The adult literacy rate in 2007 was 88.7%. South Africa has a 3 tier system of education starting with primary school, followed by high school and tertiary education in the form of (academic) universities and universities of technology. Learners have twelve years of formal schooling, from grade 1 to 12. Grade R is a pre-primary foundation year.  Primary schools span the first seven years of schooling. The Senior Certificate examination takes place at the end of grade 12 and is necessary for tertiary studies at a South African university.

Public universities in South Africa are divided into three types: traditional universities, which offer theoretically oriented university degrees; universities of technology (“Technikons”), which offer vocational oriented diplomas and degrees; and comprehensive universities, which offer both types of qualification. There are 23 public universities in South Africa: 11 traditional universities, 6 universities of technology and 6 comprehensive universities.

Under apartheid, schools for blacks were subject to discrimination through inadequate funding and a separate syllabus called Bantu Education which was only designed to give them sufficient skills to work as labourers. In 2004, South Africa started reforming its higher education system, merging and incorporating small universities into larger institutions, and renaming all higher education institutions “university” to redress these imbalances. By 2015, 1.4 million students in higher education have benefited from a financial aid scheme which was promulgated in 1999.