The preliminary results of the South African Census 2011 was released today by Statistics South Africa. There are few surprises: in nearly every respect, the average South African is better off today than they were ten years ago; in other words, Sir, there are more reasons to smile than cry. But, as everywhere, the average hides large disparities in incomes: the most tweeted statistic today (and certainly the most commented on popular news sites) was that the average white household earns more than six times than the average black household (R365k vs R60k) per annum. While still enormous, the good news is that the gap is closing: whites earned 8.6 times more in 2001. In fact, white South Africans’ incomes increased the slowest of all four population groups. So, while the rich grew richer, the poor grew richer faster.

Age distribution of South Africa, Census 2011

One less debated topic, but perhaps more interesting in highlighting future trends, is the demographic changes. The Census 2011 Statistical Release notes that “Contrary (to past censuses); in 2011, there was a marked decrease of males and females aged 5–9 and 10–14. Many factors could have contributed to this decrease. Further analysis is scheduled to be done to ascertain the key drivers to this occurrence.” The figure (copied from StatsSA’s Statistical Release, warts and all) shows the age pyramid for the full South African population; note the decline in the number of students in the 10-14 year-old cohort and the cohorts around it. About its causes one can only speculate: the most obvious is lower fertility rates a decade or so ago. Some corroborating evidence can be found in the Community Survey of 2007, which showed a decline in the number of children in the youngest cohorts. Alternatively, one could also argue that this “shortage” of high-schoolers represents undercounting in the Census 2011.
But what of its consequences? We’ve seen lower numbers of matriculants enrol for their final exam over the last few years, and the poor schooling system has been blamed. Perhaps this is simply a consequence of a changing demographic, unnoticed because we missed a census in 2006? Does this mean that we can budget less for future education expenditure, which is currently South Africa’s largest public expenditure item, closing schools that are underperforming and unattended? And what of the labour market? Young South Africans in their twenties are the most numerous cohort, which explains the high level of youth unemployment. But will youth unemployment be such a serious concern in a few year’s time, when fewer matriculants begin to exit the system. Is a Youth Subsidy really necessary then?
StatsSA and Treasury will certainly scrutinize these numbers to a much greater extent. A census is never perfect, and should be corroborated with other surveys and evidence. It will also be much easier to assess these economic and demographic changes once the sample data is available to researchers.
Census 2011 begins to show the progress we’ve made as a country. But, more importantly, it sheds light on the trends and trade-offs that will shape our future.