Opinionista Michael le Cordeur 10 January 2020

Teachers the real heroes as matrics shine despite a struggling system

The 2019 matric pass rate of more than 81% is not unexpected, but all is not well with education in South Africa.

For the first time in many years, the matric pass rate is more than 80% and we boast the best results since 1994. For the first time in many years, no exam papers were leaked, while the number of learners who were dishonest has decreased.

For the first time in history, the matric exam (on 16 and 17 October 2019) was interrupted by load shedding, while the number of candidates who passed matric with maths is also decreasing.

This is how the matric results announced on Tuesday, 7 January 2020 by the minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, can be summarised.

To all matrics who passed: congratulations, it is well deserved.

The pass rate of 81.3% was not unexpected and is a continuation of the upward curve of the last few years.

Motshekga did her best to project her department as successful and effective, especially because she has little to show for one of the biggest items in our country’s budget.

However, it will require more than a good matric pass rate to convince us that all is well with education. Before I analyse the results, a few aspects of education on which the minister was silent, must be put into perspective.

I could mention many, but four will suffice.

Pit toilets

There are still 2,703 schools where learners use pit toilets. This is life-threatening (the deaths of Michael Komape and Lumka Mkhethwa are still fresh in our minds) and a violation of learners’ human dignity – in this case, the poorest of the poor.

Despite the R3.4-billion Treasury made available for this purpose, I see no serious intent or clear plan to solve this problem.

Ironically enough, it is the lack of problem-solving skills which is one of the greatest stumbling blocks of the matric class of 2019.

Absent teachers

The absence of teachers is a growing concern. An investigation by Equal Education showed that learners see the absence of teachers as one of the most important obstacles on their road to success.

Neither the SA Democratic Teachers Union, Sadtu, nor the department of education, has shown serious intent to solve this problem.

To mention one example: nearly 2,000 matriculants from Vuwani in Limpopo were moved to special camps two months before the exam after having no tuition due to a teacher stayaway. A classic case of too little, too late.


The violence which has plagued South African schools for some time now, including the gang violence on the Cape Flats, has deprived thousands of matriculants of the opportunity to prepare for the exam in a focused way.

It is an academic fact that any test is only valid and reliable if all variables are the same for everyone. Irrespective thus of whether Umalusi gave its approval to the matric exam, the truth is that the exam was not fair and just to all. Poor pupils are still disadvantaged.

Mother-tongue instruction

After 25 years of democracy, the education department had done absolutely nothing to make mother-tongue instruction available to all. By now we all know, and I have written about this ad nauseam, that a child learns better and excels in his or her mother tongue.

But this privilege is only available to those with Afrikaans or English as mother tongue. It is these schools whose names appear on the merit lists, it is these schools whose learners hold the top positions and it is these matriculants who are first in line for bursaries.

For all the other – mostly black – learners, it is business as usual. Their chances of success are extremely slim. The lack of mother-tongue instruction is one of the reasons South Africa is the country with the most inequality in the world.

High dropout rate

The results of 2020 must thus be judged against this background.

Compared to the class of 2009’s pass rate of 60.6%, the class of 2019 boasts a pass rate of 81.3% – an increase of more than 20 percentage points over the past decade.

This pass rate does not, however, give the full picture: only 60% of all learners who were in Grade 1 in 2008 made it to matric. Of these, 81% passed – which means a pass rate of only 39%.

If I can focus only on the Western Cape for a moment, one gets the following figures: in 2008 a total of 92,818 learners entered Grade 1 in the Western Cape. Twelve years later only 53,395 full-time candidates registered for the 2019 matric exam.

This means that 39,000 pupils did not end up in matric.

I am also aware that some schools encouraged their weaker learners to write the private exam, so that the school’s pass rate could be artificially raised.

The high dropout rate is an indication of poor tuition and the lack of effective programmes, especially in township schools. These schools struggle with poor infrastructure, overcrowded classrooms and social problems.

The department is partly responsible for this, due to the excessive emphasis on matric results.

On the other hand, little is done to help learners who have disappeared along the way in the past 12 years.

This means that these learners cannot be appointed in any jobs and contributes to the growing unemployment rate among the youth. It is these youth who become easy prey of the underworld and end up in the gang culture from pure dejection.

Many young people would dearly love to pass matric, but are prevented by circumstances beyond their control because the government, whose duty it is to create an environment conducive to learning, has failed in this task.

This all causes the fanfare which accompanied the announcement of the matric results to seem inappropriate, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth.


As far as the results are concerned: a total of 787,000 matrics wrote the exam; this includes 616,754 full-time and 170,964 part-time candidates.

The Free State (88.4%) managed to regain the first place they lost to Gauteng in 2018 (87.2%). North West (86.8%) surprised the Western Cape (82.2%) by gaining third place. This is a slight improvement of 0.8% for the Western Cape.

The Eastern Cape showed the greatest improvement and jumped by 5.9% to 76.5%. Limpopo (73%) is in ninth position, which means no province achieved a pass rate of less than 70% this year.

Pleasing is the fact that the marks of 47 of the 67 subjects (70% of subjects) were not adjusted – indicating an improvement in the quality of the papers. This includes the so-called gateway subjects like mathematics, economics, mathematical literacy, geography, accounting and physical sciences.

The marks of seven subjects, including business economics, were adjusted downward. The marks of a total of 13 subjects were adjusted upwards. This includes life sciences, most home languages (matrics are reading less), religious studies and new subjects like technical maths and technical sciences.

Poverty plays a large role in the results: this is indicated by the top three districts all being in Gauteng, which boasts six of the 10 best districts.

A total of 186,058 learners qualified for admission to a bachelor’s degree course at a university. Most of these are in Gauteng, while the Western Cape boasts the most distinctions. No less than 43.6% of matrics in the Western Cape qualified for a degree course.


A worrisome aspect of the matric results is that the number of matriculants with mathematics as the subject has decreased alarmingly, mainly because learners tend to choose the easier maths literacy. This is for the same reason which I mentioned earlier, namely to improve the pass rate artificially.

The average for mathematics is very low and in many black and coloured schools (I have only analysed the Western Cape results) maths is no longer offered. With a view to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the education authorities should give urgent attention to mathematics tuition, especially in poorer schools. It would appear that the child of the farm labourer is still disadvantaged.

The skills to think for yourself and critically interact with content, are lacking in most matriculants.

According to the chairperson of Umalusi, Prof John Volmink – himself a mathematician – more attention will have to be given to problem-solving. There is still too much reliance on memorisation rather than comprehension. Volmink is also of the opinion that some provinces tend to focus too much on the exam papers of previous years.

A learner admitted on TV that the last six months had been spent on completing previous papers. Matrics were thus coached for the exam instead of receiving tuition for it. This might lead to better results, but the skill to think for yourself and deal critically with content is lacking in most matrics. It is only when they get to a university that they are disillusioned.

Critical thinking

In some key subjects, such as accounting, there was no improvement. This required urgent intervention. The average of physical science, did, however greatly improve. A year after there was great concern over the deterioration of geography, a great improvement was also experienced.

It is good news that in a time of climate change its impact is becoming increasingly important in our lives. The bad news is that the responses to history papers indicate learners increasingly struggle with critical thinking.


In summary, we can say the matric results are the best since South Africa became a democracy. But the fuss which accompanied the announcement of the results creates the impression that it is a smokescreen to draw attention away from an education system that suffers from endless problems and poor planning, which does not justify its budget.

Fortunately, most teachers still see their task as a calling. Thanks to their hard work and that of their colleagues in the district offices, South Africa can boast a pass rate of 81.3%.

They are the real heroes who deserve a pat on the back. DM



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