The Free State chalked up a 93.2% National Senior Certificate pass rate, which excludes the results of progressed learners, to emerge as the country's top performing province.
This was an increase of six percentage points compared to 2015.
The Western Cape followed closely with 87.7% and Gauteng with 87%.
Both figures reflect the pass rates without the results of progressed pupils included.
The national matric pass rate, including the results of progressed learners was 72.5%. This was a slight increase of 1.8 percentage points over last year's rate of 70.7%.
Excluding progressed pupils, the pass rate was 76.2%.
Progressed learners are those who failed Grade 11 for two consecutive years and are then automatically promoted to matric.
As in 2015, the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, and KwaZulu-Natal were the worst-performing provinces.
Announcing the results in Midrand on Wednesday, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said efforts had to be directed to the primary learning phase to make sure pupils mastered the basics.
This would provide a return on investment when they reached the secondary schooling system.
Further improvements in the schooling system were needed, she said. International studies had shown that South Africa's pupils were improving.
"We must bear in mind that the Grade 12 exams are not designed to assess progress in the system, the main purpose is to provide learners with an exit qualification.
"We are prioritizing interventions and policies that target and improve quality of teaching and learning. We have deliberately prioritised this in the early grades," she said.
Examination monitoring body Umalusi had declared the 2016 examinations fair, valid and credible.
The results of pupils implicated in the leak of a mathematics paper in Limpopo would remain blocked pending the outcome of an investigation. -- News24WireSuggest a correction