The jobs vs population growth equation

William Saunderson-Meyer says the ANC has done nothing to reduce explosive population growth


Few would quibble with the assertion that joblessness is South Africa’s gravest problem.

Every social ill that plagues the country thrives on unemployment. Worse, if worklessness continues unchecked, it promises a ruinous future eruption that will destroy much of the public goods built over centuries.

Work is certainly uppermost in the minds of the millions who are deprived of it. The refrain from the masses over the past 25 years of democracy has not been for better social benefits for the unemployed. It has simply been for the chance to earn a living — the Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! that the African National Congress promised on its 1994 election posters.

The grim numbers are familiar to anyone with even a cursory interest in what’s happening around them. Depending on the statistical models, between a third and 40% of people can’t find work. In the under-35 category, the volatile youth that fuels the red-beret militants, that figure is almost 6 out of 10.

Not a single ANC intervention has been particularly successful. Many have aggravated the problem. Schools and universities are churning out young people who clutch a pretty piece of parchment but are essentially unemployable.

The professions associations complain that many, if not most of these matriculants and graduates, can barely read or write. As former president Thabo Mbeki observed almost two decades ago, SA doesn’t have an unemployment problem but an unemployability problem and it has become more acute as the working world demands more sophisticated skills.

Part of the problem is that the ANC is unwilling or unable to deal with the supply side of the unemployment equation. That is, it has allowed, even encouraged, explosive population growth, instead of vigorously encouraging birth control.

According to Statistics SA figures just released, SA’s population increased by more than a million in the past year, to reach 58.78m in mid-2019. That means we’ve topped 58m people three years ahead of United Nation estimates, which in 2017 predicted that we’d reach that number only in 2022.

That’s also 20m higher than SA’s 38.6m population in 1994 — over 50% more people — when the ANC was promising all those jobs. Most daunting in terms of employment creation, almost 3 out of 10 (28.8%) of us are under 15-years and are yet to hit working age.

Obviously, some of this is the result of illegal immigration. In response to my query of the scale, the Statistics SA Chief Director of Demography, Diego Iturralde, points out what should be obvious: “The undocumented nature of undocumented migrants make it difficult to say how many have entered SA since 1994.” 

However, he maintains that the analytical process followed is sufficiently robust to give a fair approximation: “We estimate the current foreign-born population to be 3.6 million persons, which compares favourably with estimates from the World Bank as well as the UN Population division [of 4m]. Stats SA also estimates that for the 2016-2021 period, Gauteng and Western Cape had the largest inflow of migrants, totalling approximately 2.14m.

Also fuelling the growth curve are substantially improved infant mortality and, more recently, an uptick in life expectancy. However, the biggest issue is SA’s comparatively high birth rate.

SA’s national fertility rate is a respectable 2.32, by current Statistics SA estimate, compared to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), where it approaches 5. That nevertheless means a substantial job creation challenge, given that GDP growth has been trending downwards for 15 years and in the first quarter of this year, the economy actually contracted by 3.2%.

As always in SA, the devil is in the demographic detail. While the national fertility rate dropped from 3.23 in 1996 to 2.67 in 2011, calculated from that year’s census, it was high among black Africans at 2.82 and coloureds at 2.57, while low among Indians and whites (1.85 and 1.7).

Whatever may have happened since then, and the postulated decrease is not based on a national census, it is in the racial fertility differences that the ANC’s quandary lies, for the radicals have weaponised baby-making. And in a country where human reproduction is turned into a political blunt instrument, population control programmes are just not going to happen.

Economic Freedom Fighter leader Julius Malema has for years called upon black women to have more babies “for the revolution”. On one occasion, Malema warned his supporters at a rally: “White people do not want us to give birth because they know we are more than them. So that they can be more than us and the day they are more than us they will take over our land.”

To make matters worse, a long-cherished assumption of demographers worldwide, that rising prosperity and education levels cause women to have fewer children, is being shattered in Africa. A landmark University of Bath 58-country study predicts that contrary to trends elsewhere in the world, in Africa, greater economic development could cause population growth to accelerate, not slow.

The study, published in PLOS ONE last month, found that in SSA women, of all education levels, have just over 5 children, yet wanted more — on average, 5.9. SSA women with a tertiary education have an average of 2.7 children, yet again would like to have more — 3.7 on average.

The situation is better in Eastern/Southern Africa, where women with tertiary education, would like to have around 3 children. However, there are no countries in Africa where woman want fewer than 2.5 children and, in most countries, women want more than 4 children.

The UN previously estimated that the SSA population was set to double by 2050, adding one billion people to the world’s population. That is now likely to be considerably higher, with obviously catastrophic implications not only for the continent but also SA — more SSA population pressure means more migration to SA, both documented and undocumented.

While all attempts to create jobs must be welcomed, it’s going to be a futile undertaking unless the other end of the equation is also addressed. The SA government needs to do everything it can to both grow the economy and slow population growth, even though the latter is unfortunately likely to be a racially flammable issue.

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