The latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) 2019 confirms what those on the ground have known for decades: South African school students are bad at maths. At primary school level, South Africa had the third lowest score out of the 64 countries. Things are no better at high school, where South Africa’s Grade 9 learners received the second lowest score out of 39 countries. Moreover, less than a third of all students in the final year of high school take maths – and only half of them pass their exams, according to data from the South African Institute of Professional Accountants (Midrand, Greater Johannesburg).

Understanding the problem starts with understanding South Africa’s history, says distinguished professor Jonathan Jansen of Stellenbosch University, about fifty kilometres from Cape Town. During apartheid, the Bantu Education Act of 1953 resulted in the under-education of people of colour. As Hendrik Verwoerd, Prime Minister from 1958 to 1966, infamously said: “What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.”