The challenge facing the post-apartheid government is to create an educational system that provides quality education to all citizens of South Africa. The educational legacy left by the apartheid government has not been easy to dismantle. Literacy rates among blacks remain low, and educational facilities in the townships and rural areas need to be upgraded. During the apartheid government, education for whites was free and compulsory between the ages of 7 and 16 while attendance was not generally compulsory for blacks. Adult literacy was close to 100% for whites and about 50% for blacks in the mid-1980s.
After the Soweto riots of 1976, the national government increased expenditures for black education, and black student enrollment did rise sharply. The government reported by the early 1990s that primary and secondary schools enrolled about one million white students; 5.8 million blacks; 900,000 colored; and 300,000 Asians.
The Government of National Unity established a National Ministry of Education in 1994 and an educational system comprised of nine provincial subsystems was developed. National policies set clear educational guidelines, and the Provincial Legislatures have been accorded significant authority in setting specific priorities and policies for that province.
In 1995, President Mandela launched the Presidential Lead Project on Developing the Culture of Learning and Teaching. The program revised school governance structures, increasing school attendance and renovating hundreds of schools around the country.
Schooling is comprised of seven years of primary and five years of secondary education (three years of lower secondary, followed by two years of upper secondary). Primary school children begin at the age of five. The initial three years are devoted to reading, writing, basic math, and language proficiency. The senior primary phase incorporates geography, science, history, a second language, math, and a practical skill. In 1995, 20,863 primary schools had a total student enrollment of 8,159,430, with 224,896 teachers. At the secondary level, 3,749,449 students and 128,611 teachers were in general education in 1995. The pupil-teacher ratio at the primary level was 35 to 1 in 1999. In the same year, an estimated 95% of primary-school-age children were enrolled in school, while 56% of those eligible attended secondary school.
South Africa has 21 universities and 15 technikons that provide tertiary level vocational training. In 1994, a total of 617,897 students were enrolled in institutions of higher education, with 27,099 teachers.