The improved matric pass rate makes the 2013 matric class the best since 1994, President Jacob Zuma said on Monday.
"We are therefore pleased to note this consistently upward trend in the matric results," Zuma said in a statement.
"In 2009, government set a target to obtain 175 000 bachelor's passes by 2014. We urge the 2014 class to work very hard to bring us closer to the target."
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga on Monday announced a 78.2% pass rate for the 2013 matric class. In 2009, when Motshekga took over as minister, the pass rate was 60.6%. It has climbed steadily since then.
"No education system can perform better than the quality of its teachers and the support of communities," said Zuma, adding that those who did not perform well still had a chance and that a range of learning options were available to meet the demands of those who passed matric but could not get into university.
"All is not lost … it is not the end of the world. The youth must know that they can still improve their results and go on to achieve the career of their dreams. We urge parents and teachers to support the children during this time," Zuma said.
The ANC on Monday echoed Zuma's comments.
"These results reflect an increase not only in the number of schools passing but also in the quality of passes," spokesperson Jackson Mthembu said in a statement.
"We are particularly pleased by the improvement in the key gateway subjects of mathematics and science."
The party congratulated the Free State and North West for being the first and second best performing provinces in the country. The Free State increased its pass rate from 81.1% in 2012 to 87.4 in 2013. The North West improved from 79.5% to 87.2%.
Mthembu said more needed to be done to improve the education system.
"While indeed these results are a cause for celebration, there is still much more work to be done. Our education system must ensure that no child is left behind in our quest to develop a knowledgeable and skilled citizenry … Provinces that continue to face challenges and have not performed well should put in more effort in the coming years."
The South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) on Tuesday morning welcomed the 2013 matric pass rate.
"The many hours spent by the candidates… not only in the final school year but in the entire schooling life … has been well spent," said Sadtu's general secretary Mugwena Maluleke in a statement. "The results can be attributed to dedication, tenacity and hard work that were trademarks of our fallen world icon Tata Nelson Mandela."
The union praised teachers for their part. "They are the real heroes and heroines … they have managed to play their part in ensuring that the doors of learning remain open to the African working class child."
Meanwhile, the South African Teachers' Union said the results showed that the public education system still offered excellent education.
"As proof, just peruse the list of top achieving schools on the list of the top 100 South African schools," the union's chief executive Chris Klopper said in a statement on Monday. "We congratulate the department of basic education for the manner in which the examination was conducted and the stability that it has brought to the qualification over the past years."
Klopper said the department needed to improve aspects of the education system. These included school-based assessments, the matric certificate pass rate, the standard of grade 12 examination markers, and the subject knowledge and methodologies of teachers, especially in the Further Education and Training colleges.
But the Democratic Alliance said focusing on the matric pass rate masked crucial indicators such as the number of pupils qualifying for tertiary education, the quality of passes, and the number of maths and science passes.
"Some may view the matric results announced tonight as a cause for celebration, but we believe they are a cause for concern," spokesperson Annette Lovemore said in a statement.
She echoed concerns expressed by trade union Solidarity and civil rights body AfriForum that the pass rate did not take into consideration the number of students who dropped out of the education system before they wrote matric, adding that the pass rate was not a credible measure of the quality of education.
Paul Joubert, senior economic researcher at the Solidarity Research Institute, said that of the 1.2-million pupils in grade one in 2002, 34%, (about 408 000) went on to pass matric. One reason for the drop in numbers was "culling", where weak pupils in Grade 11 are prevented from going on to matric to boost pass rates.
According to Joubert, the biggest problems in the school system were pupils' unsatisfactory language skills, including comprehension and numeracy skills. In 2013, only 2% of the grade nines achieved more than 50% in numeracy skills and only 17% achieved more than 50% in an additional language subject.
"These results show why so few pupils eventually pass matric. The big problem is not in the matric year, but in the school years prior to matriculation."
Meanwhile, AfriForum said that until the problems plaguing the education sector were resolved, celebrating a supposedly increasing matric pass rate remained a "political spin exercise".
The department and education experts had to resolve problems with delivery of textbooks, inefficient curriculum options, the paralysing actions of some education unions, inadequate training for teachers, dysfunctional schools, and a lack of mother-language education, the civil rights organisation's deputy chief executive Alana Bailey said in a statement.
"Independent tests find that the literacy and numeracy levels of matriculants often are so low that they have little to offer employers. The prospects of learners who do not complete their school careers are even worse."
She also said the implementation of a youth wage subsidy was of little significance when the basic education department delivered a decreasing number of employable people. "The youth is being failed dismally." – Sapa