Is There A Case For The Private Sector To Play A Greater Role In Public Education In South Africa?

After several years of meticulous planning, the government launched its Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement (REI3P) programme in 2011. 12 years later, this internationally applauded programme has delivered 6 300 MWh of additional power to the national grid. A further 3 500 MWh is under development and should be available by 2025. So the anticipated outcome of this government-controlled programme, financed and implemented by the private sector, is that almost 10 000 MWh of additional power will have been added to the national grid over a 15-year period.

In October 2021, the government announced that it was relaxing the licensing requirements for private power generation initiatives by the commercial and industrial (C&I) sector and would permit the national grid to be used to deliver power generated by C&I projects to customers elsewhere in the country (known as wheeling). Less than 18 months later, licences have been granted for the C&I projects which will generate 9 000 MWh, almost all of which is likely to be operational by 2025.  

In short, it will have taken 15 years for the government-controlled REI3P programme to add almost 10 000 MWh to the power grid; by allowing the private sector to do what it does best and, another 9 000 MWh will be added in just over three years. 

Now consider this. South Africa consistently allocates a respectable percentage of its annual expenditure budget to public education. In 2022/3, the percentage was 19%. No other African country spends as much on education and very few African countries – notably including Malawi and  Botswana – allocate a greater proportion of their expenditure budgets to education.

And yet educational outcomes in South Africa are abysmal. When it comes to literacy and numeracy, South Africa ranks poorly, even amongst African countriesOut of 50 countries taking part in the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PRILS), South Africa ranked last. The 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) revealed that 63% of learners had not acquired basic mathematical knowledge and 72% had not acquired basic science knowledge by Grade 4.

In his SONA address in 2020, the President set a goal of having every 10-year-old child able to read for meaning by the year 2030. Since then, largely thanks to the COVID pandemic, literacy scores have actually declined; according to the 2030 Reading Panel’s 2023 Background Report, 82% of 10-year-old children in South Africa cannot read for meaning in any language according to the 2030 Reading Panel’s 2023 Background Report. Even if the trajectory of improvement attained pre-pandemic can be regained, Prof Nic Spaull estimates that it could take another 86 years before all 10-year-old South African children are able to read for meaning. We – all of us, including the private sector – simply have to stop fiddling around and treat this as the crisis that it is.

In part two of this series, I will highlight one of the many factors which contribute to this disgraceful state of affairs before suggesting some ways in which the capability of the private sector could be used to address the problem.