SA's state spending on education has been consistently high since 1994, but historical imbalances mean parents pay steeply for a better standard of schooling.
At least 60% of all SA schools are classified as no-fee institutions, but research shows that some families spend as much as one-third of their education budget on fees. (Other items include books, uniforms and sports equipment.)
In other sub-Saharan countries, public school fees account for only 15% of total education spend, according to a Unesco study, the "Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2012". It examined household spending on education in 15 sub-Saharan African countries from 2001 to 2007.
"In SA and Uganda, the share of fees is as high as one-third of total household primary education expenditure per child," says the report. Unesco found that households spent on average 4,2% of their total expenditure on education, with the richest fifth spending 5,4% and the poorest fifth 2,6%.
Unsurprisingly, rich households spend considerably more per child on education than poorer households. In SA, affluent households with children in government primary schools spend up to eight times more than poorer households.
Johannesburg businessman Donovan Reid says education is the biggest-ticket item on his budget. He has a daughter starting university this year and sons in grade 8 and 9.
"Education is by far the biggest single expense we have as a family once you have added the additional costs. Next would probably be food, as they never stop eating."
His daughter's first-year engineering course costs R40000. Last year, he paid R24000 to put her through matric at Northcliff High School. School fees for his sons, who attend Randpark High School, will cost R24680 each in 2013.
On fees alone, he is spending R89360 - an increase of more than R32000 from last year.
"Each child's uniform works out to between R2500 and R3500/year, depending on which sports they play. This excludes hockey sticks or cricket bats," Reid says.
And he forks out about R5000/child for extras such as stationery, textbooks and local outings.
"I feel the schools we have chosen offer a good, solid education but feel that, for the costs, the class sizes are too large, with 30-32 pupils, which has an effect on the ability to teach."
Reid believes government schools offer value for money only when they charge sizeable school fees.
"I do a lot of work at government schools in townships such as Tembisa, Alexandra and Katlehong and have seen how few resources these schools have. Basically, government schools do not give value for money unless the schools increase their fees to pay additional teachers and staff, which the parents end up paying for."
His business provides water tanks for schools and other institutions.
Reid does not have any education policies. "We have always paid in full upfront in January, which gets you a 10% discount. We then save each month through the year to do the same next year."
His situation differs considerably from that of farmer Mildred Janse van Rensburg, whose younger son is in grade 9 at Brandwag High School in Uitenhage. Her older son starts university this year.
"School fees are nearly the lowest priority. As farmers, we spend around R650000/month on farm expenses. Our housing mortgage is R17600/month."
She is lucky that her sons do well at school. Annual school fees were R6800 last year but she had to pay only half of this for one son and nothing for the other because of their academic achievements; one was Dux scholar, the other runner-up.
This year, the fees go up to R7200, annual hostel fees are R13650 and uniforms cost about R5500/child.
School-related activities such as trips and fund-raising come to about R10000/child and the family donates R25000 to the school annually.
"We believe we are getting value for money at a government school as we are privileged with the quality of the teachers at Brandwag."
This year her older son is studying medicine at R144000 for the year. His car costs R6500/month.
The family has a unique way of paying for their education.
"The children started their own dairy herd five years ago when we cashed in their education policies and bought them cows. We rent the cows and get R100/ head/month, giving us R72000/year.
"The boys had R300000 in their account by December. This has paid for their school fees. One of them should become an accountant," she jokes.
Johannesburg-based car guard and part-time truck driver Patrick Mabogo has two daughters who live with their mother in Makhado, Limpopo. He moved to Jo'burg nine years ago to find work. His children, in grades 1 and 4, attend a no-fee school, Tshilivho Primary School, which costs Mabogo R60/year for one child.
"I am not happy with the education they are getting. When I try to speak English to them, they don't know it. They study in prefabricated units, and it's very crowded, with no toilets."
Another family, who did not want to be named, has two sons at government schools in Diepsloot, which are also no-fee schools.
"Every now and then they ask for donations of R50. Last year, they had a raffle of a computer, a touchscreen phone and a grocery hamper. They wanted us to take tickets of R50 each but that is too much. If you don't win, you lose R50 which you could use to feed your family," says the mother.
Parents at the school decided that only three families should buy the tickets, guaranteeing they would each win a prize.
She says the school facilities are basic, with no computers, prefabricated classrooms and no proper school fields.
"Then I see the ones who have got matric and they sit on the street drinking, so I don't know what use the matric is if they get it."