The broader participation of South African society was crucial to addressing the educational challenges of the past year, Gordon Institute of Business Science visiting professor Adrian Saville said on Thursday in Johannesburg.

Prof Saville, the only African professor nominated for the Economist Intelligence Unit’s business professor of the year award 2012, said South Africa had world-class business and educational institutions, but needed to give more attention to education to ensure the country achieved higher competitiveness.

He said basic education challenges — including Tuesday’s annual national assessment results, which showed the national average grade 9 score for mathematics was 13% — needed to be addressed by organisations, citizens and business, who needed to capitalise on a probusiness environment created by the government.

"The single biggest balance sheet item in any country is the children. Those children will go on to become leaders, executives and policy makers. If they are left behind their chances of passing on a competitive legacy is eroded," Prof Saville said.

He said apartheid’s education policies worked against students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

"The explanation finds root in the deliberate under-education policy of the apartheid government, where for 40 years blacks were denied education in maths and science. To imagine that you can transform that structural deficit overnight, while hopeful, is probably naive," he said.

Nongovernmental organisation Equal Education says with about R12bn, South Africa could put a library in every school. According to a study conducted by the Department of Basic Education released last year, of the 24,000 schools in South Africa, 93% of them do not have a functional library.

Equal Education deputy general secretary Doron Isaacs said the education system had divisions that saw 20% of scholars receiving excellent education and 80% receiving poor education.

"These kinds of conditions are not conducive to learning. When it comes to the children of the poor they don’t have conducive conditions for quality education. There are few organisations stretched for resources and many more people need to get involved in order to build the capacity for education our country needs," Mr Isaacs said.