The end of “over-population”

The past two centuries have seen such exponential population growth across the world that the idea of natural resources being swamped and societies being unable to cope can seem almost inevitable. But humankind may well be moving to static increases in numbers of people. This applies to South Africa just as anywhere else.

Writing in London’s The Spectator, renowned demographer Hans Rosling points out that the global population of about 1 billion people at the start of the Industrial Revolution doubled within a hundred years and then kept going strong, reaching today’s seven billion. It means, he says, that one in eight people who have ever lived are with us now, but he suggests that we’re in the last century of fast population growth. Mainly this has to do with an unprecedented fall in fertility rates, with 2000 seeing what he calls “the period of ‘peak child’” when two billion people were 15 or younger.

That, he suggests, is where it will stay, with Asia adding another billion people by mid-century and then stopping there. For our part, Rosling estimates Africa moving from one to four billion this century and it too, will slow down. By 2100, eighty percent of people will be in Asia and Africa.

Fast growing populations must place enormous strains on society’s ability to cope, bringing pressures that Population Action International and the African Institute for Development Policy say “hurt efforts to reduce poverty, ensure food security, preserve the environment, and improve education, employment, and health”. They warn that rapid urbanisation “is happening so quickly that it overwhelms governments” and their research shows the only sub-Saharan countries whose urban nodes are not mostly slums to be South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Gabon, Cameroon and Senegal.
Others see it differently, with the World Bank’s Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo and Anglo-Sudanese Mo Ibrahim separately pointing to Africa’s young being a potentially strong economic asset as consumers, and in being that most productive of generations. That is, if educational opportunity and sound economic policies allow them to flourish.

Urbanisation and falling fertility rates seem to be key to tapering population growth. Here, fertility rates (the number of children the average woman is expected to have) have been falling across all racial groups since the 1960s, say the Department of Social Development. It has fallen to not that much more than the replacement rate now (and less than that for whites).
At this pace, we’ll still continue to grow, from the Stats SA mid-year estimate of 53 million reaching, reckons the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, almost 57 million in 2050. But then, with our declined fertility rate, we’re expected to start falling back, being down to 54.5 million people by century’s end.

Of course, it is best to note a City of Cape Town demography report’s caution that “projections are not predictions but rather vehicles for better understanding the way population may change”. And wars, economic or public health calamities could intervene, never mind regional migration.

But, overall, it seems unlikely that we would buck global trends of moving to a stable number of people.  The 2100 estimate’s not much more than we’re at today, even if a far cry from the country’s first census total of just five million in 1904.

Quick stats
Effects of HIV/Aids

Life years lost for black Africans due to Aids by 2030: 24.7
Overall HIV prevalence rate, mid-2013: 10%
How old we are

South Africans under 15 years old

1985:
40%
2010:
31%

South African median age

2001 census: 23 years
2011 census: 25 years

Almost two-thirds of South Africans are aged 15 to 64 years

2013 life expectancy at birth: 57.7 years (males) and 61.4 years (females)
Race ratios 2010 to 2040
African: 79.5% (2010); 81% (2040)

White: 9% (2010); 7.3% (2040)

Coloured: 9% (2010); 9.4% (2040)
Asian: 2.4% (2010); 2.3% (2040)

International migration assumptions for SA (numbers for whites in brackets mean an outflow of people)

1985 to 2000
African: 1 505 600
Asian: 14 500
White: (304 100)
2001 to 2005
African: 864 000
Asian: 23 300
White: (133 800)

2006 to 2010
African: 974 000
Asian: 34 700
White: (112 000)

2011 to 2015
African: 998 000
Asian: 40 900
White: (95 200)

SOURCES: Statistics SA; Institute for Futures Research; Population Action International – African Institute for Development Policy; Department of Social Development; New African; Population Pyramid; UN Secretariat; The Spectator; Census 2001; Census 2011

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