Population growth in SA: An exchange

Diego Iturralde responds to WSM's column on the topic, WSM replies

Diego Iturralde, Chief Director: Demography at Statistics South Africa, responds to William Saunderson-Meyer’s column:

Dear William,

I saw the article on Politics Web and have read through it with keen interest. 

I am afraid to say that I do not agree in the main part with your sentiment expressed in your article.

Let me say from the outset that my work has no taste buds for political agendas or of pleasing the views of different political persuasions. I like any other person have political views but they by no means find their way into my work and in turn I am under no political pressure to publish numbers that are palatable to one group or the other.

That stated, your article starts well by speaking of the unemployment crisis that we find ourself in and Stats SA has been at the forefront of queries by various groups around these numbers. I am fully in agreement with the sentiment expressed in the opening paragraphs.

However, your statement referring to 'explosive population growth' is way off the mark. At no point have we intimated that the current population growth observed equates to something explosive. As a matter of fact, since 2012-13 population growth has slowed down to the current rate of 1.43% per annum.

Comparing the current population to the WPP from the UN population division is also technically flawed. Projection are made based on current information currently known about the population and on best available methods to projection such populations. Hence, projections made in 2017 going forward are for planning purposes and not so much for accounting future populations to it. You clearly haven't seen the 2019 WPP projections from the same source to see how close the Stats SA MYPE number is to the abovementioned source.

It is kind of like predicting the weather in 10 days time and then saying on the 10th day that due to external factors that the real weather exceeded the projected weather by a certain factor, whereas the closer you get to the 10th day the better your guess of the weather will be.

The part where you quote me is unclear whether the robust estimate is of undocumented (illegal) immigrants or of immigration in general. What is clear is that you disregarded the text I provided to you saying that the migration numbers in the report are net-migration and not migration inflows.

It is unclear how you get 2.14 million migrants for Gauteng and Western Cape alone when table 3 on page 3 indicates that nationally total net international migration is at just over 1 million. 

The next statement you make is an attempt to link improved infant mortality figures to population growth. At no point is that supposition made.

In fact as the health of children improves and more of them survive one finds a decline in fertility rates because there is no need to have more children in the hope that a few of those will survive to old age. In fact fertility rates in Southern Africa are as you have indicated are the lowest in Africa and have been on the decline since the 1960s. It is only recently in the late 90s to the mid 00s that fertility decline took a temporary reversal which was evidenced in Census 2011 but this decline has resumed as evidenced in the slowing population growth rate mentioned above. How this impacts on the economic side is a good question but it is wrong to say that this 'explosive' growth that you speak of is fuelled by improved health, 'high' fertility  rates and increased immigration. In fact growth for 0-14 that you speak of stands at 1.03% per annum, considerably lower than the national growth rate for all ages.

The article in PLOS which you refer to makes reference to desired family size which is a totally different concept than actual fertility patterns. This is prevalent all over the world where desired family size is always much higher than actual and future fertility rate. It is evidently true that most of the future global population growth will come from sub-Saharan Africa and this may have implication for migration to other parts of the world as well as for the economic impact that has in Africa - but that is beyond my scope and for economists to consider such a scenario.

There is no credence to suggest that population growth (which I have already mentioned is declining) needs to be encouraged to decline further. South Africa has a Population policy whereby government is encouraged to consider changing demographic and population patterns in its policies, planning and service delivery considerations. This is evidenced in the NDP 2030 but it is evident that this is an ongoing challenge to ensure that departments do indeed take cognisance of new developing population trends.

In retrospect, I regret having given the level of assistance I did give you without enquiring as to what the information would be used for. I am of the view that either a correction of your article should be made or that mention of my name in it should be retracted. I do however think that the issues raised about the intersection between population dynamics and employment are worthy of further exploration.

Kind regards,



William Saunderson-Meyer replies:

Dear Mr Iturralde

You seem not to understand the difference between a news and commentary. I write a weekly column which, by definition, is my personal view. As best as I am able, I marshal facts in support of my opinion. 

It is immaterial whether you agree with my conclusions. If you disagree with my argument you are welcome, as is any other reader, to refute them. If you feel I have misinterpreted the statistics, likewise.

At no point do my opinions purport to be the opinions of yourself or Statistics SA, except when expressly quoted as such.

Regarding your objection to the phrase "explosive population growth", I would argue that in a country where economic growth is currently negative and has, for a number of years, lagged population growth — with no immediate prospects of a reversal of that situation — the result is indeed politically, socially and economically explosive. 

As regards the UN projections that you dismiss as inappropriate for purposes of comparison, these  are two different sources with two different numbers. So comparison is of interest, no matter how “technically flawed” you believe it to be. The point I am making is simply that the SA population has hit in 2019 the number the UN estimated it would reach only in 2022.

There is no "lack of clarity" on migration flows, in fact, I do not mention flows at all. It I believe it will be clear to the average reader that the reference is to absolute numbers, i.e., net migration.

It is true that there is a contradiction inherent in the Gauteng and Western Cape migration figures, compared to the national figure. I regret not spotting this anomaly and apologise. But at least we are on the same page here, since neither did you nor your staff. The figure — 1.644m added to 494 000 — comes from the press statement issued under your name on 29 July and which has since been published verbatim in several publications. It reads:

“The report further shows that for the period 2016–2021, Gauteng and Western Cape are estimated to experience the largest inflow of migrants of approximately, 1 643 590 and 493 621 respectively.” 

You further disavow responsibility for my "supposition" on infant mortality and life expectancy's effect on population growth.

I nowhere assert that such a supposition is made by yourself or Stats SA. It does, however, seem obvious to me that if more children survive childbirth and people live longer, the overall affect is to increase the total population.

As regards your dismissal of the PLOS Stidy, I shall not go into detail. While I am a journalist, not a demographer, I nevertheless find the University of Bath analysis a credible exposition of the flawed nature of the assumption that in Africa, specifically, actual fertility will decline as education and wealth improves.

And I reiterate, I am not suggesting for a moment in my column that you or Stats SA are opining on the “implications for migration … as well as the economic impact that has in Africa”. It is clearly my view.

As regards your reassurances that there is no need to be concerned because SA has a population policy, while I am glad SA has a population policy, it is a pity that it is an “ongoing challenge” to ensure that government departments take a blind bit of notice. 

As I have written previously in the Jaundiced Eye column in this regard:

“Social Welfare and Population Development Minister Geraldine Fraser Moleketi in 1998 declared that SA needed an explicit population policy to achieve sustainable development. Migration had to be addressed. The family unit would be recognised as the critical component necessary for social progress.

“Unfortunately, that ministerial portfolio — now the Department of Social Development — has long since dropped the population component in favour of the welfare one.”

Finally, your implicit threat not in future to respond to my inquiries unless they accord with your world view, I want to remind you that I made very clear in my inquiry exactly what information I needed and that I was a weekly political columnist.

Further, may I make a point that seems increasingly lost upon state employees. While I appreciate your willingness to respond rapidly and fully to my questions, you were not doing me a favour. That's actually part of your responsibilities as a public servant.