But half of this year's cohort – most of whom were born in 1994 – left school before taking the final exams. And those who stayed continued to turn away from difficult subjects, for instance preferring maths literacy to maths. There are many poverty-stricken roads that lead pupils to drop out or opt for easier subjects. But the growing competition between schools for certain pupils and between guardians for certain schools is one important structural reason. Over the past 20 years the educational market has expanded massively in scope and geographical scale – and a prestige good in this market is matric results.
In the 1990s South African schools gained greater autonomy and came to rely increasingly on fees. This and the end of formal segregation succeeded in creating a single education system, but one with steep hierarchies. The chasm between a dilapidated township school and a suburban school with a swimming pool speaks to the obvious legacy of apartheid inequalities. But matric or national senior certificate results also play a huge role in symbolising a school's place in the pecking order.
At the top of the public schooling hierarchy are invariably former white schools. Elite schools, from which powerful networks emerge, have always offered more than academic qualifications. But some have established sophisticated marketing departments that scour the city for potential sports stars to whom they offer bursaries. Principals are becoming more like chief executives, tasked by governing bodies to select the right students, including interrogating the finances of potential pupils' parents.
In what is seen as a virtuous cycle, especially in boys' schools, success on the sports field attracts high-achieving and wealthy students, and vice versa. Students who excel in historically white sports, especially rugby, can win lucrative bursaries. And the pupils in most of these schools are now quite racially diverse, if predominantly middle class.
Worsening academic results
Losing prestige means losing fees, which means losing teachers, which means worsening academic results. And for former white schools and township schools lower down the hierarchy, healthy pass rates are key indicators of continued quality. To keep up marks, potential failing pupils can be encouraged to leave or choose easier subjects. Where do they go? If they don't drop out of the system, they will attend worse-performing schools, also under intense pressure to find ways to improve their results, including through holding back pupils in Grade 11 or channelling them into easier subjects.
And then there are rural schools. When local guardians have the finances and urban networks they prefer to send children to city schools. The absence of better-off pupils can reduce the status of a local school and its ability to nurture pupils toward the final exams.
If growing selection signals the partial death of the community school, this also works through displacement – when a child is forced to attend a school worse than their local one. Just ask a shack dweller or domestic worker living in a suburb how hard it is for her child to gain admittance to a prestigious local school. Again, some of these pupils will drop out.
Both a cause and a consequence of this selection and competition is the massive travelling for schooling that takes place in South Africa. Every weekday, in every South African city, scores of taxis, buses and cars move children, black and white, long distances to attend schools.
Apartheid's stubborn geography means that many children cross past racial lines to attend more prestigious schools. But no one predicted the huge amount of movement for schooling that takes place within racially defined areas, such as townships and former white suburbs.
As pupils travel to move up the schooling hierarchy they take with them fees – a strong countervailing force to funding formulas that seek to redistribute resources.
There are growing similarities today between South Africa and the United Kingdom and the United States. These countries spearheaded an educational revolution in the 1980s centred on parental choice, a devolution of power to schools and greater accountability through tests. Dianne Ravitch, former adviser to presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, now publicly rejects this obsession with tests and competition, saying that they harmed the education system.
As the dust settles on this year's matric results, there is a wide consensus that the 73.9% pass rate is a positive development but one that can conceal deeper problems in the education system. Yet understanding the limitations of the matric exams will require a lot more than a technical assessment of educational quality. It is the structure and direction of the schooling system that also needs careful appraisal.
Mark Hunter is honorary research fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and associate professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough