The South African Educational System - An Overview


In order to attend a South African university, a South African high school student must graduate from high school, which is a 12 year program. A Matriculation Exemption is required. The student must have taken four or more subjects from the following groups for a minimum of 3 years: English, a Second Language (usually Afrikaans), Math, Natural Sciences (Biology and/or Science), Social Science (Geography and/or History) with an option to take one of the following: Art, Computer studies, Accounting, Music, Biblical Studies, or Technical Drawing. The student must take a minimum of 6 subjects, four of which must be on the higher grade (which must include English, and a Second Language) with the ability of taking a 7th, 8th or 9th subject, which would add to his grade point average if passed successfully. The South African grading system is far more stringent than the U.S. system. It is extremely difficult for a South African student, either on the high school or tertiary level, to obtain an "A" aggregate.

There are two different "levels" of graduation from high school:

Highest level: Matriculation exemption
- Requirements: 4 of the 6 mandatory subjects at "Higher Grade" (comparable to U.S. Honors level courses - mandatory for entry into a South African university)

Standard Level: Senior Pass Certificate
- Requirements: subjects at "Standard Grade"

(Comparable to U.S. College Preparatory courses - this would not permit a student to attend university in South Africa)

High school grading scale:

“A” = 80-100%
“B”= 70-79%
“C”= 60-69%
“D”= 50-59%
“E”= 40-49%
“F”= 33 1/3 -39% (33 1/3% is the lowest passing mark)

Entry to most all fields of study on the undergraduate level at a South African university can be obtained with a high “D” aggregate or better.


The South African Technikons are recognized tertiary-level institutions in South Africa. Technikons (known until 1979 as Colleges of Advanced Technical Education) provide career-oriented programs, which combine theoretical and experiential learning. There are 15 Technikons operating throughout the country. They are recognized as providing the same level of study as a university, and offer the Bachelor’s degree (4 years) Master’s Degree (5 years) and the Doctoral degree (7 years). Technikons also offer certificates and diplomas, which vary in duration of study.

University grading scale: Although the grading range can vary a few points depending on major, the following is fairly standard:

First Class = 75% and above
2nd class+ =70-74%
2nd class- = 60-69%
3rd class + 50 - 59%
Fail = 0 - 49%

In all instances, a 50% is the minimum passing mark. In order to pass a subject, university students must achieve a sub-minimum of 40% in the Examination.

South African Graduate Programs

With most undergraduate degrees consisting of 3 years of study (the exceptions are professional programs such as medicine, law, engineering, architecture etc.) admission into a graduate program in South Africa would require completion of an “Honours Program”. These programs are generally one year in length and require a pass rate of 68% in the final year of a 3-year degree in order to gain admission. Places in the “Honours Program” are limited and competition is keen. Honours courses are by course-work and by special permission Honours Degrees may include options from more than one discipline.

Masters Degrees in most fields consist of a Dissertation/Thesis and depending on the program. Programs range in length from 1 to 2 years.

For more information contact: Roberta Paola, ADSEC/OSEAS Liaison for Africa or visit our website at:

Prepared by:
Roberta James Paola
Special Projects Coordinator for Southern Africa
Educational Adviser
Educational Advisory Service, United States Consulate, Durban, South Africa

Finding Assistance from Educational Advisers at Educational Advising Offices in South Africa

Educational Advisers in South Africa can be found at the following centers:

Capetown United States Consulate, Public Affairs Section
Educational Advisory Service
7th Floor, Broadway Building
Hertzog Blvd,
Cape Town 8001
Telephone: (021) 425 2410
Adviser: Laila Ganie

Durban United States Consulate, Public Affairs Section
Educational Advisory Service
29th Floor, Durban Bay House
333 Smith Street
Durban, 4001
Telephone: (031) 304 4737
Adviser: Roberta Paola

**Please contact the appropriate center to find out specific mailing information concerning the mailing of institutional information. Each post has a Washington address to which you can send information and avoid the high cost of international postage.

**There are currently no Educational Advisers in Johannesburg or Pretoria