Date: Feb 11, 2020

South Africa: Broken and unequal education perpetuating poverty and inequality

The South African education system, characterised by crumbling infrastructure, overcrowded classrooms and relatively poor educational outcomes, is perpetuating inequality and as a result failing too many of its children, with the poor hardest hit according to a new report published by Amnesty International today.

Broken and Unequal: The State of Education in South Africa calls on the government to urgently address a number of endemic failings in the system in order to guarantee the right to a decent education for every child in South Africa.

The report particularly highlights poor infrastructure in public schools including sanitation which has tragically resulted in the death of two children in pit latrines in recent years.

“For South Africa to comply with both its own constitutional and international human rights obligations with respect to education, major change is needed urgently,” said Shenilla Mohamed, Executive Director of Amnesty International South Africa.

“The right to quality education includes having a school where learners are safe to learn and have the adequate infrastructure and facilities to do so, but our research has found that this is not the reality for many learners in the country.”

The report details how the education system continues to be dogged by stark inequalities and chronic underperformance that have deep roots in the legacy of apartheid, but which are also not being effectively tackled by the current government.

For example, it brings to the fore that many schools and the communities they serve continue to live with the consequences of the political and economic decisions made during the apartheid era where people were segregated according to their skin colour, with schools serving white communities properly resourced. The result of this modern-day South Africa is that a child’s experience of education still very much depends on where they are born, how wealthy they are, and the colour of their skin.

As the President prepares to deliver the State of the Nation Address this week, the critical question is: why is it that a child’s experience of education in South Africa still depends very much on where they are born, how wealthy they are, and the colour of their skin?

While the report acknowledges that there has been progress made since the end of apartheid on widening access to education as well as other aspects, it has identified weaknesses by the Department of Basic Education, such as repeatedly failing to reach its own targets with respect to infrastructure and facilities.

In these circumstances it is not surprising that educational outcomes remain relatively poor. For example, a recent international survey found that more than three quarters of children aged nine cannot read for meaning. In some provinces this is as high as 91% in Limpopo and 85% in the Eastern Cape. And of 100 learners that start school, 50-60 will make it to matric, 40-50 will pass matric, and only 14 will go to university.

“South Africa has one of the most unequal school systems in the world. Children in the top 200 schools achieve more distinctions in mathematics than children in the next 6,600 schools combined. The playing field must be levelled.”

Broken promises

In 2013, the government enacted the Minimum Norms and Standards for educational facilities, requiring the government to ensure that by November 2016, all schools have access to sanitation and electricity and that all pit latrines are replaced with safe and adequate sanitation and schools built from inappropriate materials, such as mud and asbestos are replaced. Yet as the government’s own statistics show, these targets have not been met.

As the government continues to miss its own targets to improve learning facilities, Amnesty International’s research in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape found numerous examples of schools with poor infrastructure and lacking basic facilities.

These included badly maintained buildings that had never been renovated, many of them dating back decades to the apartheid era and even previously. The buildings were hazardous, built with dangerous material such as asbestos and poorly maintained, in some cases putting the safety and security of learners at risk. The buildings were also unhygienic, poorly maintained and in some cases unsafe. Schools that were visited by Amnesty International had overcrowded classrooms without basic equipment and materials such as furniture and textbooks, with lack of security exacerbating the problems of vandalism and burglary.

One of the key infrastructure issues is poor sanitation which compromises not just learners’ education but also their health, privacy and dignity. Amnesty International researchers found numerous examples of badly maintained, broken or unsanitary toilets, including pit latrines. Students who were interviewed by the organisation in Gauteng raised it as a particular concern, saying that in many cases toilets were “dirty” and “unhealthy”. In the Eastern Cape, issues of concern included lack of sufficient toilets for the number of pupils in line with the learner to toilet ratio of 1:30; lack of an adequate and/or reliable water supply often requiring use of a borehole; poor hygiene with associated health problems among learners; leaking septic tanks; broken sanitation infrastructure that could not be repaired owing to lack of funds and an inability to remedy vandalism or theft in sanitation facilities.

“The fact that the Limpopo Department of Education says that it will take an estimated 14 years to replace all pit latrines in the province’s public schools is shocking. Given the recent deaths, it is unacceptable that the government cannot guarantee that more children won’t die this year or any coming years for that matter,” said Mohamed.

Beyond infrastructure, other barriers that children face to access a quality education include lack of sufficient transport, which often impacts on not just their ability to access education but also can put their safety at increased risk.

Some children walk for between 30 minutes and an hour to get to their educational institution meaning it is likely to be more than 3km. This is despite the fact that the Department of Transport, in collaboration with the Department of Basic Education, is required to ensure that transport is provided to grades R to 12 pupils who live more than 3km from the nearest school.

Children in the lowest income groups are also more likely to walk to school than those in the highest income group. In KwaZulu-Natal alone, where more learners walk to school than in any other province, more than 210,000 pupils walk for more than an hour each way, and 659,000 walk for between 30 minutes and an hour each way.

When they do get to school, students are often being taught in overcrowded classes impacting on their ability to learn effectively. For example, Amnesty International saw many cases of teacher learning ratios exceeding the stipulated ratio of 1:35 increasing to double this figure in one case.

Amnesty International visited numerous schools that had insufficient resources to meet the requirements for a decent education and this is borne out by the Department of Basic Education’s own statistics.

According to the Department’s own statistics for 2018, out of 23,471 public schools, 20,071 have no laboratory. Furthermore, 18,019 have no library, while 16,897 have no internet.

Almost 1,000 schools have no sports facilities, while 4,358 have only illegal plain pit latrines for sanitation; 1,027 have no perimeter fencing, essential for teacher and pupil safety, while 239 have no electricity, and 37 have no sanitation facilities at all.

In its recommendations, Amnesty International calls for the review and reform of how the education budget is distributed in order to achieve quality education for all and to combat entrenched inequality in the system.

“The repeated failure of government to address the issues is not only a question of accountability, it has consequences for the life chances of thousands of young people and the future of this country,” said Shenilla Mohamed.


While the report highlights that South Africa has made significant progress on ensuring the right to education for pupils since the end of apartheid, it has found that access has widened to the point where there is almost universal participation although the numbers of pupils dropping out before completing their basic education. However, in certain key areas as this report highlights, the post-1994 government has failed to meet its own domestic and international legal obligations. Too many schools suffer from poor infrastructure compromising the quality of education available for learners. Amnesty International conducted field research in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng provinces between November 2017 and June 2019 as well as extensive desk research including analysis of publicly available statistical data.

Amnesty International South Africa also undertook a joint survey with the National Association of School Governing Bodies (NASGB) in three provinces – Gauteng, the Eastern Cape and Limpopo. This involved 27 questions covering issues such as governance and the role of school governing bodies (SGBs); infrastructure; funding; teaching; safety and security; and transportation. The questionnaire was sent to 101 NASGB representatives covering schools in their respective local area in the three provinces.

For more information or to request an interview, please contact:

Mienke Steytler, Media and Digital Content Officer, Amnesty International South Africa: +27 11 283 6000 (office) or +27 64 890 9224 (mobile);