Trends of progress to cheer SA

To bookend the Freedom Day weekend a fortnight back, The Star newspaper put out one of its editions (why only one?) with a full black-death-telegram-style cover and the words “SA’s worst day ever” over the whole page. What catastrophe was this thing that’s worse than the Boer War, the fall of Tobruk, introduction of Group Areas, pass laws, detention without trial, political violence, states of emergency, all mining disasters?

Er, it’s the new and now fairly innocuous Protection of State Information Bill (falsely called the “secrecy bill”). Back to reality: South Africans get worked up about political disagreements – as it should be. Then we compromise, as we did here. The newspaper was over-egging the pudding, ever so slightly.

Then their put up a glum piece by Judith February of the Human Sciences Research Council. Despite her organisation’s name, this piece carries almost no research except opinion surveys showing most people distrustful of our politicians and police. But when the media trivialise our societal changes, why wouldn’t the citizenry be worried?

But when we look at facts that matter, we might take a moment to pat ourselves on our collective South African back.

Earlier this year, the UK’s Oxfam announced – based on outdated data – that “in SA inequality has gone up in the last 20 years, despite government efforts”. Fretting, a national daily editorialised about our“ever widening inequality”.

Oxfam complained that SA income inequality data are only available up to 2005, an untruth. If they used the generalised inequality indices (the “gini coefficient”) that give countries a score between 0 and 1 (where 1 is someone with all the income and 0 has everyone with the same amount), then SA was at 0.68 in 2005. Since then we’ve become more equal, dropping consistently to 2011’s score of 0.63.

Maybe they looked at possessions? Couldn’t have, since living standard measurements compiled by the SA Audience Research Foundation find that South Africans in the lowest category fell from 11% in 2001 to 1% in 2011.

Oxfam must have ignored the number of households in formal housing jumping 80% between 1996 and 2009; households using electricity going up 120%, and households with piped water rising 71%. Meanwhile, reports the SAIRR 2012 SA Survey, black African disposable income in current prices was R161 billion in 1996, but R756 billion by 2011. The proportion living on constant and a purchasing power parity-adjusted US$2 a day fell from 16.2% to just 2.7% over that time.

More dramatic have been changes in personal income. Labour market research company Prophet Analytics points out that after-inflation incomes have risen sharply in just the past decade from R44 431 a year in 2000 to R61 645 at current prices in 2011.

Where blacks earned 15% of the average white South African’s income in 2000, this rose to 40% by 2011. Prophet Analytics adds that“Currently 1,3 million blacks (or 14% of the black workforce) earn as much as or more than the average white, up from 270 000 in 2000 – an increase of more than 1 million people, or 378%”.

Meanwhile, the 2011 census shows household incomes increasing by 7,9% every year between 2001 and 2011 against consumer price inflation of 5,1% a year. However you look at it, inequalities in money and things are getting smaller, and we’re getting richer. Those still at apartheid’s sharpest end are receiving grants whose number now outstrip everywhere outside Europe and Canada, thus killing off famine in SA, but not causing Treasury collapse. Almost 16 million of us will receive this help by the end of this financial year.

Meanwhile, mainly through urbanisation, South Africa’s fertility rate has been dropping fairly consistently for more than 30 years. The initial results of the 2011 census show a current population growth of 1% a year, down from 1,4% ten years ago and to fall below 1% in two years. Our 51 million-strong population won’t be growing by much. GDP growth outstrips population growth, often by a factor of three.

In the Eighties we grew the economy at only an average 1,6% a year and at just 1,9% in the Nineties. The average for the first decade of this century was a much better 3,6%.

The SAIRR calculates that if we grow GDP at 3% a year, then by 2030 every person has an average annual income of R53 712. If growth were doubled to 6%, the average is R98 155, while 8% GDP growth would give R145 342 a person in present rands.

Indeed, while our real unemployment stands at almost 37%, says Statistics SA (although private sector HR company Adcorp measures 9% to 17% maximum), it is worst for youngsters where it is half of everyone aged 18 to 24 years. But it is important to see not only the socio-economic “score” but also the “direction of play”.

So Nedbank political economist J P Landman notes that we’ve added four million additional jobs since Gear started and increased per capita income by a third. This comes as our people slowly age (the census giving our current median age at 25 years, up from 23 year a decade ago). In just the past ten years, average household income rose 113% against inflation of 78% (for whites the figure is 88%, for Africans 169% although the latter come off a much lower base). Interest rates stand at their lowest in 30 years.

For its part, the private sector is home to three-in-five of South Africa’s highest-earning blacks, about 820 000 people. If current trends of shrinking income inequality carry on, there will be 5,1 million blacks earning more than the average white by 2020. The private sector racial income gap will have disappeared within this decade.

South Africans are housing the poor quicker than anyone in human history. We now put up 12,8 formal houses for every shack being erected. From September 1996 to end-2011, this meant 1 000 houses provided by taxpayers every single day. At this rate, there will be neither homeless South Africans nor shack settlements in just another 15 years.

The country’s housing stock close on doubled from 5,8 million in 1996 to 11 million a year ago. The number of formal households for Africans jumped 140%, while the proportion of shack dwelling fell by a quarter and that of traditional structures by almost half.

Upward mobility follows. Thus in 2010’s second quarter, the sale of “affordable”houses only rose 2,6% compared with its 2009 counterpart, but sales of small houses (the next level up at an average price of R844 000) rose fully 29%. A study by economist Mike Schüssler in that year found African ownership of the primary residential market at 42%, compared to white ownership of 44%.

When looking at residential property of every type, he also found that while the value of African-owned houses was far lower than that of anyone else, 32% of Africans had a second property compared to one-in-ten whites. Total home ownership in SA was at 65%, as against 66% in the US and 42% in Germany.

Meanwhile, half of state-subsidised housing has already seen title deed transfers to new owners. As any Englishman whose home is his castle will tell, it isn’t just good for the soul to own your own piece of the planet, but it has knock-on positive effect on your other economic opportunities too.

All the while, we’ve been defeating HIV and Aids. Much of this may have to do with state provision of anti-retroviral treatment. A lot could come from better provision of broader healthcare. Thus from 2001 to 2008, cases of malnutrition fell 70%, malaria came to close to utter defeat through the reintroduction of DDT use. Vaccination and immunisation of children under one year old rocketed from 64% to 89% this century, putting polio out of business in SA; while 1 800 new state clinics were built, bringing these to within 5km of 95% of our people. As of last year, hospitals are subject of a major recapitalisation, and 250 have been “revitalised”.

This happens while private healthcare has come into its own, taking a massive burden off the Exchequer, and is subscribed to by 16% of South Africans. This often maligned industry now attracts 44% of all healthcare expenditure, producing more than double the state’s number of nurses every year.

Where estimates for Aids-related deaths from computer-generated models had our life expectancy dropping now to the lower fifties, the actual death count of 502 000 in 2002 had only risen to 573 000 by 2009 while population numbers increased by much higher proportions. The number of orphan-headed households fell a third this last decade; infant mortality to lower than 1994 levels; maternal deaths falling 16% year-on-year the last three years.
And we’ve reversed how we act. More people received state-provided anti-retroviraltreatment than needed it last year, and two thirds of men now use condoms, against only 18% in 1992. New HIV infections have fallen every year since 2000. We’re over the worst.

We educate more children than we ever have, and no serious educationist questions our public school exam paper difficulty (it’s increasing) nor our marking honesty. In a very short time, we’ve reduced the number of public schools unable to offer maths because of a lack of qualified teachers to only 1,3%. We’ve doubled the number of university graduates.

There’s more, but that should be enough to stop us putting the frighteners on the children for now. Sure, there’s much to do – it’s only 18 Freedom Days past remember, but we’re muddling along rather well. Cheer up, SA!

– Paul Pereira