A stain on the rainbow nation: how South Africa is failing black students

Picture this. After years of hard work, an upbringing without privilege, and against the odds, you find yourself holding an offer letter for a place to study at one of South Africa’s universities – the first in your family to ever hold such a letter.

The promise of a rainbow nation, it seems, is being fulfilled for you.

As you begin your course, you qualify for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) loan. However, with the average student spending in the region of ZAR30, 000 for each year of study, you quickly realise your NSFAS loan simply will not cover the cost.

Your family is in no position to assist, and no job open to you can ever pay what you need. And so, despite so much potential, you drop out. This, according to the South African government’s Council on Higher Education (CHE), is the reality for the majority of black and coloured students across the country.

The CHE report has revealed that 55% of students belonging to this demographic fail to complete their degree as a consequence of lacking the necessary financial resources. It also finds that of those who do remain, only 5% will succeed, as many are forced to take up jobs to supplement their resources in order to stay on in university.

As the report’s authors add: “access to and success in higher education is strongly influenced by the socio-economic background of individuals. This is especially so in the South African context where the large majority of black students come from low-income families that do not have the financial resources to support the pursuit of higher education.”

If ever we are to increase access and completion rates, it is clear that more will have to be done to address the legacies of apartheid. The CHE report concludes; “whatever the merits or otherwise of policy interventions that have been put in place thus far, there has been limited success post-1994 in addressing these challenges.”


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