The country's former government had the means - but not the slightest inclination - to gather the basic information essential to moving towards equity in education. For example, sites of schools, extent of facilities and how many pupils and teachers they have.
The School Register of Needs Survey, by the national department of education, tells a horrifying tale of deprivation, neglect and waste. For associated with bad education is a weak economy, crime, poor health and other societal ills.
One in four of the country's 28,000 schools has no water, less than half have power, only one in three has flush toilets, and less than half have adequate textbooks. There is a shortage of more than 57,000 classrooms, more than a million children need a desk and chair, while more than 100, 000 teachers have no chairs.
The most disadvantaged of South Africa's nine provinces - the Eastern Cape, Northern Province and KwaZulu-Natal - have nearly seven million of the country's 12 million-plus pupils. Those three provinces incorporate most of the former "homelands" previously set aside for black people.
The anger such people feel about the disregard of their education was encapsulated by Professor Sibusiso Bengu, the education minister, on the survey's release. He said: "The African child has borne the brunt of a legacy of neglect, corruption and wastage. Inequity, fragmentatio n and racism in the education system has had a profound effect on the developmen t of our communities.
"These shocking findings are an indictment to all who, by commission or omission, allowed injustice to occur in this country. This has to change, and it will change. I will not preside over injustice and misery.''
While Professor Bengu's anger is justified, his aspirations may be unrealistic. Around 90 per cent of South Africa's R40 billion (#163;5bn) education budget is spent on staff, with little left to improve schools.
But at least - and for the first time - South Africa now has a comprehensive database of every school, including its location, its physical facilities, the condition of its buildings, services provided, and equipment and resources available.
This was no easy task for the Human Sciences Research Council, the Education Foundation, and the University of the Free State's Research Institute for Education Planning, which ran the survey.
The 100-plus field workers who visited 32,000 institutions between February and December last year also faced many obstacles. These included "an unexpectedly high rate of vehicle breakdowns, accidents, thefts and hijacking".
There were also heavy rains, floods and snowfalls, poor roads, difficulties in locating institutions, and some schools being unco-operative or staff members being absent.
Nevertheless, all schools were visited.
Of the country's 28, 000 schools, 69.9 per cent are primary, 19.6 per cent are secondary, 9. 4 per cent are combined, and 1 per cent are special schools.
South Africa had just over 12 million pupils in 1996, with the highest enrolments in KwaZulu-Natal (2,690,950), the Eastern Cape (2,231,865) and the Northern Province (1,934,101).
There is no water within walking distance of 24 per cent of schools, and 11 per cent get their water from dams or rivers.
Only 43 per cent of schools have a power supply. In Northern Province, 79 per cent of schools have no electricity.
Many school buildings are in poor condition, and there is a shortage of 270,000 toilets, especially in KwaZulu-Natal. Where there are toilets, 47 per cent are pit latrines.
While 62 per cent of schools have sufficient stationery, only 49 per cent have adequate textbooks, 73 per cent have no learning equipment and 69 per cent have no materials.
Nationally, more than 57,500 classrooms are needed, three-quarters of them in the three provinces of Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Northern Province.
Facilities for specialised subjects in secondary schools - for example laboratories - are almost non-existent in the Eastern Cape (15 per cent) and Northern Province (18 per cent), while in KwaZulu-Natal, North West and Mpumalanga, fewer than half of schools had these facilities.
Between 44 per cent and 47 per cent of schools in KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, Eastern Cape, Northern Province and the Western Cape have no sports facilities.
While the value of cataloguing the whereabouts and conditions of schools cannot be minimised, for South Africa's national education department the problem still remains one of delivery.