Back to Africa Check

Is SA’s education system the worst in Africa? Not according to the data

This article is more than 10 years old

At a discussion on affirmative action hosted by trade union Solidarity, former foreign affairs minister Pik Botha took a swipe at South Africa’s education system. “Our education system is far behind. It’s the worst in Africa and [we have] the highest per capita expenditure in Africa. [Zimbabwean President Robert] Mugabe’s education system is better,” he is reported to have claimed.

An Africa Check reader recently asked us to evaluate the claim.

South Africa’s education system has been strongly criticised over the previous two years. There were the highly publicised textbook shortages and school infrastructure backlogs. In 2012, the department of basic education’s annual national assessments revealed that grade nine students on average scored 13% for mathematics. But is South Africa’s education system really the worst in Africa?

How education is ranked

Ranking education systems is not as simple as comparing different countries’ matric pass rates. Different countries use different exams and have different pass rates. In order to compare countries’ educational performance, the same test needs to be conducted on a representative sample of students in each country.

The Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) consists of fifteen ministries of education. The countries represented include Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

SACMEQ has conducted three education policy research projects: 1995-1998, 1998-2004 and 2005-2010.  Data for the most recent research project was collected during the last quarter of 2007 from  61,396 grade six students and 8,026 grade six teachers in  2,779 schools. During the assessment, students were required to answer multiple-choice questions on reading, mathematics and health. The data from this assessment is the most recent and comprehensive survey on educational quality in sub‐Saharan Africa.

South Africa’s average student reading score placed it tenth out of the fifteen countries scored. Uganda, Mozambique, Lesotho, Zambia and Malawi performed worse than South Africa. Tanzania was the best-performing country. South Africa’s average student mathematics score placed it eighth out of the fifteen countries. Mozambique, Uganda, Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi and Zambia achieved lower rankings.

Access to education

A 2012 study published by Nicholas Spaull and Stephen Taylor from the University of Stellenbosch questioned the existing practice of reporting education quality statistics that ignore enrolment statistics. The percentage of children enrolled in school varies in different countries.

For example, 98% of South African children that should be in grade six are in school. However, in Malawi, only 85.7% of children that should be in grade six are in school. Students that stay in the schooling system are usually the strongest, wealthiest and most able. Poorer, weaker students often drop out.

By taking into account how many children have dropped out of school, Spaull and Taylor’s study calculates how many children that should be in grade six have acquired basic numeracy and literacy. The study assumes that all children that are not in school are illiterate and innumerate.

SA still performs badly

Only ten of the countries included in the third Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality research project had reliable and recent data on school attendance: Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Taking enrolment into account, South Africa still performs badly. Only 71.2% of children that should be in grade six are literate. It is ranked sixth out of the ten countries, behind Swaziland, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. Zambia is ranked last and only 49.3% of children that should be in grade six there are considered literate.

Only about 58.6% of South African children that should be in grade six are numerate. In this regard, South Africa is ranked fifth, behind Kenya, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Zambia, again, comes in last. Only 28.8% of their grade six children are numerate.

Does SA spend the most on primary education?

Botha’s second claim was that South Africa has the highest per capita education expenditure in Africa. The 2010 Education for All Global Monitoring Report provides data on countries’ expenditure on primary education per pupil.

In 2007 South Africa was spending US$1,225 on primary education per pupil – more than most African countries.

However, both Botswana and the Seychelles were spending more per primary education per pupil: US$1,228 and US$2,089 respectively. Data for many African countries is not available in the report.

South Africa’s low scores despite its high education expenditure are worrying. Kenya spends only US$258 on primary education per pupil but performs better than South Africa in both reading and mathematics.

Botha’s last claim, that Zimbabwe’s education system is better than South Africa, is correct. In both numeracy and literacy, it is ranked higher than South Africa.

Conclusion: SA does not have the worst education system in Africa

Botha’s claim that South Africa’s education system is “the worst in Africa” is false. The available data, which notably does not cover countries in central Africa and the Sahel where conditions are far more challenging, clearly shows that.

Taking enrolment rates into account, South Africa performs better than many sub-Saharan African countries in both numeracy and literacy. However, there is still a great deal of room for improvement. South Africa consistently scores below countries such as Kenya and Swaziland, which spend considerably less on education than it does.

Edited by Julian Rademeyer

Republish our content for free

We believe that everyone needs the facts.

You can republish the text of this article free of charge, both online and in print. However, we ask that you pay attention to these simple guidelines. In a nutshell:

1. Do not include images, as in most cases we do not own the copyright.

2. Please do not edit the article.

3. Make sure you credit "Africa Check" in the byline and don't forget to mention that the article was originally published on

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

Want to keep reading our fact-checks?

We will never charge you for verified, reliable information. Help us keep it that way by supporting our work.

Become a newsletter subscriber

Support independent fact-checking in Africa.