The National Senior Certificate or “matric” examination is a key point of access to
further education and the labour market in South Africa. Since 1999, matric candidates
whose first language is not Afrikaans or English and are, therefore, forced to write
in a second or third language have received a compensation of five per cent of their
original mark in non-language subjects. Whether this policy, which was intended as
an interim measure, should continue is a matter of on-going debate. Two questions
must be answered for a decision to be made. The first is an empirical question: is
there a significant disadvantage facing candidates not writing in their first language?
The second is normative: should these candidates receive the compensation?
This paper employs several statistical techniques, beginning with a replication of the
method used previously by Umalusi (the official education quality assurance council),
to arrive at a credible estimate of the language disadvantage faced by candidates
qualifying for the compensation. After demonstrating that a language disadvantage
does persist, the normative question of whether the policy should be continued is
discussed. It is argued that the answer to this question depends on various political,
economic and philosophical considerations regarding the fairness and the purpose of
the matric examination.