FILE - Students use computers to study at Elswood Secondary School in Cape Town, Nov.  7, 2013.
FILE - Students use computers to study at Elswood Secondary School in Cape Town, Nov. 7, 2013.

JOHANNESBURG - South Africa’s nearly 700,000 high-schoolers had been eagerly awaiting this week’s announcement of their matriculation exam grades - scores used by universities to determine which program of study a student is admitted to.

On Monday, however, nearly a quarter of them were disappointed to learn they hadn’t made the grade.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced Monday night the Class of 2014 pass rate as 75.8 percent, down from 78.2 percent for the Class of 2013.

Exam results argued

Officials quickly turned these figures into a political football.

“South Africa is especially proud of the Class of 2014 as they represent a special category of learners who sat through their exams as the country celebrated 20 years of freedom and democracy," said President Jacob Zuma in a statement, lauding the results as a sign of progress.

The opposition Pan Africanist Congress, however, took a more pessimistic view, saying  the results highlight "serious deficiencies" in South Africa's education system. The party also blamed Zuma’s ruling African National Congress for not creating enough opportunities for graduates.

"The mindset of begging for work after 12 years of training, rather than creating opportunities, is a shame," PAC Deputy President Sbusiso Xaba said in a statement.

Nombulelo Nyathela, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Equal Education, said the story behind the results is probably somewhere in the middle of those opposing narratives.

Education struggles

Nyathela said the numbers don’t paint a complete picture.

“There’s a huge focus on the matric results as a yardstick to measure the quality of education in South Africa,” she told VOA News. “We need to be careful about using the matric pass rate as the only indicator of either an improvement or … a decline in the education system.”

The nation’s education system has struggled for two decades to overcome entrenched inequalities handed down from the apartheid system. The government has taken steps to try to address this, including creating a new curriculum.  

This year’s matric exams were the first to be taken by students who were educated under a new set of guidelines that aim to improve students’ core skills and give teachers more concrete guidance

This new system was introduced in 2012 to those in grade 10, meaning those students are now being tested.

But the nation’s education department has faced difficulties in recent years - hitting a particularly low point in 2012 when the department failed to deliver a half-million textbooks to Limpopo, one of the nation’s poorer provinces.

Improvements still needed

Education Minister Motshekga referenced that incident in Monday night’s speech, calling it a “delivery delay” and lauding the province for overcoming those challenges to improve its pass rate this year by 1.1 percent.

Advocate Nyathela said that although the education sector receives the lion’s share of the South Africa’s budget, the government needs to invest even more to see improvement.

“At a broader level, I think that the systemic problems that surround basic education is, for example, the learners that don’t have the resources that could possibly make them perform to their optimum,” she said.

“So we definitely need schools with laboratories, schools with libraries, schools with adequate-sized classrooms, schools with fences where learners feel secure, schools with adequate teachers, so that you know, teachers are not teaching classes of over 100 learners,” Nyathela said.