On his way to the toilet at his school in South Africa’s Soweto township, Simphiwe Bhengu passes broken chairs and piles of dumped textbooks. He steps through puddles of putrid water and skirts prowling rats before returning to a class of 40.
Simphiwe, 15, is failing most of his subjects at Lamula Jubilee Secondary School. His father, David Bhengu, lays the blame on corruption and teachers who are too apathetic and underqualified to help his son achieve his goal of becoming a commercial lawyer.
Improving education was one of the late Nelson Mandela’s driving goals when he led South Africa from apartheid to democracy. Six weeks after being elected president in April 1994, he called on South Africans to solve the country’s “profound education crisis.” “The task to make South Africa a learning and learned nation belongs to all of us,” he said.
It hasn’t happened.
The country’s schools are close to the bottom of international rankings. Classes are frequently interrupted by strikes or absent teachers. Sixty-one percent of school spending goes toward salaries, according to the Treasury. Corruption leaves children without materials in overcrowded classrooms. Many instructors don’t have adequate training and a powerful union limits government oversight.
“It’s not liberation if we let the black child’s education die,” said Bhengu, wearing a white vest and khaki slacks as he sat at a table in his bedroom. Outside, Simphiwe played soccer in the street. “I feel my dream has been betrayed. That’s not the liberation we fought for. We fought so we could go to university and get a good job.”
South Africa spends about a fifth of its budget on education, a higher proportion than Germany or Finland, according to the World Bank. It doesn’t get the same results: Cameroon and Rwanda sit at least 86 places above South Africa on World Economic Forum education rankings, even though their economies per capita are less than a sixth the size.
Even with a fourth of the workforce unemployed, companies recruit abroad for skilled employees such as engineers, or leave jobs unfilled, because the system isn’t producing young people with the necessary training.
South Africa’s mathematics and science education was the worst of 148 countries ranked by the WEF, while the country beat only Yemen and Libya in an overall assessment of schooling quality. Five years ago, it was 25 spots from the bottom.
A government study published in May 2011 found 3,544 of South Africa’s 24,793 public schools lacked electricity, 2,402 had no water supply, 11,450 used outdoor toilets, 22,938 didn’t have stocked libraries and 19,037 had no computer centers.
The education system doesn’t prepare South Africans for the job market, forcing some manufacturers to seek skilled workers from abroad. Construction companies, for example, hire welders and riggers from the Philippines and Thailand to build power plants, said Bruce Carr, who runs several units owned by Adcorp Holdings Ltd., South Africa’s biggest employment agency.
Literacy and numeracy levels among most school graduates are so low that Quest, a unit of Adcorp, sifts through 1 million applications a year to select 20,000 white-collar workers, according to Chief Executive Officer Kay Vittee.
“We see a grave mismatch between what the labor market requires and what is churned out of schools,” Vittee, 47, said at Quest’s Johannesburg office. “It’s getting worse.” The deficiencies are in the most basic of skill areas, she said: reading, writing, math and problem-solving.
To investors such as Templeton Emerging Markets Group Chairman Mark Mobius, who manages $53 billion, the concern about South Africa’s poor education stems from its potential to translate into growing unrest, already common across the country. Last year, there were a record 173 protests over a lack of proper shelter and basic services, according to Johannesburg-based research group Municipal IQ.
“It’s sort of a circular deal, because if you don’t have a great education, you can’t get a job. You don’t have a job, you can’t educate your kids, they become unemployed,” Mobius said in a phone interview. “The future of the country depends on how they upgrade education for the mass of the population.”
As Mandela’s body lies in state today, the ruling African National Congress he brought to power risks seeing its hold eroded, in part because of the impact of poor education on unemployment. Growing disillusionment may weaken the ANC in the long term as more people join anti-government protests, Dirk Kotze, a politics professor at the Pretoria-based University of South Africa, said in a phone interview. The party has won more than 60 percent in every election since 1994.
The government says it’s still overcoming apartheid’s legacy and that most of the budget is consumed by current expenditure, leaving little room for new investment. Almost all South African children now go to school and more than 8 million poor children get a free meal there, according to Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga.
“Education was not normal in this country,” President Jacob Zuma told reporters in Cape Town on Sept. 12. “It was used as an instrument to subjugate and suppress the majority. No one could think we could have solved this problem, which is a problem of centuries. The fact that we have diagnosed it correctly and we have prescribed the real remedy, it tells you we are moving.”
While Mandela’s and subsequent administrations made headway in expanding access to education and desegregating schools and universities, they didn’t fare as well in improving quality. The 1998 introduction of a system that didn’t require teachers to follow a set curriculum and let them utilize a wide range of teaching methods left many pupils functionally illiterate and innumerate. It was scrapped in 2010.
Still, the proportion of children with no schooling halved between 1996 and 2011, according to the most recent census data. Enrolment at universities and colleges surged 55 percent to 935,000 between 2001 and 2012. Over the past three years, the number of pupils signed up for a preparatory grade surged from 300,000 to 800,000.
As for the WEF rankings, Motshekga disputed them because they are based on surveys rather than academic results. Even in her preferred 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, conducted by Boston College, South Africa’s mathematics results were better than only Honduras’s out of 45 participants, most of them industrialized countries. In 1995, it scored worst out of 41 countries.
While final-year pass rates have increased every year since 2009, following six straight years of decline, the results mask what it takes to pass. Students need to score just 40 percent in three subjects and 30 percent in three others. The levels were lowered from a 40 percent average across all subjects in 2008.
At Simphiwe Bhengu’s school, Lamula, the pass rate jumped to 73 percent in 2012 from 46 percent in 2010, according to Principal Dan Sehlangu. Teachers are all adequately qualified and committed, he said in a Dec. 3 interview in his office.
Just 27 percent of 511,152 final-year students obtained results last year that were good enough to enter university, government statistics show. Only 24 percent of them passed mathematics and 22 percent passed physical science.
Those deficiencies are the “most important factor” holding back South Africa’s economy, said Azar Jammine, chief economist for Johannesburg-based consulting firm Econometrix.
“Look at the way GDP growth is trailing behind the rest of our peers and especially the rest of sub-Saharan Africa,” he said in a phone interview. “Much of that has to do with our weak education system and the inability of the population to access skilled jobs. Many of the country’s ills can be traced back to education. It’s the fundamental source factor.”
Basic standards for schools, set for the first time this year, limit class sizes to 40 pupils and stipulate all schools must have electricity, adequate water and sanitation, as well as a library and Internet facilities.
A drive through Soweto suggests children still learn under conditions far behind those enjoyed by students in public and private schools in formerly all-white suburbs. Some asbestos classroom walls have broken away at Noordgesig Primary School, in a lower-middle-class area. Metal rods supporting the walls of the school’s front row of classrooms are visible where chunks of cement have broken away. Flooding rainwater has rotted the skirting boards in one classroom.
At Megatong Primary School in the Mapetla area, where single-story red-brick houses line winding streets, first-grade students kneel to write in exercise books placed on chairs in front of them, because they have no desks.
In 2009, the latest year for which data is available, 99 percent of whites passed their final school exams, compared with 57 percent of blacks.
Soweto’s parents seeking to give their children opportunities for the future try to escape the township’s public schools and their inadequate facilities.
Single mother Kgothatso Legoale, 29, realized there was an issue when her six-year-old daughter, Masego, wouldn’t drink anything at elementary school because she didn’t want to use the toilet. It was flooded, she said, and there was no sink to wash her hands. In addition, Masego’s teacher marked her schoolwork incorrectly twice in her first two weeks.
While Batsogile Primary School boasts a computer lab, a library and a full stock of textbooks, it lacks teachers. Half the first-graders were being taught by a teaching assistant, because the class had 71 students. Second grade had one teacher for 56 students.
“I don’t have any friends who want their kids to go to school in the area,” Legoale said as she sipped a soft drink at a cafe in the Sandton financial district, where she works in debt resolutions for Norman, Bissett & Associates (Pty) Ltd.
To get Masego into a state school outside of Soweto, Legoale lined up with about 150 other parents at the district education office. It didn’t work, but she did manage to get a place at St. Theresa’s Convent School. She pays 1,300 rand ($125) per month and another 400 rand in transport, almost a fifth of her salary.
Masego is in a class of 25 and now can read a book on her own. Her English pronunciation indicates she is on track to find her way into the corporate world, Legoale said.
South Africa’s “crisis in education” has compounded its “glaring shortage in skills”, according to David Noko, executive vice president of social and sustainable development at AngloGold Ashanti Ltd., Africa’s largest gold producer.
“The labor-intensive type of industry will soon be a thing of the past,” he said. “We are migrating very quickly toward a knowledge industry. I can’t sleep well because of my worries about the fact that the nation is not equipped educationally. That is a big problem for everyone in the country.”
The reasons for the lack of progress range from the massive wage bill, which leaves little for development, to changes in education policy, undertrained teachers and difficulties in teacher oversight, said Minister Motshekga, whose department recently ditched required peer reviews because colleagues were covering for each other.
“We still have major problems with the quality of teachers we have,” Motshekga said. “Our kids are not developing properly. They are not trained to analyze.”
To try to improve that, Motshekga is challenging one of the biggest unions, an ally of the ANC, the South African Democratic Teachers Union. She is trying to introduce measures to make teaching an essential service, meaning teachers could only strike if it didn’t close schools.
Teachers, nurses and other state workers went on strike for 20 days in 2010, closing schools and disrupting hospital services, to secure a one-time 7.5 percent wage increase and a 60 percent rise in housing allowances.
The problem of the education system is wider, including children’s socioeconomic conditions and a lack of teacher training, SADTU Deputy General Secretary Nkosana Dolopi said in an Oct. 1 phone interview.
“We have never spent a lot of time on teacher development,” Dolopi said. “It also affects the results we are getting. You can’t blame them for the problems we are having in education.”
Johannesburg-based advocacy group Corruption Watch is flooded with new reports of graft at schools, more than from any other area in society, suggesting a “significant” amount of the 233.6 billion rand education budget for the year through March 2014 may be lost through corruption.
David Bhengu reported his own discovery to Corruption Watch: Lamula’s principal couldn’t account for 205,000 rand worth of new textbooks when confronted last year about the loss by Bhengu. He had just been elected by other parents to chair the school governing body.
“It was very suspicious,” he said. “How can you pay someone the money who has not delivered any books?”
Bhengu, 39, a security guard who’s been unemployed for five years, wrote to the district and provincial education departments. The department last week completed its investigation of the alleged corruption and “heads are going to roll” if any wrongdoing is discovered, Dennis Macuacua, the educational district’s director, said in Sehlangu’s office.
On a second visit to the school, organized by the Gauteng province’s education department, broken windows had been replaced and the toilets cleaned. The school replaces broken chairs and desks and its kitchen provides breakfast and lunch to its 1,195 students, said Sehlangu, a teacher for 21 years.
Old textbooks covered in rat droppings were dumped in an open storage room near the classrooms. These and the graffiti didn’t mean Lamula lacked order, Sehlangu said. Rats couldn’t be kept out as they came in from a nearby field, he said.
“It’s a work in progress,” Sehlangu said. “We’re trying our best.”
With three children and only an income from his wife, who works in a food processing company, Bhengu can’t afford a private education for Simphiwe and his two brothers.
“My son is not receiving the skills he needs,” Bhengu said. “The South African education system is collapsing. There’s a lot of corruption. Government is turning a blind eye. People are doing what they want.”