Back to Africa Check
LUCA SOLA / AFP

Fact-checked: 9 claims about South African schools from Ernst Roets

A member of management for the Afrikaner-rights group AfriForum rubbished the state of South African education. We sorted the wheat from the chaff in his claims.

  • Roets is correct that South African schools are often under-resourced, with few having either libraries or science labs, and that a sobering 80% could be considered “dysfunctional”.

  • However, he misleads about the requirements to pass matric and is wrong about the number of South Africans over 20 who have completed school. Roets understates the percentage of South Africans with university degrees.

  • While the data is very concerning, his claims about how South African schoolchildren rank internationally and the share of the national budget used on education are misleading or incorrect.

South Africa doesn’t spend enough time discussing the “disastrous state of its education system”, according to AfriForum’s head of policy and action Ernst Roets

AfriForum describes itself as a non-governmental organisation that “specifically focuses on the rights of Afrikaners”. 

In an eight-minute-long video, described as a “fact sheet”, Roets makes a number of claims about South Africa’s education system. The video was uploaded to Roets’s personal YouTube channel on 3 June 2021, where it had been viewed just over 4,600 times at time of writing. 

Africa Check contacted Roets about the source of his information. At the time of publishing we had not received a response. 

This report interrogates nine of his claims. 

Claim

“The South African government has continued to drop the standards by lowering the requirements to pass matric. We are currently at 30%.”

Verdict

Misleading

This claim has previously been refuted by government, education researchers and the National Professional Teachers' Organisation of South Africa.

The national senior certificate (NSC), commonly referred to as matric, is the school leaving certificate completed at the end of secondary school in South Africa. 

Pupils are required to take a minimum of seven subjects. Four are compulsory: one first language, one first additional language, mathematics or mathematical literacy and life orientation.

According to the department of basic education, the minimum requirements for a candidate to obtain the NSC are:

  • Achieve 40% in three subjects, one of which must be your first language.

  • Achieve 30% in three subjects.

“I can categorically say there is no such thing as a 30% pass mark for our national senior certificate,” basic education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga told Africa. He said only a small number of pupils passed at the lowest requirements. 

According to the department’s 2020 report, 61 pupils passed at the lowest criteria, representing 0.01% of all pupils. 

Most students passed at the highest achievement level, amounting to 210,820 students or 34.6%. This level, called a bachelor pass, requires pupils to obtain a minimum of 30% in the language of teaching and learning and a minimum of 50% in four recognised subjects.

Claim

South Africa’s basic education system has “consistently been ranked as either the worst in the world or one of the worst in the world”.

Verdict

Misleading

In the video, Roets goes on to say that South Africa performed “worse than Zimbabwe, worse than North Korea, worse than Venezuela, worse than even the most desolate third world countries”. 

South Africa participates in three international assessments for basic education. This stage of schooling covers grade R to grade 12, also known as matric. 

  • The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 

This is an international assessment of the mathematics and science knowledge of grade 4 and grade 8 pupils. The most recent assessment from 2019 included 58 countries. South Africa and Morocco were the only African countries included. North Korea, Zimbabwe and Venezuela were not assessed.

South Africa was third last for average mathematics achievement of grade 4 pupils, with a score of 374. It placed above Pakistan which had a score of 328 and the Philippines which had a score of 297

  • The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS)

This assessment measures pupils’ reading skills at a grade 4 level. The most recent assessment from 2016 included 50 countries. South Africa, Egypt and Morocco were the only African countries included. North Korea, Zimbabwe and Venezuela were not assessed. 

South Africa placed at the bottom with an average score of 320. Russia placed at the top with a score of 581

  • The Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ)

This study includes 15 ministries of education across southern and eastern Africa: Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The SACMEQ III project, which took place from 2006 to 2011, focused on examining knowledge of reading, maths, HIV and Aids among students and teachers. (Note: More recent data from the SACMEQ IV project from 2012 to 2014 is available, but only for four countries. SACMEQ III has the most comprehensive data for all 15 countries.) 

Africa Check previously found that South Africa’s average student reading score ranked it 10th out of 15 countries while its average maths score placed it eighth. In both reading and mathematics South Africa ranked below Zimbabwe but above Mozambique, Uganda, Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi and Zambia. 

Calling South Africa ‘worst in world’ misleading, say experts

Martin Gustafsson, a researcher with the department of economics at Stellenbosch University, told Africa Check: “It is a common mistake to say South Africa is bottom of the world because its TIMSS or PIRLS scores tend to be the worst among all countries taking those tests. However, only around a quarter of all countries [in the world] take those tests.” 

Nic Spaull is an associate professor in economics at Stellenbosch University. He told Africa Check that calling South Africa “the worst in the world” was not correct. Spaull said it was necessary to consider what percentage of children were enrolled in different countries. 

“South Africa has almost full enrollment at primary school whereas if you compare us to Mozambique, for example, in 2007 only 50% of kids were in school,” he explained. 

“And they’re the wealthiest 50% of kids. So you can’t compare the 96% of South African kids in school with only 50% in other countries."

Claim

“Just 28% of people in South Africa aged 20 or older have completed high school.”

Verdict

Incorrect

National statistical agency Statistics South Africa’s general household survey includes data on educational attainment. 

The survey found that 46.7% of adults aged 20 years and older had attained at least grade 12 in 2019. Of this figure, 30.8% of adults had attained grade 12 as their highest qualification, 15.4% had some post-school education, and 0.5% had other further education. 

Gustafsson previously provided Africa Check with a graph that uses data from the 2014, 2015 and 2016 general household surveys.

He found that the number of students who had attained matric increased to just over 52% by the age of 24.

Claim

“Just one in three schools has a library ...”

Verdict

Understated

The department of basic education publishes an annual National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) report which looks at infrastructure in public schools across the country. 

According to its 2020 report about one in four (25.4%) in South Africa have a library. The situation is worse than what Roets claimed. 

The best performing provinces were Gauteng where 63.9% of schools had libraries and the Western Cape where 62.5% of schools had libraries. 

The worst performing provinces were Limpopo where 7.1% of schools had a library and the Eastern Cape with 7.8% school where this was the case.

Claim

“... and one in five [schools] has a science laboratory.”

Verdict

Correct

According to the department’s report, only 19.8% of schools in South Africa have a science laboratory. This is equal to about one in five. 

The highest performing provinces were the Western Cape where 33.9% of schools had a science laboratory and Gauteng where 33.4% of schools had a laboratory.

The worst performing provinces were Limpopo where 6% of schools had a laboratory and the Eastern Cape where 6.9% of schools had a laboratory.

Claim

“80% of grade 4s in South Africa can’t read.”

Verdict

Misleading

PIRLS 2016 found that 78% of grade 4 pupils in South Africa failed to meet its lowest international reading benchmark. This led some outlets, like Eyewitness News, to report that “78% of grade 4 pupils in SA are illiterate”.

But Gustafsson told Africa Check that the PIRLS benchmark was not a benchmark for literacy. Rather it was a level the international PIRLS authorities believe “one can reasonably expect a learner to reach by grade 4.”

Gustafsson said that a more detailed analysis of the PIRLS survey showed that 7% of pupils “could not answer a single constructed response question in the PIRLS test”. This question is not a multiple-choice question and requires some writing by the pupil. 

“Arguably, one could then say that 7% of learners cannot read and write,” he said. 

However, Spaull says that the claim “isn’t incorrect” but he would use the phrase “78% of grade 4 students can’t read for meaning”.

Claim

“80% of schools in South Africa are dysfunctional.”

Verdict

Correct

Africa Check has previously investigated the same claim made by Roets in 2015. 

At the time we found that the claim was supported by available data. An analysis by Spaull showed that pupils in South Africa’s wealthiest 25% of schools outperformed those in the remaining 75% of schools.

Spaull told us that “dysfunctionality” was not a technical term. But a school might be considered “dysfunctional” if most of its pupils failed to demonstrate a level of ability appropriate to their age.

Spaull suggested that as many as 90% of South African schools could be considered dysfunctional. Spaull’s research from 2019 found that 71% of grade 4 pupils in the richest 10% of schools reached the PIRLS low international benchmark. In the other 90% of schools, far less than half of children reached this benchmark.

Claim

“Just 3.1% of black people over the age of 20 have university degrees compared to 13.9% and 18.3% for Indian and white people.”

Verdict

Understated

Dr Stephanie Allais is the research chair of skills development and professor of education at the Centre for Researching Education and Labour at Wits University in Johannesburg. She told Africa Check that bachelor’s, honour’s, master’s and doctoral degrees are the qualifications typically counted as “degrees”.

According to the 2019 general household survey, 4% of black South Africans 20 years and older had a degree. The percentages are much higher for Indian and white people, at roughly 16% and 24.7% respectively. Each of these percentages is higher than those given by Roets. 

Percentage of racial group with a degree 

Race group 

Roets’ claim 

Official data (2019)

Black African 

3.1%

4%

Indian 

13.9%

16%

White 

18.3%

24.7%

Claim

“South Africa is one of the countries in the world that spends the most on education [as a percentage of the budget].”

Verdict

Incorrect

South Africa’s 2021 national budget sets aside R402.9 billion of its total expenditure for “learning and culture”. This is equivalent to roughly 19.9%. 

This amount includes R37.3 billion for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and R19.6 billion for “education administration”. The vast majority of this spending is dedicated to basic education, which is assigned R255.1 billion. This represents about 12.6% of the total budget.

The World Bank ranks countries according to spending on education as a percentage of total government spending. In 2019 South Africa ranked fifth at 19.5%. However, the World Bank only had data available for 16 countries in that year.

The previous year, South Africa was ranked 20th in a (still incomplete) list of 63 countries. In 2017, when data was recorded for 115 countries, South Africa ranked 22nd. That year Costa Rica spent nearly a third of its total government spending on education. South Africa spent 18.7%.

Further Reading

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
limit: 600 characters