As I’ve previously written, I had the opportunity to visit South Africa recently and meet with a number of executives at companies there, as well as talk to people and observe various trends. It’s important to note that we at Templeton Emerging Markets Group pursue an active, bottom-up approach to investing. Even if things look bleak overall in a country, there are always potential opportunities to be unearthed. If we believe a company’s fundamentals appear sound and long-term prospects bright, we will invest where we see value potential. With that in mind, I would like to outline some of the key issues South Africa’s economy is facing that we are watching as investors.

Education

One of the most important areas of concern in South Africa is education. Without an educated population, a country cannot progress not only in terms of economic development but also because of political development. In South Africa, just like in other parts of the world, parents have a strong desire to see their children progress and have a good life; hence, families are willing to make sacrifices for education. Unfortunately, the government has not been able to supply enough classroom spaces for those of school age and many existing government facilities in low-income areas offer poor-quality education.

Part of the problem is tied to budget constraints, but there are also administrative and corruption issues. Corruption Watch, a non-government organization, said that between 2012 and 2015 it received more than 1,000 reports of school principals who had stolen cash from school bank accounts.1 It also reported school principal posts are so lucrative they are bought and sold.

As a result of these problems, a thriving private-school market has emerged in South Africa. One private-school firm we visited had more than 100 schools and was expanding rapidly, with more new schools opening each year. Given capacity and quality issues in government schools, as well as a lack of schools in newly developing areas, middle-class families are seeking to enroll their children in lower-cost private schools in greater numbers.

The school personnel we spoke with said even poor parents would sacrifice a substantial portion of their income to send their children to these schools, in an attempt to get them the best education possible. Some of the families lived in wood and corrugated steel shacks with no running water or inside toilets. The firm’s management has been working on a “plug-and-play” model where schools can be established all over the country with a centralized head office that manages information technology, curriculum materials, site locations and overall management.

Also looking at the government schools, I learned the range of quality varies greatly. Driving through one of the high- income neighborhoods of Cape Town, I saw a beautiful school with excellent buildings and all kinds of sport facilities. I learned students attending that school scored among the highest in academic standards in the country.

However, other government schools have overcrowding and very low standards. A school’s local governing body can charge additional fees to students to maintain certain standards, facilities, etc., which means the quality of education is better in wealthier neighborhoods, where families can afford high fees, than in poor neighborhoods where families can’t.

At government schools, teacher quality and training is seen as a problem, and apparently, it’s not uncommon to find teachers with only a 10th-grade education themselves teaching students in grade 12. This is a legacy of the so-called “bantu” education system during apartheid years, which neglected teacher training for the black population. With the tremendous influence that education has on unemployment and economic advancement, we hope that this area sees some progress so even underprivileged children have access to a good education.