South Africa: Watching accountability in action

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This blog is written by Dr Remy C Nnadozie, Director: Institutional Planning, Rhodes University, and the author of a case study on accountability and education in South Africa commissioned for the 2017/8 GEM Report. The blog is part of a series showing that accountability in education is shaped by a country’s history and political, social, and cultural context.

Background: South Africa’s education system

South Africa is a constitutional democracy with a three-tier system of government and an independent judiciary. The national, provincial and local levels of government all have legislative and executive authority in their own spheres. As part of the apartheid policy (1948-1991), the Bantu Education Act of 1953 enforced racial segregation of education systems, including resources and curricula. Schools in the Black African communities were severely under-resourced and the consequences of this Act are still observable today.

The Department of Basic Education has the responsibility of managing and the content, values, techniques and curriculum for all schools in South Africa up to Grade 12, including adult literacy programmes. Particular importance is placed on the results of the MATRIC examinations.


One of the most transformative and liberal constitutions in modern history

constitutionThe South African Constitution was adopted in 1996 following the installation of democratically elected government structures in 1994. Chapter 2 of the Constitution enforces the right to education, which has been implemented with some notable court judgements. The case of the Western Cape Forum for Intellectual Disability versus Government of the Republic of South Africa is an example in which a court of law – the Western Cape high court – ruled that the State has a duty to provide equally for the education of all children, including those with various forms of disabilities.

q1Despite the declared intentions of the government, parts of the South African education system still face challenges. For example, many schools in South Africa do not have the required resources for effective teaching and learning. In terms of infrastructure and staffing, the majority of schools in the townships and rural areas are still regarded as under resourced. Accountability, from both the government and the community level can help address some of the shortcomings in education.

Accountability in action

South Africa follows a consultative process in coming about development policies, programmes and projects. The processes are designed to ensure public participation and consensus. The various policies and plans of government in the democratic era have centred on economic growth and redress of the legacies of apartheid.

All tiers of government and public institutions in South Africa are required to comply with public accountability mechanisms of the government-wide monitoring and evaluation system (GWMES) and the Public Finance and Management Act (PFMA). GWMES was approved in 2005 to provide harmonized framework for monitoring and evaluation in the public sector in South Africa. The PFMA is aimed at improving transparency, accountability and sound financial management in government and public institutions.

South Africa has a rich history of youth and student activism

In the political front, some of the prominent leaders (Mandela, Ashby Mda, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo) rose from the ranks of the ANC youth league. Steve Biko’s black consciousness movement of the 1960s added to the forces of opposition to the apartheid system, particularly the Bantu education policy. Biko promoted his black fees must fallconsciousness philosophy through organised student formations. The students’ uprising of June 1976 is seen as one of the stoutest confrontations of the apartheid regime.

In 2015, South Africa witnessed a wave of #feesmustfall protests across university campuses in the country. The campaign was so intense that it is considered as the strongest student uprising since 1976. Recently a much awaited report was released by the Presidential Commission looking into the calls of the protesters. It found that the South African state may not have the capacity to fund free higher education for all. An arrangement for government-guaranteed student loan from commercial banks was suggested. This recommendation may not be adequate for the poorest of the poor. One success of the q2protest seen in the report, however, is its recommendation to scrap registration fees at universities and increase the share of the budget going to higher education from about 0.7% to at least 1% of GDP.

Social media also played a big role in holding a private textbook publisher, Pearson, to account. In July 2016 a student’s question on Facebook highlighted a textbook depicting a sexual assault scenario, which suggested blaming the victim. This attracted media attention and civil protest, which caused the publisher to amend the text and apologise.

2017/8 GEM Report recommendations

Global South Africa
1 Governments must make the right to education justiciable in national law, which is not the case in 45% of countries. The right to education is justiciable in national law.
2 Governments should be transparent about the strengths of weaknesses of education systems, opening policy processes to broad and meaningful consultation and publishing a regular education monitoring report. South Africa produces a national education monitoring report every year.
3 Governments should develop credible and efficient regulations with associated sanctions for all education providers, public and private, that ensure non-discrimination and the quality of education. There are no regulations in public or private education on how many pupils there should be per teacher in the classroom.
4 Governments should design accountability for schools and teachers that is supportive and formative, and avoids punitive mechanisms. South Africa uses test scores to sanction and reward schools.
5 Governments should fulfil their commitment of spending at least 4% of GDP on education or allocating 15% of total government expenditure. South Africa has reached both financing targets for education spending, i.e. 6% of GDP and 19% of total expenditure.


  1. I would enormously appreciate seeing any longer piece written by the author. Is there a longer piece that serves as background to the blog, and how can I access it? Or, if the author has longer pieces on the theme in general, I would appreciate being in touch with him via my e-mail address. I am writing a paper, based on my role as a policy advisor in the mid 1990s, based on 20-years’ distance and I would love to be updated on how current analysts see the situation. This is an urgent and serious request to the author. Thanks!

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