South Africa


South Africa’s former white schools are the most racially diverse — yet one population group is conspicuous by its absence

Research shows that in 2021, the average white student attended a school that was 68.5% white, 3.3% Asian, 8.5% coloured and 19.6% black. (Photo by Gallo Images/Die Burger/Jaco Marais)

Preliminary research indicates that while white students almost exclusively attend former whites-only schools — and are vastly overrepresented in elite public and private schools in South Africa — black students remain sorely underrepresented in the country’s best schools.

‘Regardless of how we measure it, school segregation in post-apartheid South Africa remains very high along racial, as well as socioeconomic lines, and also from an internationally comparative perspective,” said Dr Rob Gruijters, assistant professor in the education faculty at the University of Cambridge, during an online seminar on school segregation in post-apartheid South Africa on Monday.

Gruijters, one of the authors of an unpublished, preliminary study, joined research specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and co-author of the study, Dr Vijay Reddy, and professor of education at Stellenbosch University, Prof Jonathan Jansen, to discuss the results.

The study examines patterns of school segregation using data from the Department of Basic Education’s 2021 Annual School Survey and data from the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Based on the findings, Gruijters and Reddy argued that the “political settlement that emerged around the democratic transition in South Africa facilitated the hoarding of educational opportunities by the white minority and other socioeconomically advantaged groups”.

Gruijters explained that the research found that while “many, but not all, former white schools are now racially diverse to varying degrees, they are not representative of the population — mostly because white students remain overrepresented in these schools and black children, in particular, remain underrepresented in the country’s best schools”.

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The research showed that in 2021, the average white student attended a school that was 68.5% white, 3.3% Indian, 8.5% coloured and 19.6% black.

“White students attended schools that were 68.5% white, even though white students only constituted 3.8% of the overall population of children who attended school in 2021,” said Gruijters.

Conversely, the average black student attended a school that was 0.9% white, 0.7% Indian, 2.0% coloured, and 96.4% black in 2021.

“The vast majority of black students’ classmates were also black, and that’s not surprising given that black students constitute a large majority of the school-aged population,” said Gruijters.

Similarly, the research indicates that Indian students and coloured students are quite highly exposed to other Indian and coloured students, “so these figures are indicative of quite high levels of segregation”, added Gruijters.

Additionally, former white schools now admit 54.4% black learners, while 29.4% of learners at those schools are white, 12.5% are coloured and 3.6% are Indian.

“Although many former white schools now admit learners from other groups, there is a lot of variation across schools in how many black learners are admitted,” said Gruijters.

However, very few white children attend former black, Indian or coloured schools.

school segregation south africa
Many South African schools may be racially diverse, but not integrated; they are not representative of the population, research shows. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

Formerly black schools — the majority of all schools — remain almost exclusively black — “a main reason for this is that a lot of these schools are located in townships and rural areas where there is very little racial diversity,” said Gruijters.

Gruijters said that the research indicates that many South African schools may be racially diverse, but not integrated; they are not representative of the population. 

“Former white schools are, on average, the most racially diverse, but they also contribute most to segregation, because white and Indian children remain strongly overrepresented in these schools, relative to their share in the population,” he said.

In the study, the researchers also examined the demographic composition of the 30 most elite public schools and the 30 most elite private schools in South Africa, based on their 2021 fees.

According to Gruijters, the research indicates that most of these elite public and private schools remain “white dominant”.  

“It’s immediately clear that there are only a very small number of elite schools where black learners constitute the majority — in most schools they make up a relatively small minority of the student body,” he said. 

The research shows that white students — who make up 3.8% of the overall population of children who attended school in 2021 — occupy 62% of the spaces in elite public schools and 55% of the spaces in elite private schools. 

Indian students (1.5% of the population) are also overrepresented in public schools (6%) and elite private schools (13%).

“However, black students, who make up 87.2% of the population, remain vastly underrepresented in elite schools, and occupy only 20% of the spaces in elite public schools, and 27% of the spaces in elite private schools (27%),” said Gruijters. 

Previous research has shown that the integration of former white schools in South Africa is often limited to more socioeconomically advantaged children from other racial groups, according to Gruijters.

In line with this, the HSRC study found that when white students have exposure to black classmates, they are generally from the most socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds. 

The research also found that South Africa ranks very highly in terms of socioeconomic segregation between schools. 

“In fact, South Africa has the second-highest level of socioeconomic segregation between schools among the 41 TIMSS countries, exceeded only by Turkey,” said Gruijters. DM


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All Comments 22

  • It’s not as if that’s news. What’s the point of the study, if it does not investigate the underlying reasons and conditions of the situation as well.

  • The inference is that this is a deliberate strategy as opposed to the fact that it can take generations to build the disposable income required for high fee schools.
    The author would do better to focus on the dysfunction of government schools, the implications of which are way more serious for far more people.

  • I find this a most disappointing article. First, the article seems to aim at showing a high level of racism in South African schools, whereas in fact the numbers are far more indicative of practical and demographic realities rather than racism. Second, it does not require a University of Cambridge academic to read some numbers from various websites, but the article provides no analysis of trends or policies or any actual research nor does it discuss any ways forward. Third, the article makes no attempt to recognise that for most parents the education of their children is a top priority in budgeting and in social values, so that globally private schools are overwhelmingly attended by groups not in political power.

  • It would be insightful to use the same analysis for the stratified staff at these schools. What is the unconscious portrayed of the role of different groups as shown by who are teachers and who are cleaners and gardeners?

  • Surely this phenomenon is significantly caused by the geographic fact that former white elite schools are located in former white elite residential areas?

  • So how does highlighting this “segregation” in schools help to lift the standards of education across the board? This is such a pointless waste of time and research. All it does is contribute to the politico-racial mistrust in this country. Thanks, Dr Gruijters. But I suppose academics have to produce research output or they lose their jobs, so the low-hanging fruit is always available to matter how useless the conclusion.

  • The municipal government of New York City tackled this issue in a novel way – they made it possible for students to attend public schools anywhere in the city (not just your neighborhood) and then created heavily funded “magnet schools” in poorer neighborhoods. This made those areas attractive to middle-class (and largely white) families. Now, cynics have pointed out that this was part of a policy of gentrification but the upshot was that it resulted in more integrated schools with better opportunities for children of all backgrounds. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned there. Having said that, the elite private schools are still mostly the purview of wealthy white families.

  • I have always been surprised at the extreme resource inefficiency of so-called “former Model-C schools”.

    On the one hand, these are ostensibly public schools that are open for anyone to attend. But because they operate on such a resource intensive basis they cannot survive on tax money alone and must charge school fees that make them inaccessible to 90% of South Africans.

    I have seen public schools in Germany, Japan etc. – far richer countries than SA – and they do not have anything near the level of fancy infrastructure you get at former Model-C schools – especially sports infrastructure. The desire by affluent parents (both black and white) to maintain this for their children has resulted in an exclusionary education system where all the best schools are out of reach for the vast majority of school children.

  • The writer conveniently leaves out the fact that most previously white schools are located far from suburbs in which black people live, thus it is less convenient for black children to commute to these schools. It is also a case of cultures that naturally tend to congregate. These are issues which cannot be forcefully addressed and should not be either. Even in USA, this happens. Cultures should also be allowed to create their own culture-based schools as they always have i.e. German schools, Jewish schools, etc.

  • The statistics seem to be incorrect.
    According to South African Government, whites form 8.1% of SA’s population.
    According to Gruitjers “white students only constituted 3.8% of the overall population of children who attended school in 2021”.

  • What is the point of this research other than to scapegoat certain race groups ?
    Did the authors consider that people maybe go to school where they live ? This is government policy !

    Why not do useful research such as why certain schools outperform others ? Or, how many hours a day does the average teacher work and why the average differs vastly from the teacher achievers ? Or, why do Unions back up lousy performance, absenteeism, teachers having sex with pupils, drunk teachers etc ? Or, should the teaching profession not be made an essential service so going on strike is illegal.

    Do something constructive as opposed to useless woke jabber !

  • If we cast our minds back to 1994 we will remember how the brains trust, with overseas specialist input, set about transforming education in South Africa. Many will remember the name Bhengu. I remember meeting one visiting expert from London who was utterly clueless about local dynamics but waxed eloquent and arrogant about the reconstruction and the benefits that would accrue. Ha!!

    Large numbers of skilled teachers were lost and the downward slide commenced. Standards were compromised and pass rates were reset. Quantity trumped quality at the altar of the Matric Pass Rate. The drop out rate escalated. The effects are still plain to see and the situation continues to deteriorate when the entire system is reviewed.

    Please save us from foreign experts and academics who do not have skin in the game.

    The answer is NOT to tamper with the few remaining centers of excellence. The answer is to sort out all those “black” schools where standards of excellence are the exception. Where essential maths and science are little more than quaint notions. Where poorly trained unionised teachers know less that the learners. Where infrastructure is medieval. Where children drown in pit lavatories. Where resources are allocated in a way that they are stolen. Where a matric certificate is a useless piece of paper for most children.

  • Here are a few points to ponder: Firstly it is widely known, even by the average lay person that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. Secondly, in the years since the first democratic election, the racial make up of previously whites-only areas has pretty much retained a majority of whites in those areas, while areas such as Soweto or Alexandria remain dominantly black. Schools in the white areas, private or public, by dint of apartheid, became elite schools, while schools in the townships reflected the poverty of bantu education for the same reason.
    Is it really necessary to do some research to work out why any school in South Africa would not reflect the demographics of the area in which the school is situated?

  • I set out reading the article with some interest, then the reported focus on racial classification reminded me to racially classify the authors mentioned and I realised they were not representative of our racial distribution.

    Where does this continued and persistent approach of classifying people by race lead?

  • The issue is far more complex than it is portrayed in numbers. There are so many factors that contribute to them. For example, the tone for this research is to focus on integration. Sure, that may be one of the objectives of society, but it may not be the objective of a parent choosing to send a child to a particular school. Many want to obtain a globally relevant high quality balanced education that prepares the child for further learning-which would mean tuition in English by competent teachers. Others preference may be home language, cultural, or religious preferences. This is a very diverse society.

  • The Ministry of Basic Education has basically failed the youth and parents of SA!
    Obviously the demographic characteristics of schools will change the further one moves away from the cities and big towns because of the spatial segregation created by apartheid.
    But what is not acceptable is the fact that the governments and education ministers from 1994 have done very little to improve education and educational infrastructure in the black residential and rural areas!
    This is a terrible shame and an indictment on the ANC. Education was supposed to be accessible to all!

  • This article does not appear to recognise the children generally attend school in the suburb where they live. So the higher representation of “non-black” children at previously white schools merely reflects the fact that these suburbs are occupied by middle class families and black families are underrepresented in such suburbs. Thus it is not a consequence of failures in the education system, rather a sad reflection that there are fewer black South Africans who are middle class and live in middle class suburbs

  • Comments above on this article are all valid and should have been included in the article’s analysis. So this is an article from the HSRC Study and I think we would be doing better reading the study ourselves. Comments like ” Indian students (1.5% of the population) are also overrepresented in public schools (6%) and elite private schools (13%).” This reminds me of the famous statement there are too many coloureds in the Western Cape. Graphs, from 1994 would also show better of where we have come from and where we are going to.

  • Thank you everyone. Your comments have been far more interesting and relevant than the article itself. Kudos to Daily Maverick for providing useful material from readers when the actual selected article fails dismally.

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