South Africa's socio-economic progress as a democracy - 1 July 2017

A departure point for the Time Traveller scenarios is that far more socio-economic progress has been made in South Africa than is commonly understood. In this analysis Frans Cronje focusses on the socio-economic successes of South Africa's first two decades as a democracy.

South Africa confronts the toughest set of economic and political circumstances that have faced the country since 1994. The economy is in recession and the close correlation between changes in levels of per-capita GDP and confidence in the future of country means that levels of political instability and uncertainty are rising. But it was not always that way. Relative to what South Africa is living through today the first fifteen years after 1994 coincided with a remarkable economic recovery and sharp rise in living standards.

Service delivery successes were extraordinary - and this has never been properly understood. The number of households living in a formal house more than doubled after 1996. In 1996, there were 5.8 million households living in a formal house. By 2016, that number had increased 13.4 million or by 131%. Every day since 1996 more than 1 000 families (1 042) have moved into a formal house. For every shack newly erected after 1996, just more than ten formal houses were built. The proportion of black families in a formal house increased from 52.5% in 1996 to 73.8% in 2015.

The number of families using electricity for lighting increased from 5.2 million in 1996 to 15.3 million in 2016 or by 192%. The proportion of families cooking with electricity increased from 47.1% in 1996 to 82.8% in 2015. The proportion cooking with wood fell by half, from 23% to 9.3%. There are few emerging markets that could match these numbers.

The number of households receiving piped water increased from 7.2 million in 1996 to 15.3 million in 2016. The number of households with access to flush or chemical lavatories increased from 4.5 million in 1996 to 11.4 million in 2016 or by 151%. In 1996, almost half of families (49.7%) had substandard toilet facilities. That figure has now fallen to 32.4% despite the infrastructure challenges in poor communities and the fact that the total number of households in the country increased from 9 060 000 in 1996 to 16 900 000 in 2016.

The service delivery successes are reflected in living standards data. South Africa classifies living standards according to ten categories. In 2001, 38.8% of South Africans were classified as falling under the three lowest categories. However, by 2015, only 10% of South Africans were classified as falling under those three lowest categories.

As living standards rose at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, on the higher end the middle class was growing. The number of new car sales in South Africa increased from 255 817 in 1995 to a peak of 450 296 in 2013 - a figure that closely reflects the extent of middle class expansion in South Africa. Since 1999, the total number of registered cars in the country increased from 3.9 million to 6.9 million. In 2015, 458 000 black people owned homes that were bonded to banks or financial institutions – a number that recently passed a very symbolic milestone when it exceeded that of white households with bonded homes.

As the economy expanded the number of people with jobs doubled from 7.9 million in 1994 to 15.5 in 2016 – an increase of 95%. South Africa has not lived through two decades of jobless growth. The number of black people with work increased from 4.9 million in 1994 to 11.5 million in 2016 or by 131%. In 1994, there were 490 black people for every 100 black people with a job. Now that ratio has improved to point where there are 292 black people for every 100 black people with a job.

While crime has taken a terrible toll on the country the murder rate (that measures how many murders are committed per 100 000 people per year) has fallen from 67 per 100 000 in 1994 to 34 per 100 000 in 2015 or by almost 50%. We have confidence that the police's murder data is accurate.

If you look hard enough evidence of a better country can be found in areas usually associated with outright failure and education is a case in point.

In 1990, at the point of liberation, an estimated 256 000 black children sat to write their matric exams. By 2015, that number had more than doubled to 549 033. In 1991, there were more than 20 white students (19.6) getting business degrees for each black business graduate. By 2014, there were almost twice as many black business graduates as white graduates (a ratio of 0.4 whites: 1 black). The number of university students who are black increased from 268 144 in 1995 to 697 800 in 2014. The proportion of university students who are black has increased from 46.6% in 1995 to 70.1% in 2014.

This is not to say that there are not major problems in school and university education. Rather it is also to say that despite those problems there has been progress - progress that is too often overlooked.

In the healthcare environment the infant mortality rate has fallen from 46 deaths per 1 000 live births in 1994 to 31 deaths per 1000 live births in 2015. The number of public sector pharmacists has increased from 1 085 in 2000 to 4 970 in 2015 or by 358%. The ratio of people per public sector doctor has fallen from 3 808:1 in 2000 to 2 948:1 in 2015. The number of registered professional nurses has increased from 91 011 in 1998 to 136 854 in 2015. The number of General Practitioners in the public sector has increased from 7 591 in 2000 to 13 656 in 2015. 

South Africa faces serious crises as so many of our reports and briefings continue to highlight. But the past two decades have also seen the country make considerable progress. It is necessary to understand that progress, and the political and social pressures that arise from it, in order to come to robust conclusions about how South Africa's future will unfold. The argument that little has changed for the better is simply wrong on the facts and the scenarios that flow from such a view must also be flawed. 

A version of this analysis was carried on News24.