A new year has begun, one that coincides with the 30th anniversary of South Africa’s democracy. During this year, we will reflect on what has been achieved as we chart the course for the future.
Last week, we laid to rest the renowned photojournalist Peter Magubane. His remarkable photography reflected not only the journey we have taken over the past 30 years, but also how much our country has changed since the days of apartheid.
In the week that the results of the 2023 matriculation exams will be released, I recall what is perhaps Peter Magubane’s most famous photograph, taken in 1956. It is of a black domestic worker stroking the hair of a young white girl as she sits on a bench marked ‘Europeans Only’.
This image brings home the pettiness, absurdity and grinding cruelty of apartheid. Beyond this, the photograph is a stark reminder that less than half a century ago, the colour of one’s skin determined whether one was born into opportunity or doomed to a life of servitude.
The black domestic worker epitomised the oppressed working class. With their movements restricted and opportunities to them denied, including to decent and quality education, domestic work was one of the few avenues for employment for black women.
We must consider just how far we have come from an era where the educational prospects of young black men and women were greatly diminished, and where the inferior education they received was deliberately designed to prepare them to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water”.
It was this deliberate marginalisation and discrimination that resulted in the scene captured by Peter Magubane’s lens.
Much has changed. From the results of Census 2022, we can glean insight into the gains we have made as a country in advancing access to education, the most critical area of any nation’s development.
In 2022, three-quarters of young people aged 5 to 24 years were attending school. Approximately 3.5 million children under five years received a form of early childhood development.
The percentage of people aged 20 and older who have completed secondary education has more than doubled since the first census undertaken under democracy in 1996.
The first census showed that some 62% of white South Africans had a matric or higher qualification compared to 18% of blacks. Today, 38% of all South Africans have completed secondary education.
At the time Census 1996 was conducted, 1.5 million South Africans had post-school qualifications. In 2022, this figure stood at approximately 4.6 million. Much of this progress has been made possible by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, which continues to play an invaluable role in supporting access to higher education.
While the sector faces a number of challenges as it works to meet the needs of our growing population, we are working to overcome them. However, given our country’s history of marginalisation and exclusion, that we have made such substantial progress in expanding access to education over the past three decades is significant.
In 2022, the matric cohort achieved an 80.1% pass rate, and last year more than a million candidates sat for the exam. More than half of the successful matriculants were female. There are also more women studying at tertiary institutions in South Africa, including in the once male-dominated science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
Through various initiatives like the National School Nutrition Programme, Early Childhood Development, the SAFE schools sanitation programme and the Second Chance programme for matriculants, we are working to ensure that the constitutionally guaranteed right to quality education for all is achieved.
While the task of ensuring that our economy grows at a scale and pace to absorb graduates and those seeking formal employment is a daunting one, let us not lose sight of how far we have come in this critical developmental indicator.
In South Africa today, basic and higher education is accessible to the children and grandchildren of farmworkers, mineworkers and domestic workers, many of whom were denied such opportunities in the not too distant apartheid past.
We will continue to build on our gains in our quest to leave no-one behind.
We wish the matriculants eagerly awaiting their results good luck. We have no doubt they will make us proud, making it an auspicious start to an auspicious year.
This President’s message was first published on 15 January 2024.