Universities in South Africa (June 2018)

Universities in South Africa (June 2018)

A dark history

Tertiary education under apartheid was, like all aspects of life in South Africa at the time, hugely segregated. Prior to apartheid, access to universities for black students had been possible, although limited. In 1959, the Extension of University Education Act was passed, prohibiting already established universities from accepting black students, unless they were granted special permission from the Minister of Internal Affairs. Separate universities were created for black students.

By the end of apartheid, there were ten historically disadvantaged universities designated for the use of black (African, Coloured and Indian) South Africans, while ten historically advantaged were designated for the exclusive development of white South Africans (two distance institutions catered for all races). Unsurprisingly, the ‘white’ universities were more established and much better resourced.

Accordingly, South Africa’s higher education system was “skewed in ways designed to entrench the power and privilege of the ruling white minority”[1] and quality university education thus remained largely inaccessible to black students.


This began to change in post-apartheid South Africa, when universities opened their doors to students of all races. The journey to bridge the historical structural inequalities in education is of course far from over, but there are nevertheless some shining examples of change which provide hope for the continued transformation of the country’s universities. Many of the brilliant academics now leading some of the best universities in Africa would not have been permitted to study at those institutions just 25 years ago.


With the end of apartheid, South Africa’s universities also opened up to the rest of the world. As Africa’s main hub for English-speaking students, South Africa’s universities have seen an increase in international student enrolment. The country’s universities attract tens of thousands of international students each year, in particular from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which includes Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Given the international recognition of South African degrees, coupled with a lower cost of living than in most developed countries and reasonably affordable tuition fees, South Africa has also become an increasingly popular destination for students from further afield, including from Europe and the United States.

 International acclaim

South Africa’s universities have achieved considerable international recognition. Notably, five of its universities were ranked in 2018 as among the world’s top 500 universities,[2] and six universities[3] have repeatedly had several subjects ranked within the top 500 universities in the world (in 2017 the University of Cape Town had as many as 35 subjects ranked within the top 350 in the world).

With international acclaim, South African universities have been able to attract top quality researchers and professors from all over the world, including in some cases notable Nobel prize winners: the University of Johannesburg recently appointed the first African recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Professor Wole Soyinka, as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in their Faculty of Humanities.

Centres of innovation

South African universities and research institutions are often at the cutting edge of the latest internationally recognised research in exciting new domains.

To give just two examples among countless others, at the Southern African Large Telescope, the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere situated in the country’s Western Cape province, exciting research is being carried out by the South African National Research Fund and other international research agencies and universities.

Elsewhere in South Africa, thanks to the Witwatersrand University school of physics, (which, in terms of its work capabilities is rated in the top 1% in the field of physics worldwide) South African researchers have been participating in some of the world’s most well-known research programmes, including the experiments carried out at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider.

Women making waves

Black female professors are still underrepresented in South Africa’s universities. However, there have been several exciting developments recently. For example, in a country where mathematics education is a major source of concern, the recent appointment of highly accomplished mathematics professor, Dr Mamokgethi Phakeng, as the University of Cape Town’s new rector has attracted much acclaim.

At Rhodes University, chemistry professor Tebello Nyokong has been recognised internationally for her remarkable achievements in the domain of nanotechonology, notably receiving the Kwame Nkrumah Scientific Award by the African Union in 2016 and the UNESCO Medal for Contribution to Development of Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies in 2015, among several other international awards.

What future for South African universities?

South Africa’s universities are excelling in many areas. However, such progress is often overshadowed by several key issues that still need to be addressed. South Africa has been marked recently by continued protests around the limited accessibility of universities for those from poor backgrounds. Moreover, the underrepresentation of black professors, especially women, needs to be improved. As for South Africa’s formerly disadvantaged universities, they continue to be under-resourced. 

In most cases, South African universities are doing their best to address these topics head-on but there is much work to be done by the Department of Higher Education and by the universities themselves. There is no doubt, however, that higher education has a bright future in South Africa.

By Joanna Pickering, South African attorney


[1] For background, see Bunting I. (2006) The Higher Education Landscape Under Apartheid. In: Cloete N., Maassen P., Fehnel R., Moja T., Gibbon T., Perold H. (eds) Transformation in Higher Education. Higher Education Dynamics, vol 10. Springer, Dordrecht.

[2] The University of the Witwatersand was ranked in the 201-300 band, the University of Cape Town in the 301-400 band, and the University of Stellenbosch, University of Johannesburg and the University of KwaZulu Natal were all ranked in the 401-500 band in the 2017 Shanghai Rankings.  

[3]The University of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand, Stellenbosch University, the University of Pretoria, the University of KwaZulu Natal, the University of Johannesburg, and Rhodes University (according to the 2018 QS World University Rankings).