Education for Reconciliation workshop in progress. Photo: IJR


South Africa’s education system is often described as a hindrance to socio-economic development. This seems even more relevant in light of the most recent World Economic Forum Report, which identified South Africa as one of the worst performing countries in the field of education, in the world. Under the "Skills" sub-category, the quality of South Africa's maths and science education comes in last place. Even though the Report’s findings have been challenged, including by the South African Department of Basic Education, based on the processes of data gathering and statistical analysis, there is no denying that South Africa’s education system is not performing as it should be. This article sets out to offer a comprehensive overview of the challenges and root causes of South Africa’s currently struggling education system. It offers innovative perspectives, introducing for example the concept of “woundedness” and the role of reconciliation in education. It showcases that a society, such as South Africa, needs to tackle its issues on education on a micro, meso and macro level – in the classroom, among societal actors and through educational reform.

A history of oppression and inequality in education

"In South Africa, the hierarchical structure of society, including access to wealth, prestige and power, was constructed to be on the basis of race through decades and even centuries of institutionalised inequality"(Taylor & Yu 2009, 5). Under the apartheid state, income inequalities were systematically structured along racial lines. The racist policies of the state were explicit and deliberate and this racial discrimination directly affected income and earnings.

One of the most vivid examples of the perpetuation of racist ideologies through an extensive process of social engineering in the history of South Africa is the schooling system and the implementation of the Bantu Education Act of 1953. The Bantu Education system was rooted in the systematic underdevelopment of black people and the differential access to education based on race. (During apartheid there were four racial classifications for South Africans. These were White, African, Asian and Coloured. When the term Black is used in this piece it is generally meant to refer to African, Asian and Coloured population groups.)

Segregated Bantu education

Until the early 20th century, virtually all non-whites were subjected to missionary schooling. This, in contrast to whites who received schooling directly provided for or subsidised by local governments. By 1923 it was compulsory for all children of ‘European descent’ to undergo a minimum of seven years of schooling, while it remained optional, and often exceptionally challenging, for non-whites to pursue an education. (Malherbe, 1925, 401).

In 1948, the National Party was elected to power with a strong apartheid agenda which included the system of white supremacy and the systematic marginalisation and exclusion of blacks. The Bantu Education Act of 1953 was aimed at providing the labour market with unskilled workers.  The rationale for an inferior education for blacks was articulated by the Minister of Native Affairs, Hendrik Verwoerd, who became known as the chief architect of apartheid when he explained the intention of the Act:

“There is no place (for the Bantu) in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour…  Until now he has been subjected to a school system which drew him away from his own community and misled him by showing him the green pastures of European society in which he was not allowed to graze.” (Pampallis, 1991, 184).

The Bantu Education system robbed the largest section of the population of basic skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving and instead, equipped them with a substandard education that effectively confined them and, in all likelihood, the following generation to a life deprived of the most basic of human rights.

In South Africa successive governments since 1953 essentially institutionalised this underdevelopment of black people through the education system. What followed was a 40 year period of developing a system of education that in effect exercised social control over the political and economic aspirations of black people. This served to reinforce social notions of superiority and inferiority between black and white, male and female (Biko, 2013, 174).

Education today bears scars of the past

It has been argued that one of the biggest tragedies of democratic South Africa is the lack of real reform within the education system. Post-1994 many public schools recruited black teachers, many of whom were themselves articles of the Bantu Education system. The administration at the time, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, followed by Thabo Mbeki, unfortunately did little to eradicate unequal access to quality education in democratic South Africa. (Biko, 2013).

In spite of the inferior quality of and resistance to Bantu Education, enrolment grew rapidly over the years. By 1988 primary school enrolment reached 5.4 million and secondary school enrolments almost 1.7 million, compared to 852 000 primary school and 31 000 secondary enrolments in 1953 (Unterhalter et al., 1991, 37). Today, most black adults would have been subjected to the apartheid education system as students, and now find themselves as parents, teachers and some even education administrators.  Peter Lee, South African blogger and activist, reminds us that, “by 1994, 85% of teachers in Soweto were themselves articles of Bantu Education.  He asserts that:

“These educators are victims of massive theft and systematic humiliation – both in their past, in their childhood and under apartheid, and potentially in the present if they own up to the fact of the situation.  The old wounds are just below the skin, waiting to be reopened” (Lee, 2012, 3).

In light of the complex Bantu education system, devised to ensure unequal education across races, it may be argued that it is not a surprise that South African education continues to struggle today to overcome such a deliberately divisive system, or that it still perpetuates patterns of the past, promoting inequality.

Half of the young drop out

Spaull’s analysis of standardised cross-national assessments, that South Africa participates in, shows that a large proportion of black pupils from poor schools are functionally illiterate and innumerate. Despite being an economic power in Sub-Saharan Africa and its massive financial investment into education, South Africa’s education performance is below that of many countries including low-income African countries (Spaull, 2013). A key indicator used by the South African government to measure education performance is the “matric”, or high school graduation, pass rate. Education researchers have pointed to the misleading use of this indicator, as it fails to account for the high levels of drop-outs.

Learner retention is a greater concern with rising drop-out levels from grade 10 to 12. The high drop-out levels are correlated with socio-economic status, with most drop-outs observed in the poorer school quintiles (Lolwana, 2012). Spaull’s (2013) research shows that “of 100 pupils that start school, only 50 will make it to grade 12, 40 will pass, and only 12 will qualify for university”(Spaull, 2013, 3). This means that half of the cohort is lost by the final year of schooling. ‘Second chance’ pathways are limited for young drop-outs, with an estimated three million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 falling within the category of ‘not in education, employment, or training’ categories (Sheppard & Cloete, 2009). These young people, who are mostly black, remain highly vulnerable to long term unemployment and under-employment (Nieuwenhuis & Beckmann 2012; Rankin et al. 2012).

Rampant unemployment

South Africa’s unemployment rate is chronically high at 25.2 percent overall and a youth (15-34 years) unemployment rate of 36.1 percent (Statistics South Africa, 2014). The disaggregated unemployment data shows that most of the unemployed are typically young and black and have lesser years of education (Murray et al. 2010; Branson et al. 2012).

Sectors that have traditionally employed low-skilled labour force have shrunk over the past decade as the labour market has shifted towards capital intensive production processes that demand a highly skilled labour force. Even when jobs are available, black youth are further disadvantaged by their lack of social networks (Rankin et al., 2012). Their white counterparts often have a great deal of social capital, they are connected to a network of inherited resources from which they are able to enjoy material benefits such as information about job openings and referrals (Rankin et al., 2012; Mogues and Carter, 2004).

Thus, sustainable policy levers to radically deracialise the economy will require coordinated interventions in the education system. This will require focusing on policies that promote completion of twelve years of schooling, improving quality of education, increasing access to a broad range of quality post-school qualifications, and providing second chance pathways for school drop-outs.

In summary: education inequality persists

So far in this text we have shown how injustices within the education system persist and have very real consequences for the larger South African population. A poor education drastically decreases prospects of social mobility and many youth are condemned to lives of fewer opportunities and a lowered sense of self-determination. In South Africa, the type of education an individual has access to is largely proportional to their socio-economic status, and because socio-economic status and race are so inextricably linked within the South African context, the danger exists for the further perpetuation of the stereotype that intelligence and development are the domains of whites and that blacks are largely uneducated and inferior. Poor schools have higher absenteeism, failures and drop outs, leading to higher levels of unemployment among youth who often as a consequence engage in illegal activities. Prospects of qualifying for tertiary education are also significantly reduced. (de Kadt, n.d., 27).

Social implications of education reform are key

The positive economic implications of an improved education system are important but it is the social implications that have the potential to fundamentally transform the South African society. The purpose of education should ultimately be towards the enhancement of individual capacities, capabilities and ways of being in the world with the aim of contributing to the building of inclusive societies. An enhancement of individual capabilities through quality education and the social awareness that comes with it has the potential to increase the individuals’ capacity for engaging with others and the environment critically.

Twenty years into the democracy of South Africa and there is a new generation of politically active youth who have no lived experience or memory of the atrocities of the past. Yet, they face increasing challenges in the form of escalating violent crimes, some levels of enduring poverty, inequality and unemployment. For a large sector of the population material change is yet to come. For a small minority, opportunities of attending former model C (previously whites only) schools or formerly white universities offer an escape from a cycle of poverty. Although it is recognised that education and transformation within the education infrastructure might not be the solution for all the social problems in the country, calls for equality and justice within the education system is particularly compelling given the potentially transformative power it yields if implemented.

Education as an agent for reconciliation

Reconciliation is a difficult concept to pin down to a single definition, largely because people attach too many meanings to the concept (Gibson, 2004). Wale (2013) points out that reconciliation must be conceptualised as multi-dimensional incorporating the psychological, philosophical, political and material elements. In an attempt to provide an operational definition of reconciliation, Gibson (2004) extended the concept beyond the interpersonal to incorporate constitutional principles, and institutions of South African democracy. Other theorists have distinguished between two levels at which reconciliation operates - the individual and national level. Individual reconciliation places emphasis on the relationship between individual victims and perpetrators and is typically reflected in processes such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is underpinned by the assumption that truth-telling and remorse by perpetrators will lead to forgiveness from their victims.

National reconciliation on the other hand is concerned with the interpersonal and redressing broader structural issues that have previously shaped power relations and may continue to do so if not adequately addressed. From this view, reconciliation must go beyond the psychological, especially in countries like South Africa that have enduring socio-economic and psychological legacies (Frankish and Bradbury, 2012).
Education can play a crucial role in radically transforming structural inequality and unequal power relations. Its potential extends beyond providing avenues for social mobility and breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. It has a significant contribution to make in terms of “[unravelling] the apartheid-era social structure and create a more cohesive and less polarised society” (Van der Berg, et al, 2011:3).

However, the prospects for radically transforming social structures through education are continually hindered by poorly conceived reforms and continuing disparities in South Africa’s school system (Jansen and Taylor, 2003). While post-apartheid South Africa has made significant improvements in terms of education attainment this has not reduced racial income inequality due to inefficiencies and continuing disparities in the education system.

Educational reform is something that takes place for the broad societal level. In the following chapter we will explore why educational reform has not been able to eradicate inequality and how the issues of the past impact on the day to day teaching experience.

‘Wounds’ of the past impact the present

Martha Cabrera’s seminal work on “Living and surviving in a multiply wounded country” proves to be most useful. Cabrera worked as a psychologist in Nicaragua and kept running into blockages in sessions with people who had experienced severe trauma, both structural and personal. The essence of her findings is powerfully articulated when she asserts:

“Trauma and pain afflict not only individuals. When they become widespread and ongoing, they affect entire communities and even the country as a whole. The implications are serious for people’s health, the resilience of the country’s social fabric, the success of the development schemes and the hope of future generations.” (Cabrera, M., 2002).

The reality of generational woundedness has not been adequately taken into account when we interrogate the challenges faced by the education sector in South Africa. The wounds inflicted by centuries of denial of quality education cannot be erased by a decree of equal education as we did in the aftermath of the dawn of democracy in South Africa. The new democratic government was overwhelmed by the enormity of the task of addressing high levels of inequality, forging a nation out of disparate and warring groups and kick-starting an almost bankrupt economy. In the process, South Africa neglected the fact that the work needed to reverse the serious educational challenges.

The post-1994 education system was designed to promote nation building, inculcate democratic values, and address material and social exclusion of the poor (Msila, 2007; Van der Berg et al., 2011). As a result, a number of reforms were introduced at the various levels of the education system.

However, instead of starting with small, fundamental changes, starting with early childhood development and working incrementally through the system, we opted for wholesale experimental changes which further entrenched the inequalities. One of these experiments was the introduction of Curriculum 2005 which sought to introduce Outcomes Based Education (OBE) in all schools in 1997. The objective of OBE was to “enable all learners to achieve their maximum ability” by encouraging “a learner-centred and activity based approach to education.” (Dept of Education, 2002)

Critics, among them Rector Jonathan Jansen, strong advocate for an improved education system in South Africa, critique OBE, predicting that it will fail because it was ill-conceived and entirely unsuitable. Jansen suggests that OBE was technically flawed because the fundamental changes needed to transition apartheid education were not in place. Some of these fundamental changes would have included infrastructural adjustments to create classrooms that are conducive to learner-centred and activity based approaches, an aggressive teacher retraining programme and generous resource allocation.  Other issues, such as the lack of resources in most schools, the weak culture of teaching and learning and the shedding of teaching posts through a rationalisation process, rendered OBE toothless. Moreover, the politicians were under pressure to show transformation progress before the second democratic election of 1999 (Jansen, 1998, 9).

Uncovering wounds

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), founded in the year 2000, is a non-governmental organisation that was forged out of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process. Our Institute set out to continue working in various levels of society in South Africa but also other African countries to better understand the injustices of the past and find ways to overcome those in order to move into a better, more unified future. In the field of education, IJR works with education officials and teachers, exploring two aspects – the impact of the past on teaching and teachers, as well as on how to teach a challenging “past” in classrooms.

During its recent work, IJR uncovered that the “wounds” inflicted by the education system, both past and present, feature prominently whenever the blockages in education are discussed. After a workshop with senior education officials in November 2013 for example, the group found that the majority of South Africans, including education officials were suffering from unconscious woundedness. Most of the teachers in the system at the dawn of a democratic era had been victims of inferior resource allocation as well as carrying memories of trauma, in the form of beatings, persecution and in many cases even imprisonment as a result of fighting the “system”. It became evident that the risk of transferring this systemic and personal woundedness to subsequent generations is real and requires conscious efforts to address.  As an outcome, the group suggested practical ways of redress.

The first step would be a conscious acknowledgement that woundedness needs to be addressed on an institutional level. It needs to be reflected in policies and strategies to ensure that it is not perpetuated in future. The Education Ministry should have been proactive in ensuring that every policy is underpinned by an acknowledgement of woundedness and commitment to address and reverse the psychological damage of apartheid.  This commitment should then be operationalised by including therapeutic components in teacher training, retraining and enrichment.  It will however not be enough to make it a matter for the Department of Education alone, but nationwide awareness and advocacy are required. A wide array of stakeholders would have to be included in addressing the matter, not only education officials but also other officials, parents and the broader community. This can be done by strengthening the school, parent and community partnership and getting professionals from the community to contribute their skills, particularly in the psycho-social area.

Besides the institutional level, there are also some very practical ideas for teachers to implement. Capacity building and support for teachers, making them aware of the issue of woundedness and how to avoid it, become present in the classroom through their own teaching.

Working with youth. Photo: IJR

These practical recommendations tie in with the IJR approach to addressing woundedness in education through its education for reconciliation project.  The IJR has been working for many years to assist teaching institutions to uncover how best to teach the past and which brought IJR the Unesco Peace Prize for Education in 2008.

At IJR we believe that understanding the past is a key ingredient for any society to not repeat mistakes but also to move forward. It therefore promotes history as a compulsory subject in classrooms. It concerns the development of inclusive teaching materials that provide multi-layered perspectives on history, instead of one-side approaches of capturing history. To this effect, the IJR developed materials to enable teachers to teach topics of the recent history such as apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, providing perspectives from all racial groups affected; perpetrators and victims on both sides of the lines.  We have, for example, commissioned a diverse panel of history experts to write the text of the seminal history text, known as Turning Points in History, where the focus is more on the event as a turning point in history as opposed to focussing on the event as a right or wrong, “villain/victim” and “demon/angel” phenomenon. 

Because the teaching of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission evoked very strong emotions, we asked a broad and inclusive range of teachers to pilot our material, consisting of text and evocative video material, and to document the processes, methodologies and emotional responses - their own as well as their learners’.  This enabled us to develop a publication entitled, “An Additional Resource to Teaching the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to be used in schools when teaching sensitive material.

In conclusion

Considering the history of South Africa’s education system and the legacy of apartheid, education plays a pivotal role in transformation and change. Policy decisions in education but also for economic development since 1994 have often perpetuated racial divides and indirectly contributed to the widening gap between rich and poor that in many instances still runs across racial lines.

Exploring the concept of woundedness showed that even the work of day to day teaching is still very much impacted by the past and that concerted effort by policy makers, civil society and ordinary citizens are needed to firstly surface the issues, and then to find ways to work through and overcome them. An organisation such as the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation is but one role player among many to assist in this regard.
Working on the concept of woundedness supports the need for reconciliation for education. Reconciliation in education is both a catalyst and an outcome for society. A strong drive to acknowledge the importance of reconciliation in a society such as South Africa seems key for sustainable growth and development. Even though reconciliation is often intangible and difficult to operationalize, not dealing with the past and the perpetuation of inequality will in the long run be more explosive and disruptive for any society. There is no doubt that South Africa needs to address education issues on various levels to bring it into full effect.

Besides calling on state-driven structural and institutional reforms for education to address the macro level of the problem, addressing the micro level of day to day teaching seems as important. It is however not only between educational stakeholders that the shifts will be effective but on a meso level of active citizenship to drive reconciliation and justice is equally important.

Reconciliation for effective education

Nelson Mandela 1918-2013

Photo: Wikipedia

When former President Nelson Mandela passed away on 5 December 2013, the term reconciliation regained traction, not only in South Africa but around the world. It is a term that in many ways was shaped by Madiba’s life and work. His in-depth understanding of this transformational concept led South Africa to peace. His understanding was not based on the “forgive and forget” approach, but instead on the understanding that for the greater good of a free, fair and democratic society reconciliation was not an option, but a necessity. He understood that efforts to unite a deeply hurt and divided society would be more radical than a revolution, more radical than retribution and revenge. He saw his task in laying a stable foundation of a new nation, which he did with unwavering dignity and humility, epitomising the philosophy of Ubuntu, or “humanity towards others”.

However, reconciliation is a difficult concept to pin down to a single definition, largely because people attach too many meanings to the concept (Gibson, 2004). Wale (2013) points out that reconciliation must be conceptualised as multi-dimensional incorporating the psychological, philosophical, political and material elements. In an attempt to provide an operational definition of reconciliation, Gibson (2004) extended the concept beyond the interpersonal to incorporate constitutional principles, and institutions of South African democracy. Other theorists have distinguished between two levels at which reconciliation operates - the individual and national level. Individual reconciliation places emphasis on the relationship between individual victims and perpetrators and is typically reflected in processes such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is underpinned by the assumption that truth-telling and remorse by perpetrators will lead to forgiveness from their victims.

National reconciliation on the other hand is concerned with the interpersonal and redressing broader structural issues that have previously shaped power relations and may continue to do so if not adequately addressed. From this view, reconciliation must go beyond the psychological, especially in countries like South Africa that have enduring socio-economic and psychological legacies (Frankish and Bradbury, 2012).

Mamdani (1996) thus has argued for a balance between justice and reconciliation, in his critique of the TRC process which he critiques for its failure to account for the economic crimes of apartheid. As a result, post-apartheid South Africa has been grappling with the question of economic redress to achieve equity in the economy. Redress policies such as affirmative action have been implemented broadly in the market place and equity of access has been furthered in education, including broad-based black economic empowerment for equity in business shareholding. However, redress policies with their use of racial quotas have received less support from the white population and are often seen to be anti-reconciliation (Wale, 2013). Thus racial redress continues to be among the top political and social polarising issues in South Africa.

If anything, racial redress policies highlight the deeply entrenched and socially embedded economic inequality in South Africa. Mogues and Carter (2004) argue that where inequality is socially embedded along characteristics such as race, ethnicity, language, gender, etc. the threat for social conflict is heightened. It is critical therefore that reconciliation agenda in South Africa address the tough and urgent question of economic justice. Wale (2013) has argued for a radical reconciliation that is cognisant of the relationship between reconciliation, inequality and exclusion. It is well known that South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world and 20 years of democracy has not significantly improved the material conditions of the majority of black South Africans. Income inequality is disproportionately high in South Africa, and the country holds a long-standing record of the highest levels of earning inequality in the world (Branson et al, 2012).

Racial redress policies the South African government have been successful in creating a small burgeoning black middle class. However, the majority of black South Africans are still economically excluded (Murray et al. 2010; Wale 2013). Public opinion data from the South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB) show that a majority of South Africans are feeling a great deal of material deprivation, and consider economic inequality as the biggest source of social division (Wale, 2013). It is even more concerning that heightened frustration with material conditions has given rise to high levels of protests and labour strikes that have increasingly become violent (Alexander, 2000).

At the same time, social distance between the different racial groups has not improved in significant ways. The SARB measures interracial contact and finds that interaction across racial lines is happening but between the small middle and upper classes of South African society (Wale, 2013). This is likely due to integrated workplaces, schools and neighbourhoods with the rise of the black middle class.  Social contact theory posits that contact is important to strengthen social ties between groups and to restrain prejudices and stereotypes (Gibson and Claassen, 2010). Social mobility therefore seems to be correlated to increase in interracial contact. This suggests that transforming power relations has an important contribution to racial reconciliation. The inverse is also true that those on the bottom of the economic scale are likely to feel socially alienated (Mogues and Carter, 2004) and ultimately disengage entirely from the process of reconciliation.


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