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School sports in South Africa 

11 January 2020 


School sports in South Africa is an important part of the school culture - at least in the traditionally white schools. To understand the sporting scene at South African schools requires some knowledge of the history of schooling in the country generally. Note that this history is highly contentious, due to the mix of race, language and political dominance that forms part of education in South Africa today. This article does not attempt to address or even acknowledge or credit political or social issues and viewpoints in any meaningful way.

Researched firstly done by viewing the country on Google maps, and plotting the visible presence of a swimming pool at schools. Blue swimming pools at a school are taken as evidence of good school governance, and an aquatic sports culture. Dead pools, shown with black pins, show the opposite, while many schools have neither a function or a dead pool, shown with a grey pin, indicating an indifference to aquatic sports. 

Secondly school websites and any other online publications as well as social media was searched for any evidence of aquatic sports. Many schools were found to have competitive swimming programs while lacking their own swimming pool. The creation and continued existence of a functioning pool is often recorded in the history of a school - where such histories are published online.

South Africa has more than 25,000 schools - about 23 000 of which are state schools catering fro 12 million pupils (in 2016). Some schools have just a handful of pupils while others have thousands of children. The majority have no swimming pools, and many have visible sports fields. There are also about 2000 private schools, catering for 400 000 pupils. Most of these private schools have been created since 1990. Private schools - named "Independent Schools" since the 1996 Schools Act - range from small ones built by parents who fund raised, to large institutions that form part of companies listed on the Stock Exchange. 

See the map for the location of the swimming pools.

Traditionally there are basically four "racial" groups in the country - whites, blacks, coloureds and Indians. This was the basis of the racial segregation in the country, which resulted in the creation of racially specific communities, and each with their own schools.  Depending on their political leanings, many authors have sought to deny this distinction; seen when they refer to "so-called" coloured or black persons. However one views the idea of race - as biological or merely a "social construct", it is a very real factor to consider when analysing children sporting activities in their educational context. South Africa still has this separation of races today, as most people choose to continue living amongst those of their own race, and most schools are populated by children of one race group only. 

Schools have traditionally been a battleground in the ongoing fight for political dominance in South Africa.  It is often postulated that the Europeans used education to "subjugate" indigenous populations and enable their economic exploitation. Today education and schools are highly politicized by the government in it's struggle to assert dominance over the white members of society.

There are still "white" schools - particularly where the language medium is Afrikaans, and where the teachers and staff are mostly whites. Afrikaans schools are often targeted by black activists who enroll their children in Afrikaans schools, and then demand the school provides English-language education for their children. Due to the phenomenon of "white flight", many former white schools are now entirely black - both staff and pupils. The new managers of these schools always retain the trappings of "colonial" education introduced by the former rulers, such as colours blazers, inter-house sports competitions and trophies dating back decades. Wealthy whites create private schools where they control access through high fees and language policies.


Children are the future of any society and culture, and schools are the incubators of that culture. The focus of this article is school sports in South Africa in 2020, as portrayed online. The issues addressed in this article are important to South Africans and for those emigrants who still remember their roots.

To provide a reference point, research was done firstly by viewing the country on Google maps, and plotting the visible presence of a swimming pool at schools. Blue swimming pools at a school (or a town) are taken as evidence of an aquatic sports culture, and of good governance. Dead pools, shown with black pins show the opposite, and grey pins indicate neither a functioning nor a dead pool, suggesting an indifference to aquatic sports at that location. 

Secondly, websites and any other online publications as well as social media were searched for any evidence of aquatic sports. Many schools were found to have competitive swimming programs while lacking their own swimming pool. The creation and continued existence of a functioning pool is often recorded in the history of a school - where such histories are published online. See the map for the location of the swimming pools.


One might ask: Does South Africa have a system of school sport? In reply one might say that the 2019 Rugby World Cup victory of the Springboks was a direct outcome of South African school’s rugby.

This begs the question: How did it become so good, and will it endure? For answer the first part of that question one would need to understand something of the history of school sports in the country. The second part is a reference to the future of South African society.

Success in sports requires four things: namely suitably talented athlete with the right attitude; a good coach; adequate facilities and finally a system of competition at the appropriate level. South African schools have developed all of these.

Whether it will endure depends on the political leadership. One might argue that world class politicians require the same: suitably talented (intelligent) people with the right attitude (serve the people), properly coached (educators at school and university) at world class facilities (schools and universities) and finally a system of competition (elections) free from corruption.

 Alas, South Africa does not seem have any leaders with these qualities, which would suggest the high performing school system might not survive. One only needs to look at neighbouring Zimbabwe provides an example of exactly how a high performing system was destroyed by inefficient and corrupt leadership. On the bright side – such incompetence is unlikely to overcome determined efforts to resist its corrosive influence on society.


NOTE: There is a large body of literature on the history of South Africa, complete with pronouncements on the motives of the various actors. So, education provided by whites for non-whites was always “inferior” and designed to “subjugate” or “disadvantage” etc. The underlying premise is always that whites owed the blacks an equal world to the one they created for themselves, and that they deliberately failed to do so in order to take advantage of the blacks. This narrative is not universally accepted by white South Africans.

The arrival of the Dutch in 1652, the discovery of gold at the Witwatersrand, the Boer War, 1994 election, the 1996 South African Schools Act and the resultant “white flight” from state schools and the introduction of racial quotas in school sports team selection, were all significant events that help form the sporting landscape in the county’s schools by 2020.

The races of South Africa

Bushmen and Hottentots – today known as the San and the Koi or Khoekoe - were the only humans at the Cape when the Europeans began to arrive along the coast in the late 1400’s.

Europeans settled in South Africa when the Dutch VOC built a base at Cape Town in 1652. Schools were set up to teach the children of the white settlers, and for the children of  migrate eastwards along the coast and into the interior, taking their coloured slaves with them, their children’s schooling was limited to reading the bible.

Coloured - or “mixed race” - communities grew from children of South East Asian, Chinese and black slaves and prisoners of the VOC, as well as Bushmen and Hottentot women. They are found mostly in the Cape province.

Bantu tribes migrated south along the eastern seaboard from central Africa. By 1816 the small Zulu tribe under Shaka conquered northern Natal, pushing other tribes like the Xhosa south into Transkei region and Swazis and Sothos into the crags of the Drakensberg. Other tribes like the Venda migrated westwards onto the highveld of the Northern Transvaal.

Indians, both Muslims and Hindus, first came to the Cape both as political prisoners and free labourers and soldiers of the Dutch VOC. Their where their descendants became part of the coloured community. From 1860 Indians were brought to Natal in large numbers to work as indentured labourers. From 1869 free “passenger Indians” came to live and work as traders in Natal, and later throughout the country – except the Orange Free State that legislated in 1876 that no Indian may stay overnight in the country.

Chinese immigrants also began to arrive after 1870, to work on the diamond and gold mines. Today they little part in South African school sports, although former world champion open water swimmer Chad Ho is of Chinese extraction. An annual sports festival has been held since 1960, where they play basketball, badminton, golf, table tennis, shooting, soccer and squash.

The Schools

Schools in South Africa a diverse in their design on scope. They range from the 1856 Grey High school, with its Victorian bell-tower and two swimming pools set in the leafy suburb of Mill Park in Port Elizabeth, to the typical flat-roofed structures without playing fields commonly found in the townships.

Regardless of age of size, there is a visible difference in the physical condition of schools – often in adjacent properties. Some are immaculately maintained, while others appear derelict.

During the 1700’s the Cape experienced an influx of Christian missionaries, who play an important role in the history of schooling in the country. They established schools with a focus on baptizing and educating the non-European children. After the sale of the Cape to Great Britain in 1806, church-run and funded schools appeared all over the Colony. Church schools are an important part of competitive school sports in South Africa today, as they are top ranked schools in several disciplines.

By Union in 1910 each province had state schools for the separate race group, which were managed separately. White schools are divided between Afrikaans, English and dual medium, or separate parallel classes of both languages in one school. Some were single sex, although most state schools are mixed. They were mostly suburban, although many platteland children were educated in a single room plaasskool. Until 1994 white children largely attended their nearest state school with other white children from the same suburban socio-economic class and language. Private schools were relatively rare, and mostly found in the larger cities. A few notable institutions developed in rural locations – particularly in Natal. In the Transvaal the government ignored mission schools that catered for blacks – if they did not have to provide any finance for them.

The Sports

Not all schools in South Africa require pupils to participate in organised competitive sports. Participation in at least one sport summer and one winter sport is compulsory at many schools, while others have no participation requirements. However, in those schools that do compete, they mostly take it very seriously. Success in sports has become a marketing tool for schools as they compete for a market share.

Schools in South Africa focus mostly traditional British sports – rugby, cricket, netball, hockey, tennis, swimming and water polo. Soccer, or football, was once popular at many white schools, and today many schools again field teams in local and national competitions. Besides these high-profile codes, there are many sports including horse riding, biathlon, lifesaving and shooting that are popular schools sports. Even chess and e-sports are considered part of school sports at which South African children excel.

The Athletes

To succeed at the highest level the athlete must have the right genetics and attitude. South Africa has produced world champion athletes in many disciplines -  swimming and lifesaving; rugby and cricket; pool and bowls; motor and motor cycle racing; rowing and canoeing; biathlon, biathle and triathlons; mountain biking, golf, athletics, boxing and karate and more. Genetics is a key factor in this success, but so is the sporting  competitve culture, and the wealth of the society. 

The Coaches

Every athlete needs an impassioned coach to succeed. In South Africa teachers were often known to take up the profession just to be able coach schoolboy rugby. This is probably the true reason for the success of school sports in the country.

Inter-school sports

Despite the modern trend of awarding “participation” medals to all involved, school sports at first team level is deadly serious business.

Organized competitive school sports in South Africa is an important part of culture at many schools. This is represented by badges and colours blazers that carry a great deal of respect within the school community. The sporting traditions and achievements of a school is fundamental to its stature in the community – both locally and nationally. It is created and maintained by the people of that school – it’s staff, pupils and parents.

Curro Private School

Private schools are thriving in SA

16 August 2019

Curro and other independent schools are clearly filling a gaping hole left by an overstretched and under-resourced public sector.
Curro just released its interim results for the half year to June 2019 and the figures tell a story of a company that has prospered at the expense of an overburdened public education system.

Not all public schools are terrible. Several rank among the best in terms of matric pass rates, and the better resourced public schools are able to match the academic achievements of the private sector. But Curro and other independent schools are clearly filling a gaping hole left by an overstretched and under-resourced public sector.

Figures from South African Market Insights show there are just short of 2 000 independent schools in SA with slightly more than 400 000 students. Put another way, about 8% of schools in SA are independent, accommodating 3% of the student population. The public sector has about 23 800 schools with 12.5 million students. This means the public sector is carrying a huge burden, with nearly three times as many students per teacher as in the private sector.

Since 2014, Curro has grown its number of campuses from 31 to 68 and schools from 79 to 164. It has more than doubled the number of students to 57 173 over the same period, a compound growth rate of 16% a year. Not all of this growth has been from the building of new schools. It has embarked on a programme of acquiring existing schools, which can be bought at a fraction of their replacement value, and applying its proven formula of ‘add water and mix’ to get these schools to the desired rate of profitability.

Curro has ventured into poorer ‘township’ markets and appears to be making a success of this.

Its mix of schools caters for budgets from R1 900 a student per month to R10 000 a month at the top end. That is still well short of the nearly R300 000 a year you would pay to put your child through one of the top boarding schools, such as Hilton or Michaelhouse. Businesstech put together a useful series of tables to show what kind of value these top schools offer in terms of academic achievements.

One way to retain students within the Curro ecosystem up to Grade 12 is to build extra capacity in existing schools to accommodate increased student numbers at the higher grade levels. Student fall-out rates are also contained by making it financially softer on the parents and by placing students who relocate to other parts of the country in a different Curro school. The success of this strategy is evident in the drop in school leavers (excluding those who finish school at Grade 12) from 21.4% to 18% over the year to December 2018.

Investing in learner retention

Speaking yesterday at the half year results presentation, Curro CEO Andries Greyling said rather than lose students whose parents had run into financial difficulty, softer financial plans are being put in place to improve student retention. This has resulted in bad debts as a percentage of revenue increasing from 0.6% to 0.8% since 2016, but the group has been able to recover 80% of bad debts within five months of year end. Some 60% of bad debts written off are eventually recovered.

One concern is the sharp rise in debt since 2015: to R3.5 billion in 2019 from about R1.5 billion in 2015. Greyling says the group’s generous earnings margin and robust cash flows are comfortably able to service this debt. The cash flow statement shows a near doubling in finance costs to R109 million over the last six months, but this is easily covered by cash generated from operations, and the group intends maintaining an interest cover rate of about three times.

“If we look at the growth in interest, it is high, but would we do it again – yes,” said Greyling.

“The growth in our Ebitda [earning before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation] will easily cover this [higher interest expense].”

It was important to increase capex in schools to increase capacity at the higher grades and improve student retention through the school life cycle, added Greyling. The real earnings benefit will come as student numbers increase at the higher grades. Having expended the necessary capex to build capacity, Curro will then be able to grow revenue by building up its student numbers at the higher grades without significant increases in operating costs.

The key numbers are:

  • Group Ebitda increased by 21% from R342 million to R415 million
  • Schools’ Ebitda increased by 20% from R409 million to R491 million
  • Headline earnings per share increased by 44% from 34.8 cents to 50 cents
  • Learner numbers are up by an above-average 13% from 50 691 to 57 173
  • Revenue increased 19% to R1.48 billion
  • Operating expenses increased 19% to R1 billion.

Going forward, the group expects to build just five new schools in 2020 and increase its focus on building capacity at its existing schools.