Census 2022: Fascinating but implausible

William Saunderson-Meyer questions the reliability of some of the estimates that were released this week


The findings from Census 2022 were released this week. It’s a wonderful cornucopia of fascinating factoids. 

+ The population has grown by 20% since Census 2011 to 62m people. In the first census of the democratic era, 1996, it was 40.6m. The rate of increase has accelerated markedly in the past decade.

+ There are 50.5m black Africans, comprising 81.4% of the population, 5.1m coloureds (8.2%) and 1.7m Indian/Asian (2.7%). Whites (7.3%) are the only shrinking group, dropping by about 80,000 from 2011 (8.9%) to 4.5m. 

+ Afrikaans, while still the third most spoken language — after isiZulu (24%) and isiXhosa but ahead of Sepedi and English — has dropped from being the home language of 14% of South Africans in 2011 to 11% in 2022. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

All well and good. However, some of the Census 2022 statistics are far less believable than others and deserve close interrogation. Especially those relating to migration and housing.

Because it’s an area of passionate political contestation, the number of foreign-born migrants is always among the most cited figures in the census. The Census 2022 headline figure — that there are 2.4m foreign-born people in the country — is deeply suspect.

First, it contradicts the trend of all three previous censuses, which showed an accelerating trend of migration to South Africa. That is exactly what one would expect, as our borders became more porous while, at the same time, political, economic and social conditions deteriorated markedly in much of Africa.

Starting from a census base figure of 835,000 in 1996, the migrant population increased by 23% in the five years to 2001. In the next 10 years, to the 2011 census, it then more than doubled from just over a million to 2.2m.  

Yet the latest StatsSA figure would have us believe that post-2011 this acceleration suddenly hit an invisible wall. The rate of increase supposedly dropped to only 9% — some 200,000 people — over the past decade. 

Second, the Census 2022 figure contradicts the estimates not only of various reputable international agencies but those of StatsSA itself. 

A year or two back, ActionSA leader Herman Mashaba used a World Bank 2018 estimate of around 15.3m of the South African population being undocumented, to demand a crackdown on foreign migrants. StatsSA was quick to point out that the World Bank’s estimate was not a measure of foreign-born people within our borders. The 15.3m included everyone without legal proof of identity, including South African citizens. 

StatsSA’s chief director of demography and population statistics, Diego Iturralde, explained to Africa Check at the time that the agency, based on its 2020 mid-year population estimate, put the number of “foreign-born” people in the country, both legal and illegal, at around 3.9m. That was 6.5% of the then 59.6m population. In March last year, in another Africa Check article, Iturralde reiterated that the foreign-born percentage remained around 6.5% of the population, amounting now to 4m people. 

While all those StatsSA figures came from a baseline that was always arguably too low, they are nevertheless in the lower tiers of the United Nations’ estimates. In 2019, it put the number of migrants in South Africa at 4.2m, amounting to 7.2% of the population. 

All this combines to make nonsensical the Census 2022 figures. It’s simply not credible that the foreign-born component of the population was 2% in 1996, rose to 4.2% in 2011 and again to 6.5% in 2020, but then inexplicably over the next year retreated to 3.5%.

So, how did this happen? Manipulation of the statistics for political reasons or poor data collection compounded by poor interpretative analysis by StatsSA?

It seems almost inconceivable that StatsSA would massage the national statistics to further some political agenda. Comprehensive and accurate statistics are essential to good government and they’re the foundation of StatsSA’s reputation.

Honest statistics are also critical to overseas investors and international aid agencies. No matter how much they might afterwards seek to put a spin on the figures released, governments have a vested interest in having a sound statistics department.  

Discounting some statistical sleight of hand to aid an African National Congress government that next year faces its most difficult general election yet, leaves error as the explanation. As StatsSA has disclosed, this particular Census was beset with problems. 

It was scheduled for 2021, but the pandemic lockdowns delayed implementation to early 2022. Relying on 100,000 fieldworkers to implement the country's first “digital census” with who knows what degree of competence, it delivered a 31% under-count, the largest ever and more than double the 2011 one. This meant lots of post hoc adjustments to, and extrapolations from, data that was already possibly dubious. 

Presenting the Census 2022 report, Statistician-General Risenga Maluleke said there had been “unprecedented challenges”. Aside from the problems created by the pandemic lockdowns, there were the KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng riots, as well as catastrophic flooding in several parts of the country. 

Unfortunately for StatsSA, it is not only the migration data that looks dodgy. So, too, do a range of social indicators regarding housing and basic services such as water, electricity and toilets. 

The unexpectedly flattering findings have delighted the government. The housing statistics, President Cyril Ramaphosa crowed on social media, were “a clear demonstration” that the ANC government was “charging ahead”. However, a cursory look at the figures indicates that some scepticism would be appropriate. 

According to Census 2022, an impressive 88.5% of the country’s 17.8m households are now cosy and warm in their formal housing, defined as a house for which a local authority building plan has been approved. In Census 2011, that figure was substantially lower, at 78%.  And as recently as mid-2019, according to StatsSA’s own figures, less than 82% of households were in formal housing.

This means that in under three years, the stock of formal housing grew almost seven percentage points, whereas it had taken 15 years to grow from 65% in 1996 to 78% in 2011. This is a truly remarkable achievement, if real, given that there was the “lost decade” of state looting to 2018 and, since then, a crumbling economy and a government despised for its inability to deliver. 

Let’s also throw into the mix the fact that there has been no large-scale State housing construction for well over a decade and there also has been a 27% increase in the number of households, which has grown by 3.8m to reach 17.8m. Oh, and let’s not forget that according to the Department of Human Settlement’s 2022/23 annual performance report, it took the entire 27 years since 1996for the State to create a total of 4.9m “housing opportunities”. 

As a corollary to the statistical fictions of the formal housing figures, are those for informal housing. In 2011, around 1.9m households, about one in seven, were classified as living in informal dwellings, popularly known as shanties. In the past decade, despite all the hindrances that I’ve listed, that has magically dropped to 1.4m households — one in thirteen — another statistic that is highly flattering to the government but most unlikely.

These are just a few of the anomalies evident from a cursory dive into Census 2022. No doubt a more comprehensive analysis by the opposition parties will throw up other implausible statistics. 

Perhaps one shouldn't get too hot under the collar about these obvious absurdities. As reality weighs in, bad statistics eventually fold in upon themselves like a house of cards. 

And, at the end of the day, people vote based on their lived experience, not on the upbeat and frankly unbelievable numbers that will make their way into an ANC election pamphlet.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye