The Clearinghouse on International Developments in Child, Youth and Family Policies


 South Africa*


(Last updated December 2007)


Introduction and Overview

South Africa officially the Republic of South Africa is a country located at the southern tip of the African continent. It borders Namibia, Botswana Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho, an independent enclave surrounded by South African territory. South Africa is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.

South Africa has experienced a different history from other nations in Africa as a result of early immigration from Europe and the strategic importance of the Cape Sea Route. After the British seized the Cape of Good Hope area in 1806, many of the Dutch settlers (the Boers) trekked north to found their own republics. The discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1886) spurred wealth and immigration and intensified the subjugation of the native inhabitants. The Boers resisted British encroachments but were defeated in the Boer War (1899-1902). The resulting Union of South Africa operated under a policy of apartheid - the separate development of the races. The 1990s brought an end to apartheid politically and ushered in black majority rule.

South Africa is an ethnically diverse nation with the largest white,  Indian, and racially-mixed communities in Africa. Black South Africans who speak nine officially-recognized languages and many more dialects account for almost 80% of the population.     

Racial strife between the white minority and the black majority has played a large part in the country's history and politics culminating in apartheid, which was instituted in 1948 by the National Party (although segregation existed prior to that date). The laws that defined apartheid began to be repealed or abolished by the National Party in 1990 after a long and sometimes violent struggle (including economic sanctions from the international community) by the Black majority as well as many White, Colored, and Indian South Africans.                                  

Two philosophies originated in South Africa: ubuntu (the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity); and Gandhi's notion of "passive resistance" (Satyagraha) developed while he lived in South Africa Regular elections have been held for almost a century; however, the majority of black South Africans were not enfranchised until 1994.

The economy of South Africa is the largest and best developed on the continent, with modern infrastructure common throughout the country. South Africa is often referred to as "The Rainbow Nation", a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and later adopted by then President Nelson Mandela. President Mandela used the term "Rainbow Nation" as a metaphor to describe the country's newly developing multicultural diversity in the wake of segregationist apartheid ideology. The country's socially progressive policies are rare in Africa. By 2007, the country had joined Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and Canada in legalizing same-sex marriage.


South Africa has a bicameral parliament: the ninety members of the National Council of Provinces (the upper house); and the four hundred members of the National Assembly (the lower house). Members of the lower house are elected on a population basis by proportional representation: half of the members are elected from national lists and half are elected from provincial lists. Ten members are elected to represent each province in the National Council of Provinces regardless of the population of the province. Elections for both chambers are held every five years. The government is formed in the lower house and the leader of the majority party in the National Assembly is the President.

Current South African politics are dominated by the African National Congress (ANC) which received 69.7% of the vote during the 2004 general election and 66.3% of the vote in the 2006 municipal election. The other major parties are the Democratic Alliance party, the Inkatha Freedom Party which mainly represents Zulu voters and the Independent Democrats.

The Chief of State is President Thabo MBEKI (since 16 June 1999) and the Executive Deputy President is Phumzile MLAMBO-NGCUKA (since 23 June 2005). The President is both the chief of state and head of government. (CIA World Fact Book, 2007)

Local Administration

South Africa is the only nation in the world with three capital cities: Cape Town, the largest of the 3 is the legislative capital; Pretoria is the administrative capital; and Bloemfontein is the judicial capital.

South Africa has 9 provinces that are further sub-divided into districts.


South Africa is a middle-income, emerging market with an abundant supply of natural resources; well-developed financial, legal, communications, energy, and transport sectors; a stock exchange that ranks among the 10 largest in the world; and a modern infrastructure supporting an efficient distribution of goods to major urban centers throughout the region. However, growth has not been strong enough to lower South Africa's high unemployment rate, and daunting economic problems remain from the apartheid era - especially poverty and lack of economic empowerment among the disadvantaged groups. South African economic policy is fiscally conservative but pragmatic focusing on targeting inflation and liberalizing trade as means to increase job growth and household income.  

South Africa’s GDP per capita is among the 50 wealthiest nations in the world. In 2006, South Africa had a GDP per capita of approximately US $13,000 (up from US $12,200 in 2005 – a 6.56% increase), with GDP (PPP) of US $576.4 billion. Since 1994, economic growth has been positive (with the exception of 1998 due to the East Asian crisis). The GDP real growth rate approached 5% in 2006 (compared to 3.7% in 2004 and 2.8% in 2003) and employment creation improved. However because of the level of inequality in the country, South Africa is ranked 17th among 70 countries in terms of population living on less than $2 a day. South Africa has been performing better in terms of its economy than in terms of its human and population outcomes.

The Services sector is the highest contributor to the GDP (67.1%), followed by industry (30.3%) and agriculture (2.6%). The labor force in South Africa was estimated to be 16.09 million economically active persons in 2006. Of this 45% are employed in services, 30% in agriculture, and 25% in industry (1999 est.). The country has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, estimated to be 25.5% in 2006. (CIA World Fact Book, 2007)


According to the UNDP, the proportion of people living on less than US$ 1 dollar a day (the World Bank definition of income poverty in developing countries) increased from 9.5% in 1995 to 10.5% in 2002. In 2000, 34% of the population was living on less than US$ 2 a day. Using expenditure share measures (i.e. the proportion of expenditure for each quintile of households in South Africa, between 1995 and 2000), in 2000 the poorest 20% accounted for 2.8% of total expenditure. In contrast, the wealthiest 20% of households accounted for 64.5% of all expenditure in 2000. The poverty gap ratio, which is a measure that reflects the depth and incidence of poverty, has increased from 11.2% in 1995 to 18% in 2002. Income inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, in South Africa was at 0.59 when social transfers are excluded. It declines to 0.35 when including social transfers. There are many on-going programs and new ones that are aimed at improving the profile of South Africans. (UNDP, 2005)

South Africa as a country has taken a longer-term and more in-depth perspective on addressing poverty than merely looking at the monetary aspects of the phenomenon. South Africa’s anti-poverty strategies may be divided into two groups. The first set of strategies involves social security grants for poor and vulnerable people and households. A second set of strategies is ‘developmental’ and focuses on job creation, capital investment, training and financial support, often for small and medium sized enterprises.  

In South Africa, the provision of social assistance benefits constitutes the largest part of the government’s poverty alleviation program. By December 2005, a total of 10.6 million people, including approximately 7 million children, were benefiting directly from the various grant types. Grant beneficiaries represent 22% of the South African population, excluding other family members that may also benefit directly or indirectly because of them staying in the same household.

In the context of high unemployment, poverty and the increasing HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa, it can be expected that the demand for social assistance grants will continue to rise. The increase in uptake was further facilitated by government, with contributions from civil society, through the improvement of systems for both grant delivery and the dissemination of grant information to potential beneficiaries, as well as changes to the eligibility criteria.  

The government provides financial assistance for children, in terms of child grants, and school feeding schemes; and comprehensive social security for the vulnerable, including the elderly and disabled, poor families with children, war veterans, and households taking care of children and people in need. Annual expenditure on grants increased 3.5 times in the 10 years between 1994 and 2004. These services and grants constitute the social wage which was estimated at R88 billion in 2003.

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Government Agencies

Department of Labor (DOL): The Department of Labor plays a significant role in reducing unemployment, poverty and inequality through a set of policies and programs developed in consultation with social partners, which are aimed at: improved economic efficiency and productivity, skills development and employment creation, sound labor relations, eliminating inequality and discrimination in the workplace, and alleviating poverty in employment.

Department of Social Development: The Department of Social Development develops and monitors the implementation of social policy that leads to the reduction in poverty. It ensures the provision of social protection and social welfare services; and also conducts research for program implementation and public accountability.

Department of Education: The Department of Education provides leadership in the construction of the South African education and training system. Towards this end it works towards creating a vibrant further education and training system to equip youth and adults to meet the social and economic needs of the 21st century. It also works towards dealing urgently and purposefully with the HIV/AIDS emergency in and through the education and training system.

Department of Health: The Department of Health works to improve access to health care for all and reduce inequities. It focuses on working in partnership with other stakeholders to improve the quality of care of all levels of the health system, especially preventive and promotive health, and to improve the overall efficiency of the health care delivery system.

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Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)

The NGO sector in South Africa, including unions and local civic organizations, was started to address issues of people oppressed under apartheid. These structures empowered people and facilitated development. They became the incubators of democratic practice and culture in South Africa and played a significant role in ending apartheid.

The NGO sector today can be classified as having two main foci – product/service oriented; and lobbying/ advocacy. NGOs are perceived as progressive organs of civil society and work on various themes such as poverty reduction, gender equity, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment and environmental issues. Most are welfare oriented and are more prevalent in the poorer urban areas. However the voluntary sector in South Africa is still understood to be very 'thin and frail', though very much alive in present day South Africa. NGOs in South Africa are governed by the Non-Profit Act that is implemented by the Directorate of Non-Profit organizations under the Department of Social Welfare.

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Demographic Profile

South Africa is a nation of over 47 million people of diverse origins, cultures, languages, and beliefs. In 2006, it was estimated that South Africa’s population was made of Black Africans (79.5%), White (9.2%), Colored (8.9%), and Indians or Asians (2.5%). South Africa has a negative population growth rate of -0.46%.

The population is relatively young with a median age of 24.3 years. The age structure of the country is: 0-14 years (29%), 15-64 years (65.5%), and 65 years and over (5.4%). The life expectancy at birth is among the lowest in the world at 42.45 years. Females have lower life expectancy than males.

There are multiple ethnic groups. The major part of the Asian population of the country is Indian in origin, many of them descended from workers brought in the nineteenth century to work on the sugar plantations of the eastern coastal area then known as Natal. There is also a significant group of Chinese South Africans and Vietnamese South Africans.

Various religions are followed in South Africa. The 2001 census revealed the following: Zion Christian (11.1%), Pentecostal/Charismatic (8.2%), Catholic (7.1%), Methodist (6.8%), Dutch Reformed (6.7%), Anglican (3.8%), Muslim (1.5%), other Christian (36%), other (2.3%), unspecified (1.4%), none (15.1%).

11 official languages are spoken by the population; Isizulu (23.8%), IsiXhosa (17.6%), Afrikaans (13.3%), Sepedi (9.4%), English (8.2%), Setswana (8.2%), Sesotho (7.9%), Xitsonga (4.4%), and other (7.2%). (CIA World Fact Book, 2007)

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Social Protection

Because of South Africa’s legacy of poverty and social exclusion, the country has moved from a targeted social assistance focus to establishing a framework of comprehensive social protection that includes income support, asset and capability measures and social insurance programs.

In 2005, the Department of Social Development provided more than 10 million people with a range of social grants. These grants include support for the aged, disabled, war veterans, and a range of other groups and individuals. It is widely acknowledged that the grants play an extremely important role for very poor and vulnerable households in South Africa. For many households a social grant is the only source of income. Support grants for children have received specific attention in the last few years. The government is progressively extending the child support grant to cover children up to the age of 14. Children aged between 10 and 11 qualified in the 2004/05 financial year, while children between the ages of 12 and 14 came on board in 2005/06. In 2005 over 6 million children benefited from child support, care dependency and foster care grants.

Overall, there are at least two common forms of social security or social protection, namely, social insurance and social assistance.

Social assistance is a state-funded, means-tested system, also referred to as social grants in South Africa, which are non-contributory and financed entirely from government revenue. This scheme is means-tested and the onus is upon individuals to prove that they are destitute. The social assistance provided to individuals is in cash or in-kind to enable them to meet their basic needs. Almost a quarter of the population or over 10 million impoverished people were receiving social grants as of 2006. These forms of social security are commonly referred to as safety nets.

Seven non-contributory and non-conditional cash grants constitute social assistance in South Africa, which go directly to 25% of the population each month and indirectly assist many more. These grants are currently targeted at those who are too old (Old Age Pension and War Veteran Grant), too young (Child Support Grant and Foster Care Grant), or too disabled (Disability Grant for adults and Care Dependency Grant for Children) to work for income. There are no grants available to able bodied adults who are unemployed, despite the lack of opportunities.  Social insurance (also referred to as occupational insurance) is provided to protect employees and their dependents, through insurance, against contingencies/risks which interrupt income. These schemes are contributory for both employers and employees. The contributions are wage-related and the employees and the employers agree upon a percentage. Social insurance covers the traditional contingencies such as pensions or provident funds to protect against loss of income in old age, sickness, disability, medical benefits, maternity benefits, illness, unemployment, employment injury benefits, family benefits and survivor’s benefits. Occupational retirement insurance in South Africa is not available to those outside the formal wage economy.

In South Africa, two additional forms of social security are provided, as characterize most social protection schemes. These include private savings and social relief. Private savings are those savings which citizens save voluntarily in case of contingencies such as chronic illness, disability or retirement.  Social relief is non-contributory, needs tested and provided to individuals or communities in emergency situations, for example, floods, fires or other natural disasters.

The Foster Care Grant is a monthly payment made to foster parents in respect of a foster child (under the age of 18) who has been placed in their custody in terms of the Child Care Act. The grant amount is US $84 per child per month. A foster parent is eligible to apply for foster care grant once the court has placed the child with him/her. The asset and income of the foster child is a determining factor for eligibility in this case. For a foster parent to be eligible to benefit from foster care grant, the foster child should not exceed his/her asset with a value of US $35,900 (R 252,000) and his/her yearly income US $1,700 (R 12,000). 

A Care Dependency Grant is payable to the Parents, Foster Parents, guardians or custodians in respect of a child between the ages of 1 and 18 years in their care, who due to severe mental and/or physical disability, need full time care. To qualify for this grant the parent should be a South African citizen with an annual income less than US $6,800.

Child Support Grant    

The Child Support Grant (CSG) is paid to the primary caregiver of a child. The primary caregiver of a child is defined as any person who takes primary responsibility for the daily needs of the child and who may or may not be related to the child. The required age for children to qualify for this grant has been systematically increased since the grant’s establishment in 1998. In 2005, the eligible age for children was younger than fourteen years. All children who have not yet turned fourteen thus qualify for this grant, provided the primary caregiver meets the required criteria. The primary caregiver is paid to the maximum of six non-biological children and unlimited biological children. In 2005, the CSG amount was increased from US $ 23.7 to US $ 25.1(R170 to R180) a month. 

In order to qualify for the CSG, there are certain requirements. Firstly, both the child and primary caregiver must be South African citizens and must also be resident in South Africa at the time of application. Secondly, the applicant must be the child’s primary caregiver and cannot already be in receipt of a grant for that child. Finally, the CSG is a means tested grant. A primary caregiver will qualify for the grant based on specific income criteria. If a primary caregiver and child live in a rural area in either a formal or informal dwelling with a personal income of less than US $ 1, 842 (R13, 200) per annum, they will qualify for the CSG. A primary caregiver and child will also qualify for the CSG when they live in an urban area in an informal dwelling with a personal income of less than US $1, 842 (R13, 200) per annum. If a primary caregiver and child live in an urban area in a formal dwelling with an income of less than US $1, 340 (R9, 600) per annum, they will also qualify for the CSG. As can be seen, the means test differentiates between rural and urban applicants, as well as applicants living in formal or informal dwellings.

In July 2006, the Child Support Grant of US $25/month was given to 7.4 million households, the Foster Care Grant of US $75/month was given to 350 thousand households and the Care Dependency Grant of US $107 was given to 92,000 households.

Studies done on the impact of social assistance grants have shown that grant income tends to decrease as incomes increase indicating not only that targeting has been effective but also that the majority of grant monies go to poorest households. The Child Support Grant has shown to have a positive effect on nutrition, socially and economically and on the educational enrollment. (Leatt and Budlender, 2006)

Annual expenditure on social security grants increased 3.5 times in the 10 years between 1994 and 2004, from US $1.3 billion to 4.8 billion (R10-billion - R34.8-billion). During the same period, the number of South Africans receiving social grants increased from 2.6-million to over seven million. This number has now grown to over 10 million people, with the budget for social assistance at over US $7.6 billion (R55-billion) for the 2005/06 financial year.

One of the major challenges in South Africa’s is its unemployment situation. The unemployment rate was estimated to be 25.5% in 2006. Approximately 45% of the labor force is covered by the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). Many people employed in the informal sector, the “working poor”, the self-employed and the unemployed who are not covered by unemployment benefits, have no safety net. In 2003, the government extended its safety net to the unemployed by making provision for domestic workers in the statutory unemployment insurance scheme.

The challenge for South Africa is to offer the poor a safety net. Social security transfers do not cover sixty percent of the poor, or 11 million people (Taylor, 2002). From the period 1996 to 2001, the informal sector grew from 1 million to 2.7 million.  This growing sector poses a socio-economic challenge for South Africa.  The fact that South Africa has to effectively deal with structural unemployment poses an additional challenge. The Constitution obliges government to work towards progressive expansion of social security. (Triegaardt, 2006)

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Child, Youth and Family Policy Regimes

Status of Children

The South African government is generally committed to children's welfare. The law provides for greater educational opportunities for disadvantaged children traditionally black children through a uniform system for the organization, governance, and funding of schools. It mandates compulsory education from ages seven to 15.

Violence against children, including domestic violence and sexual abuse, remain widespread. Child abuse including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and assaults of girls at school by teachers, students, and other persons in the school community is common. The level of sexual violence in schools is also reported to have increased causing a higher risk for girls of contracting HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as unwanted pregnancies. While there was increased attention to the problem, a lack of coordinated and comprehensive strategies to deal with violent crimes continues to impede the delivery of needed services to young victims. The law prohibits virginity testing but this is not always enforced.

The government continues to increase its social welfare programs to children affected by poverty and the loss of parents, and, according to the Ministry of Social Development, more than 5.5 million children received such grants during 2006. Child support grants cover children up to the age of 14, but it was sometimes difficult for children, particularly those in rural areas or without documentation, to obtain access to health care facilities and other social welfare programs. Although there is no universal child or  family allowance, there are two means-tested child-conditioned cash grants: foster care and child support, described above.

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Maternity Benefits

Maternity Benefits are covered under the Employment Act, 2002. The Basic Conditions of Employment Act apply to all employers and workers, but not members of the National Defense Force, National Intelligence Agency, or South African Secret Service; or unpaid volunteers working for charity. 

Women employees are entitled to at least 4 consecutive months of maternity leave that may be taken 1 month before their due date, or earlier or later as agreed or required for health reasons. Women are required not go back to work within 6 weeks after the birth unless their doctor or midwife say it is safe. Women who are pregnant and nursing are also required not to do work that is unsafe for them or their child.

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Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE)

South Africa has an inclusive concept for the education of children from birth to 9 years of age, namely Early Childhood Development (ECD). It includes children in pre-Grade Reception programs for -4 year olds (similar to Pre-kindergarten in the US), Grade Reception programs for 5-6 years old (similar to Pre-School or kindergarten) and Foundation Phase from 7 to 9 years or Grades 1-3.

In 1995, the government brought out the White Paper 1 (1995) on early childhood development which defined early childhood development as: ‘an umbrella term which is applied to the processes by which children from birth to 9 years of age grow and thrive, physically, mentally, emotionally, morally and socially.’ It acknowledged that ‘the care and development of young children must be the foundation of social relations and the starting point of human resources development strategies from community to national levels.’ 

In 1997, the National ECD Pilot Project was launched after the announcement of the Interim National Policy on ECD in 1996. The aim of the Pilot Project was to conduct research and to develop systems and models for the implementation of new policy to ensure that children eligible for the reception year (Grade R) have improved access to quality education programs.

Two of the main policy documents influencing early childhood in South Africa are the Department of Education’s ECD White Paper 5, 2001 and the Ministry of Social Development’s White Paper on Social Welfare, 1997 which are used as the policy framework to inform ECCD in the country. Key points include: 

  • Provision for children zero to nine, with a special interest in the zero to three year old age group.
  • Placing early childhood development within the family environment, especially for those children under the age of five years. There is recognition of single parent families and families caring for children in especially difficult circumstances.
  • It calls for an inter-sectoral national ECD strategy, bringing together other government departments, civil society and the private sector.
  • It emphasizes service delivery in early childhood development targeting all caregivers, parents and social service professionals.
  • The registration of early childhood development services.

In addition to these documents, the Child Care Act 1983, as amended, provides for the regulation of early childhood facilities for children and the payment of subsidies/grants to early childhood facilities. These provisions are being reviewed within the new Children’s Bill that is being developed under the auspices of the Department. The Child Care Act, 1983 makes provision for places of care that include the following: ECD Centers / crèches, Playgroups, After-school centers, or a combination of the three in line with the definition as prescribed by the Act. 

The government has adopted an integrated inter-departmental plan for implementing early childhood programs, comprising the Departments of Education, Health and Social Development. Additional support from the Department of Public Works, Home Affairs and the Department of Provincial and Local Governments is also provided.

Many different types of ECCD services are available in South Africa. The two main categories of ECCD institution-based provision are public and independent. Public institutions providing ECCD services are funded by provincial departments of education and consist of pre-primary schools that provide early childhood services and programs for children aged 3-5.

A much greater variety of services exists in the category of independent ECCD institutions. Private, home and community sector NGOs such as training organizations, community and faith based organizations play a critical role in the sector. In 2001, the distribution across types of ECD provision was as follows: School-based (17%), Community based (49%), and Home based (34%). These institutions are funded through parents’ fees, community fundraising and/or donations of materials, with little or without financial support from the government.

Independent ECCD services include:

  • The Reception Year (Grade R) at independent schools;
  • The Reception Year (Grade R) attached to public schools, but managed by the school governing body and operated by a private individual or the community;
  • Independent pre-primary schools for children of 3-5 years of age;
  • Privately operated or community run crèches or nursery schools for children under 5 years of age;
  • Home-based provision for children under 5 years of age.

The DoE is working towards ensuring that all schools providing Grade R services receive government funding by 2010. Special focus is being paid to poor and vulnerable children. 

Some of the efforts aimed at expanding or improving ECCE include - incorporation of Grade R into the formal education system and increased budgets to expand access to Grade R. The government also plans to introduce Grade R teacher training programs; improve the provision of facilities for early childhood services, and make Grade R programs available to all 5-year old children by the target date of 2010.

The DoE has been making progress in dealing with ECCD challenges in the country. Grade R continues to be phased in. The target for 2010 is to have all learners (approximately 1 million) enrolled in an accredited Reception Year program. (Department of Social Development and UNICEF, 2006)

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Child Education

The Constitution of South Africa states everyone has the right to a basic education, including adult basic education and further education, which the State, through reasonable measures, must progressively make available and accessible.

The South African government faced a vast challenge in transforming education after the end of apartheid. The immediate goals were: (i) reconstruct a highly fragmented and deeply discriminatory education system; (ii) establish a unified national system based on democracy; and (iii) establish equity, redress, transparency and participation.

To this end the National Department of Education focused on unifying the education system and setting up new provincial departments of education. The DoE focused on establishing a more equitable system of financing and developing a unified policy framework in line with a democratic political dispensation and South Africa’s post apartheid constitution. Although there have been important advances in education policy and delivery since 1994, the National Department of Education continues to struggle against the legacy of the past and the impact of poverty and HIV/AIDS.

South Africa has made significant progress since 1994 towards ensuring access to education for almost all children aged 7 to 15 years (compulsory school-going age of the country). Improvements have also been made in primary enrolment by promoting the enrolment of age- appropriate learners.

Formal education in South Africa is categorized according to three levels – General Education and Training (GET), Further Education and Training (FET) and Higher Education (HE).

The GET band consists of the Reception Year (Grade R) and learners up to Grade 9, as well as an equivalent Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET) qualification. The FET band consists of grades 10 to 12 in schools and all education and training from the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) levels 2 to 4 (equivalent to grades 10 to 12 in schools) and the N1 to N6 in FET colleges. The HE band consists of a range of degrees, diplomas and certificates up to and including postdoctoral degrees.

Since 1996, the primary net enrolment ratio (NER) for children aged 7 – 13 (grades 1 to 7) has increased, from 88% in 1996 to 96% in 2004. Secondary participation rates have increased by about 15 percentage points to 85% in 2005 since the early 1990s. In addition, the male to female enrolment ratio is around 97% indicating the higher overall participation rate. The learner to facility ratio has also declined from 43 to 1 in 1996 to 38 to 1 in 2001 as a result of the emphasis on relieving backlogs, and indicating that more children are getting access to classroom facilities than before. 

Summary of education statistics (1996 - 2001) 

Indicators 1996 2001 2004
Primary Net Enrollment Ratio (%) 88 94 96
People aged 17 years who have successfully completed a minimum of primary education (%) 81 84 -
Literacy rate of 15-24 year olds (%) 95 96 (2003) 98

Source: Statistics SA, Census 1996 and Census 2001.

Since 1994, South Africa has seen massive shifts of resources in the education sector making education the single largest budget item (about 6% of GDP). As a proportion, this is amongst the highest in the world.

Education policy in South Africa is informed by the following legislation:

  • The National Education Policy Act, 1996 identifies the policy, legislative and monitoring responsibilities of the Minister of Education and formalizes relations between national and provincial authorities. The Act embodies the principle of cooperative governance.
  • The South African Schools Act, 1996 promotes access, quality and democratic governance in the schooling system. It makes schooling compulsory for children aged seven to 15, or learners reaching the ninth grade, whichever occurs first. It also provides for two types of schools – independent schools and public schools. The Act's provision for democratic school governance through SGBs is in place in public schools countrywide.
  • The Further Education and Training (FET) Act, 1998 and the Education White Paper 4 on FET (1998) provide the basis for developing a nationally coordinated system, comprising the senior-secondary component of schooling and technical colleges.

Enrollment of girls in the education system has improved over the years. In 2003, there were more girls enrolled in schools than boys, a continuing trend in South African schools. Though in the early grades, boys make up the majority of enrolment (51-52% in grades 1-4), in grade 5, boys constitute 50.5% of enrolment, thereafter, girls outnumber the boys and by grade 12 boys make up 45% enrollment. This positive trend  has reduced the gender gap in education. (Department of Education, 2007)

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Child Health
One in ten children in South Africa suffers from hunger (measured as prevalence of underweight children). The proportion of children who are severely underweight is 1.5%.  21.1% of all children aged 1-9 years are stunted and 3.7% suffer from wasting. As is the case for poverty generally, there are significant differences between urban and non-urban areas. In 1998, 42.3% of all South Africans said that they suffered from hunger often or sometimes. The corresponding figure in the non-urban areas was higher at 56.4%. Paradoxically, 7.7% of all children in formal urban areas are overweight. 

Given the high rates of income poverty in South Africa it is not surprising that food insecurity and hunger are both serious problems. Approximately 35% of the population – equivalent to over 14.3 million people – is currently vulnerable to food insecurity. Women, children and the elderly are more affected by food insecurity and hunger.

According to the 1998 South African Demographic and Health Survey (SADHS), the neonatal mortality rate (NNMR) in South Africa in the 1993 – 1998 period was 20 deaths per 1 000 live births, the infant mortality rate (IMR) was 45 deaths per 1 000 live births, while under-five mortality rate (U5MR) was 59 deaths per 1000 births. Preliminary figures from the 2003 SADHS suggest that infant and under-five mortality rates have remained relatively constant since the 1998 estimates, decreasing by 0.5% and 0.3% respectively.

The Department of Health is the main legislative and implementation body responsible for: formulating health policy, and providing health care services in the country. The policy on universal access to Primary Health Care (PHC), introduced in 1994, forms the basis of healthcare delivery programs in South Africa.

The services provided by PHC workers include immunization, communicable and endemic disease prevention, maternity care, screening of children, Integrated Management of Childhood Illnesses (IMCI) and child healthcare, health promotion, youth health services, counseling services, taking care of chronic diseases and diseases of older persons, rehabilitation, accident and emergency services, family planning, and oral health services.

Patients visiting PHC clinics are treated mainly by PHC-trained nurses, or, at some clinics, by doctors. Patients with complications that cannot be treated at PHC level are referred to hospitals for higher levels of care.

In February 2004, the government formalized the community health worker sector by launching the Community Health Worker (CHW) Program. This is aimed at addressing health issues and fighting poverty at the community level.

The two main programs aimed at improving the health of children are the Integrated Management of Childhood Illness (IMCI) and the School Health program.

The IMCI promotes child health and improves child survival as part of the National Plan of Action for Children. It is being instituted as part of the Department of Health’s policy on the NHS for Universal Primary Care.  Every child brought to a clinic should be examined for difficult breathing, diarrhoea, fever and malnourishment. The national school health policy aims to ensure that all children, irrespective of race, color and location, have equal access to school health services. The policy is in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which affirms the State’s obligation to ensure that all segments of society, in particular parents and children, are informed and have access to knowledge of child health and nutrition, hygiene, environmental sanitation and the prevention of accidents.

The services provided under this program include: providing children with health education, imparting life skills, screening children, especially those in Grade R and Grade 1, for specific health problems, and at puberty as children undergo physiological changes, detecting disabilities at an early age, and identifying missed opportunities for immunization and other interventions.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) at various levels play an increasingly important role in health, many of them co-operating with government to implement priority programs. They make an essential contribution in relation to HIV, AIDS and tuberculosis (TB), and also participate significantly in the fields of mental health, cancer, disability and the development of PHC systems.


In 2006, it was estimated that 11% of South Africa’s population or 5.4 million persons were infected with HIV. 19% of the working-age population (ages 20 to 64) was HIV positive. The HIV prevalence rate in women was highest between ages 25 and 29 (33%) and in men prevalence was highest between ages 30 and 34 (27%).

Approximately 230 000 HIV-infected individuals were receiving antiretroviral treatment, and a further 540 000 were sick with AIDS but not receiving antiretroviral treatment. 1.5 million children under the age of 18 were maternal orphans (i.e. had lost a mother or both parents), and 66% of these children had been orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS. 1.8 million AIDS deaths had occurred in South Africa, since the start of the epidemic.

The demographic impact of HIV/AIDS on the South African population is apparent in statistics such as life expectancy, which has dropped from 63 in 1990 to 51 in 2006, and in the under-5 mortality rate, which has increased from 65 deaths per 1000 births in 1990 to 75 deaths per 1000 births in 2006. Mortality rates in 1990 suggested that a 15-year old had a 29% chance of dying before the age of 60, but mortality rates in 2006 suggest that 15-year olds have a 56% chance of dying before they reach 60.

One of the biggest challenges the country faces is providing antiretroviral treatment to HIV infected patients. It is estimated that if 50% of people progressing to AIDS start antiretroviral treatment, then by 2010 approximately 388 000 AIDS deaths will occur per annum. This compares to approximately 291 000 deaths if 90% of people progressing to AIDS start treatment, and 505 000 deaths if no one were to receive antiretroviral treatment. Achieving 90% coverage presents significant challenges for the public health system, as it is estimated that in this scenario roughly 2.2 million people would be on antiretroviral treatment by 2015. HIV/AIDS activists, physicians, and opposition parties continued to criticize the government for failing to provide ARV therapy to pregnant and breast feeding women and thereby protect young children from HIV/AIDS transmission.

A further challenge will be the provision of care and support for the growing numbers of orphans. The number of AIDS orphans is expected to double between 2006 and 2015, bringing the total number of maternally orphaned children to 2.5 million by 2015.

The greatest challenge is to develop new strategies for preventing HIV transmission. The ASSA2003 model estimates that of the 530 000 new HIV infections in 2006, approximately 250 000 occurred in the 15 to 24 age group, and prevention strategies therefore need to remain particularly focused on the youth. (Dorrington, Johnson Bradshaw & Nicolay, 2006)

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Special Groups of Children

Child Labor

Child labor is prohibited by law; however, child labor is widespread in informal and agricultural sectors, particularly in the former homeland areas. The government generally enforces child labor laws in the formal sectors of the economy. The death of parents by HIV/AIDS has caused an increase in the number of children who have to support themselves and often younger siblings in households headed by children.

The law prohibits employment of a child under 15 years of age, or under the minimum school-leaving age, or over 15 but under 18, if the work places at risk the child's wellbeing, education, physical or mental health, or spiritual, moral, or social development. Underage children in the performing arts are allowed to work if their employer received DOL permission and agrees to follow specific guidelines.

Child laborers, including some from Zimbabwe and Mozambique, work illegally in the country on commercial farms, for the taxi industry, or as domestic servants. There are reports that children are forced into prostitution and that some children work under conditions that amount to bondage.

Violation of laws regulating child employment are punishable by a maximum prison sentence of three years or a fine of $2,135 (R15, 000). In 2006, the DOL conducted broad-based awareness campaigns about child labor. Prevention activities against child labor also included a government-issued child support grant which was modified and expanded during the year to cover basic living expenses of children up to their 14th birthday, and Regulations Relating to the Exemption of Parents from Payment of School Fees. Child welfare advocates recommended that the child support grant be extended to children aged 15. (US Department of State, 2006)

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Child Trafficking
In June 2006 the president signed into law the Children's Act of 2005, which prohibits the trafficking of children, namely "the recruitment, sale, supply, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of children, within or across the borders of the Republic." The penalty for violations of the act is up to a maximum of 20 years in prison.

The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children, sexual intercourse with children under 16, or permitting a female under 16 to stay in a brothel for the purpose of prostitution.

The country is a destination, transit route, and point of origin for the trafficking of persons, including children, from other countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe for prostitution and forced labor. A substantial number of persons are believed to be trafficked annually. Domestic and international organized crime syndicates traffic women into the country for the sex industry. Young men are trafficked chiefly for agricultural work.

The extent of trafficking operations is unknown, but the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported in 2003 that 12 major routes for trafficking operations made use of the country, including Southern Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe.

Trafficked women and children who work in the sex industry often live with other trafficked victims in segregated areas; are frequently under constant surveillance; usually have no money or identifying documents; are often in debt to the agents who arrange their travel; often work long hours, in some cases up to 18 hours each day, and on weekends and when ill; and sometimes are fined by their trafficker for infractions of arbitrary rules. Young men trafficked for forced agricultural labor often are subjected to violence and food rationing.

Trafficking is prevalent in the country and in most cases traffickers lure foreign women with promises of employment, marriage, or educational opportunities abroad. Traffickers often lure the children of poor families with promises of jobs, education, or a better way of life. Victims, who could be kidnapped or forced to follow their traffickers, are subjected to threats of violence, withholding of documents, and debt bondage to ensure compliance. Corruption within the police, immigration, customs, and private services at the airport impede interdiction efforts. (US Department of State, 2006)

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* Research and Reported by Manita C. Rao

Country Report on Human Rights Practices: South Africa (2006); US Department of State; Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; US Department of State; Retrieved from the World Wide Web at

Dorrington R; Johnson, L; Bradshaw, D & Nicolay, N (2006); The Demographic Impact of HIV/AIDS in South Africa: National and Provincial Indicators for 2006, Published by Actuarial Society of South Africa & Centre for Actuarial Research and the Medical Research Council; Retrieved from the World Wide Web here.

United Nations Development Program (2005); Millennium Development Goals Country Report; Retrieved from the World Wide Web at

United Nations Development Report (2003); Millennium Development Indicators: South Africa; Retrieved from the World Wide Web here.

South Africa (2007); Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia; Retrieved from the World Wide Web at

South Africa (2007); CIA World Fact Book; Retrieved from the World Wide Web here.

Health: South Africa (2007); Department of Health; South Africa Government Information; Retrieved from the World Wide Web at

Triegaardt, Jean D. (2006); Transformation of Social Security in South Africa: Accomplishments and Challenges for Partnerships in Development; Development bank of South Africa; Retrieved from the World Wide Web here.

Guidelines for Early Childhood Development Services (2006); Department of Social Development and UNICEF; Retrieved from the World Wide Web here.

South Africa: Early Childhood Care and Education programs (2006); Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2007, Strong Foundations: Early Childhood Care and Education; UNESCO International Bureau of Education; Retrieved from the World Wide Web at

Education: South Africa (2007); Department of Education; South Africa Government Information; Retrieved from the World Wide Web here.

Leatt, Annie and Budlender, Debbie (2006); Under What Conditions? Social Security for Children in South Africa; University of Cape Town; Retrieved from the World Wide Web here.

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