work in pharmaceutical companies or went on to teach natural science subjects at high school. The wide choices and advanced careers in the natural sciences only became open to black people late in the 1980s.

Despite the discouragement of critical and independent thinking, the condition of being oppressed and discriminated against, the oppressive laws in the country and the universities, and all the limitations generally placed on a black person’s path to success led to high student political activism in all black (African, coloured and Indian) universities. The strikes and protests that were very common in black universities always resulted in big numbers of students, and sometimes lecturers, being expelled from the universities. Since there was no freedom of expression, but suppression of dissent, a culture of protests and boycotts (sometimes very aggressive) to make one’s voice heard developed, and became the only way of communication between authorities and students in these universities.

Closing the gap

In 1994, a new democratically elected government came into power and, for the first time since settlers arrived in South Africa in the seventeenth century, the country was governed by the majority. Apartheid was officially abolished. As a result of the new era South Africa had a new constitution, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. Through the constitution, 11 languages were declared official and racism was declared unconstitutional. South Africans now had the right to equality (section 9); freedom of association (section 18); citizenship (section 20); freedom of movement and residence (section 21); freedom of trade, occupation and profession (section 22); and property (section 25).

All the education departments were integrated into one national department and nine provincial sub-departments. This meant that matriculants of all races, ethnicities and languages sat for the same examinations. Teachers were now employed by one employer, and educators could exercise their rights and became highly unionised. New education policies came into being: a series of white papers in the education field resulted in the 1996 South African Schools Act and the 1997 Higher Education Act. Access was made possible to all by removing discriminatory and exclusionary measures.

Schools and universities could no longer be classified according to race but, in motivated cases, according to language.

Money was injected into poor schools, including rewards for schools and universities admitting many black or poor learners. The new Language in Education Policy (LiEP) for schools was announced in 1997 and for higher education the new Language Policy in Higher Education (LPHE) was developed. For schools, a new curriculum, Curriculum 2005 and later the National Curriculum Statement, was introduced to address irrelevant education.

Entrenched disadvantage

One national education department, however, just like one nation, does not address inequalities and differences. Just as South Africa has two nations (haves and have-nots/rich and poor), so is the education system divided into two. Inequality remains between provinces: Gauteng and the Western Cape are the privileged and rich provinces, with better schools, more resources and better school results. Moreover, the gap between the rural areas and the urban areas is growing wider.

The historically advantaged universities, often with an international reputation – for example, the University of Cape Town and the University of Witwatersrand – are the universities of first choice to both the acclaimed scholars and the best Matriculation students. These historically advantaged universities attract high-calibre scholars from abroad and locally, who are able and continue to conduct ground-breaking research. They are full-time lecturers able to participate in academic exchange and sabbatical leave abroad. Poor rural black universities, on the other hand, are unable to attract high-calibre scholars to spend sabbatical leave in them or to exchange places with scholars from the advantaged universities. The rural black universities are characterised by very big classes and very little research output. Often there is no research culture in these universities. Since they do not have rated scientists and do not publish much, they do not attract funds to conduct research and are not contracted to do so. This then becomes a vicious cycle.

Furthermore, these black universities reputedly have no niche areas, since historically they had to cater for all ethnic students assigned to them. For example, the University of Zululand had to cater for all Zulu-speaking students, meet the aspirations of this population of students from any province, in all fields, and the needs of the region where this university is located.

Universities have remained bilingual – English and Afrikaans are the languages of tuition in all South African universities. Multilingual tuition programs are few and far between; for example, the requirement for all students in certain disciplines to take a course in the African languages. For most black students, English and Afrikaans are their second and third languages, especially English, which most black students choose as a language of learning. As these languages are inaccessible to many, it makes it difficult to do well in university studies, but this consequence is often pooh-poohed, ignored or minimised by commentators and analysts. Further, university fees remain too high for many students. This is one of the causes of the high dropout rate among black students, together with high levels of unpreparedness for higher education (Cosser and Letseka 2009).

Tables 6.1 and 6.2 illustrate the graduation and non-completion rates of students from the seven universities studied by the authors (see Bhorat et al. 2009).

Table 6.1: Distribution of graduates and non-completers, by race (frequencies and percentage shares)

Source: Bhorat et al. 2009.


Table 6.2: Distribution of graduates and non-completers, by institution and race (percentage shares)

Notes: NC = non-completers, G = graduates.
Estimates corrected for by person weights.
In this table - indicates missing values where no sample was present or where the sample size was too small to construct an estimate or confidence intervals.
Source: Bhorat et al. 2009.


Racism in universities is reportedly alive and kicking among academics, management, students and the institutional culture. This is mostly illuminated by occasional flare-ups of racist or racial incidents, especially in former white universities, and even more so in former Afrikaans universities.

South Africa has no programs like the United States’ ‘first-generation college-goers’, a redress measure for supporting historically disadvantaged students to succeed. It could be that South Africa, emerging from years of classifying and categorising people by race and ethnicity, is not ready for class descriptions that emphasise ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, even though this would be fair discrimination.

The study by Bhorat et al. (2009) reports that it is harder for African graduates to secure employment and they earn less than other race groups – the white graduates’ unemployment rate is 14 per cent and that of African graduates is 24 per cent; the total unemployment rate of Africans from historically white institutions is lower than that of Africans from historically disadvantaged/black institutions; and African graduates wait longer for work.

Most productive researchers are mainly in their 60s and are white males. Most research is done in Afrikaans and English universities, for example, Stellenbosch University, University of Cape Town, University of Pretoria, and University of KwaZulu-Natal. The result is that the black universities, especially the African universities, do not attract black students into academia because they have very limited role models, if any. The black universities also have the reputation for paying low salaries for academics.

South African universities on the whole produce very low numbers (and quality) of research degree graduates. The need to increase throughput rates in research degrees has been identified as a national imperative. Institutions of higher learning, as well as funding agencies, including the National Research Foundation, have developed and implemented a variety of interventions to help institutions and individuals to improve their throughput and the graduation of students with research degrees. This is meant to increase the number of researchers, to change the profile of researchers and improve the quality of knowledge production in the country. Interventions include increasing the numbers of students in postgraduate degrees and rewarding supervisors for their supervisees who complete masters and doctoral research degrees. However, graduation rates in these programs indicate that many of the admitted students either spend many years in the programs or drop out before graduation. Even more shocking are the negligible numbers of students from the historically disadvantaged groups who get admitted to the senior degree programs, particularly at PhD level, and those who actually graduate with a research degree.

While a number of South African analysts refute this, South Africa’s apartheid history has contributed greatly to this poor performance and low output of previously disadvantaged groups in higher education. Apartheid created inequalities among races, offered unequal education to races and, therefore, the quality of teaching and education has always been very uneven among races. Lamberti, referring to the poor state of most black schools in South Africa, states: ‘Apartheid’s most devastating and enduring legacy was that it destroyed the human capital of our nation’ (Kane-Berman 2007, 1). According to Bloch (2007), South Africa has not succeeded in providing quality education and ensuring equality in education. He says, ‘If there is one phrase that summarises the failings of the education system, it is poor quality. In failing to achieve quality delivery, the education system is working only for a proportion of the learners who are able to access the relevant institutions’ (Bloch 2007, 6). Bloch ascribes this failure to the quality of teaching and teacher support. I fully support Lamberti’s and Bloch’s views.

The result of the poor quality in education that Bloch laments (2007, 4) is that, ‘[South Africa] is not able to meet national goals, either around provision of adequate skills for growth, nor in terms of providing access to quality education that would enable equitable sharing of opportunities’. He argues how this affects the country’s economy negatively, as the quality of education influences individuals towards improving their personal efficacy, productivity and incomes. ‘Accordingly, the quality of education makes a significant difference to the prospects of achieving a wide range of individual and development goals’ (UNESCO–Education for All, cited in Bloch 2007, 3).

The scarcity of skilled researchers needed to fill senior research and management positions across a variety of government and non-governmental sectors in South Africa and the African continent has been well documented. This need is particularly acute among populations that historically were prevented from gaining access to, or participating fully and equitably in, the research enterprise. In South Africa the inequalities have manifested themselves in a range of ways. There is uneven access to higher education opportunities which offer white students a greater chance than black South Africans (Waghid 2002). Historically, South Africa has trained from five to 10 times more white postgraduates than black postgraduates in the scientific fields (MRC 2006). Inadequate financial resources have been identified as one of the barriers for entry into postgraduate training programs for young black graduates (MRC 2006). Research, as a career, is not an obvious choice for black school leavers and graduates (MRC 2006). The success rates of students, in terms of outputs of historically privileged institutions, were significantly better than those of other groupings (Waghid 2002; Bhorat et al. 2009) and in a recent study (Bhorat et al. 2009), in terms of race, 66 per cent of whites graduate, while 39 per cent of Africans graduate in South African higher education institutions.

In the period spanning 1990 to 2000, the percentage of scientific publications by authors in the 50 and above age group increased from 20 per cent to 47 per cent, while the number of articles authored by the 30 to 49 age group declined from 75 per cent to 52 per cent. In addition, in the year 2000, 92 per cent of scientific publications were authored by white authors while black (Africans, coloured and Indian) researchers authored only 1.1 per cent, 2.6 per cent, and 4.4 per cent of the articles respectively (HSRC 2007). There are unequal employment opportunities (Waghid 2002), under-representation of women and black people in certain professional programs (Waghid 2002) and unequal staffing resources in terms of student–lecturer ratios (Waghid 2002).

According to the HSRC’s 2003 Human Resource Development Review, it was established that there was a shortage of academics in South African higher education institutions, given the vacancies at many institutions and the increased reliance on foreign nationals and a shortage of PhDs among staff in tertiary institutions (Woolard, Kneebone and Lee 2003). There is a serious general scarcity of suitably qualified African candidates, in particular, to take up scientific leadership positions in the social and human sciences. At the same time, there is an apparent failure to attract and develop a new generation of African researchers as suggested by the scientific publication outputs of researchers in South Africa.

As a result of the shortage of skills in academic and research fields, initiatives have been introduced over the past 15 years, since the formal end of apartheid. These have included institutional funding and individual bursaries towards increasing the number of students who enter higher education, and those who proceed to postgraduate studies; improving the participation of previously disadvantaged groups in higher education and science studies; and creation of mentoring and internship opportunities for the previously disadvantaged, especially in higher education and research institutions. These initiatives have, in the main, been designed for science, engineering, technology, innovation, and research and development, and are linked to the South African National Skills Development Strategy 2005–2010, which was established with the intention of radically transforming education and training in South Africa by improving both the quality and quantity of the training of students (DST 2007).

Incidents of gate-keeping in terms of who gets published in which journals are cited by many. This keeps the rate of research outputs low – limited to a few individuals and groups – and the profile of researchers or contributors to this output unchanging. The accused in this regard are editors and journal reviewers who may be a clique belonging to an ‘Old Boys’ Club’.

What is noticeable these days is the politicisation and yet non-democratic culture in all areas of the South African university: management, appointments, teaching, autonomy and independence of groups in the university, as well as in the university as a body. Critical thinking and debate were suppressed during apartheid and now are condemned or viewed as politically incorrect because vice-chancellors are black and therefore supposed to be free of bias and discrimination, especially because a number of them have ‘struggle’ credentials. The result is the same: there is no room for criticism.

Bridging the gaps by focusing on structure

While the focus of this chapter is higher education, and the problems discussed here those of higher education institutions, most of the problems in higher education would be significantly reduced if more attention were paid to good foundation education and schools. Higher education would benefit significantly from a system that ensures a set of minimum standards in all South African schools regarding safety and security, facilities, teacher competence, and a culture of learning and teaching, so that one may be able to say any South African school, anywhere in the land, has got these. This, then, would go a long distance in levelling the field for all learners in the school system and later in higher education.

There is a need to prioritise demonstration of political vision and will as criteria when appointing officials (often politicians) tasked with implementation of the new education system for redress and transformation. In addition to these criteria, high standards must be set for education officials appointed in district, local, provincial and national offices, as well as for university vice-chancellors, and all these officials must be held accountable for non-implementation.

African languages must be elevated in all spheres of South African life so that they play a significant role – manufacturers, bottlers, packaging people must be forced to include African languages in labelling products such as tea, cleaning products and so on. It is crucial for the users to understand the directions on medication boxes and bottles, and so people’s languages must be accommodated in these as a matter of urgency and safety. Just as English and Afrikaans continue to be used in labelling and instructions, the languages could be English and Sesotho, English and TshiVenda or Afrikaans and IsiZulu. Big supermarkets, such as Pick and Pay, could be forced to have aisles with signs in African languages instead of alternating English with Afrikaans, as if all people speak both or either and will therefore be comfortable in any aisle. African languages must be used in signs at the banks and at the airport too. Using all 11 official languages at the same time is not the idea, because it is not practical, but alternating them is possible. Otherwise, what is the point of having 11 official languages if only two or even one is to be used exclusively? African-language-speaking teachers must be deployed in suburban schools – many qualified in these languages and may not be teaching anymore. African language teachers might be shared by a cluster of suburban schools the same way French and German teachers often are in South Africa.

There is a need to create a department or office of Diversity Education by the education departments to ensure incorporation of all histories and heroes in the curriculum; recognition of all histories and heroes as well as observation of holidays pertaining to all South African past heroes; and to assist schools and institutions of higher learning (if necessary) with culture change, integration and dealing with diversity. Such an office and its functioning was observed in Nova Scotia Province in Canada.

Most importantly, in South Africa there is an urgent need to depoliticise appointments in education governance, management and provision/suppliers. Political appointments have crept in since 1994 and seem to be settling in and need to be squashed urgently. Being an African National Congress (the current ruling party) cadre should not be the criterion for appointing a minister of education, but especially a director general or a university principal.

While racial redress and sensitivity to race will remain important factors in South African society, race, just like politics, should not be the sole or ultimate criterion when making appointments in education governance, management and provision/suppliers. Being black does not automatically sensitise one to issues of equity, inequality and redress. Black and white candidates must be able to demonstrate understanding of, and commitment to, ensuring implementation of the issues discussed above in order to be appointed into senior positions. Recruitment and appointment of key personnel must therefore be deracialised.

In conclusion, despite the impatience about the lack of implementation, I strongly believe that these changes can still be implemented. With a little pressure on the powers that be to demonstrate will, there is no doubt that they are achievable.


Thank you to HSRC Press Cape Town South Africa for permission to reprint two tables from Student Retention and Graduate Destination, edited by Moeketsi, Cosser, Breier and Visser, and published in 2009.


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Bloch, G. 2007. ‘The persistence of inequality in education: Policy and implementation priorities’. Paper for Knowledge Week 20–22 November 2007. Development Bank of Southern Africa.

Cosser, M; Letseka, M. 2009. ‘Introduction’. In Student Retention and Graduate Destination, edited by Moeketsi, L; Cosser, M; Breier, M; Visser, M. Cape Town: HSRC Press: 1–9.

DST (Department of Science and Technology). 2007. ‘South Africa invests in young graduates’. Accessed 28 January 2010. Available from: 2010. ‘Population Registration Act’. Accessed 28 January 2010. Available from:

HSRC (Human Science Research Council). 2007. ‘Business plan for the Human Sciences Research Council, 2007/2008’. Pretoria: HSRC Press.

Kane-Berman, J. 2007. ‘The skills deficit looks permanent’. Fast Facts 12. December 2007. Johannesburg: South African Institute of Race Relations.

MRC (Medical Research Council). 2006. ‘Policy: Post-graduate research training internship programme’. Accessed 28 January 2010. Available from:

Waghid, Y. 2002. ‘Knowledge production and higher education transformation in South Africa: Towards reflexivity in university teaching, research and community service’. Higher Education 43: 457–488.

Wikipedia. 2010. ‘Population Registration Act’. Accessed 3 January 2010. Available from:

Woolard, I; Kneebone, P; Lee, D. 2003. ‘Forecasting the demand for scarce skills, 2001–2006’. Human Resources Development Review 2003: Education, Employment and Skills in South Africa. Cape Town: HSRC Press.

Closing the Gap in Education?

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen