THE country's ailing state education system has once again failed its pupils, with fewer than half the 511,000 school-leavers passing their final examinations.
Many of those who failed will not be able to return to their classrooms to try again this year for fear of clogging up the system, and most will not find jobs, which are scarce, without a school qualification.
Education minister Kader Asmal, who took up his post after the elections in June, is seeking a 5 per cent improvement in performance next year - a bold commitment in a land whose education system remains beset by problems and strapped for human and material resources.
In South Africa, school-leaving (matriculation) examinations are completed in November and the results released in late December. Last year's overall pass rate was 48.9 per cent, a slight drop from the 49.3 per cent achieved in 1998, which Mr Asmal described as a cause for "sober reflection" rather than big disappointment.
The most recent pass rate is better than the 47.4 per cent achieved in 1997, but worse than 54.4 per cent in 1996. Only just over 12 per cent of pupils received good enough marks to qualify for university, and more than 1,000 schools achieved a pass rate of lower than 20 per cent.
The minister urged pupils who failed, and ther parents, "not to despair, but to work even harder and to seek opportunities in adult learning centres and technical colleges to complete their matriculation certificates". But the reality is that even if college places were easy to come by, disadvantaged youngsters have little hope of catching up in a couple of years when they have never had a good basic education or a solid grasp of English.
Mr Asmal said one positive sign was that the results, which have been see-sawing up and down, have stabilised in an exam system that went through huge structural changes just three years ago.
In addition, this year more poor schools did well against great odds, many achieving 100 per cent pass rates and proving to others that good education does not depend solely on money and facilities.
The education ministry will try to raise results by 5 per cent with a range of initiatives, including giving priority to the schools that performed the worst.
Subjects that fared badly - the pass rate for mathematics was only 43.4 per cent, for instance - will receive special attention, and attempts are being made to get textbooks to schools soon after they open, in the next few days. Last year, books reached many schools only in November, and several provinces could afford books for only two or three grades.