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Copenhagen Consensus Center

South Africa Perspective: Population


In the wealthy countries of Europe, Asia and the Americas populations are aging rapidly, while birth rates in some Asian countries and much of sub-Saharan Africa remain high and they have large and growing numbers of young people. Against this background, the Copenhagen Consensus has highlighted two key priority areas for the post-2015 development agenda: making family planning available to everyone and reducing barriers to migration.

39 of Africa’s 55 countries are classified as high fertility, with population growth at 1.4% or higher a year. There are 58 high fertility countries around the world, with about 18% of current global population, but they account for around 38% of global population growth.

Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be a problem: the slower than expected decline in fertility rates in the region has led the UN to increase its projection for global population in 2100 from 9 billion to 10.8 billion. However, there are large differences between countries in the region, and South Africa is one country that has seen big falls in the birth rate. Its growth rate is now just 0.65% a year, down from 2.52% in 1980. In contrast, the average growth rate in sub-Saharan Africa up to 2060 is expected to be nearly 2%.

South Africa is experiencing the same demographic transition as many other countries, which will have important implications for human and economic development. The HIV/AIDS epidemic (South Africa has more people living with HIV than any other country) has reduced life expectancy, but this has now recovered to 57.6 years (it was 56.9 in 1980). It is predicted to reach 68.8 in 2050.

The proportion of people over 65 will increase to 10.5% from 5.7%, while the proportion of under-15s will fall from 29% to less than 21%. The rate of population growth is expected to fall by more than half, to 0.3%, and the population is projected to be 63 million in 2050. This is slightly less than the global rate of growth and significantly less than growth in the region overall.

South Africa stands out from many neighbouring countries, but still has some way to go to improve human capital, raising standards of, for example, education and healthcare to reduce inequality and use demographic changes to drive social, economic and environmental progress. Some countries in Latin America and South-East Asia have made more progress both in this and reducing fertility.

A key target which would help reduce population growth, particularly in high fertility countries, is making modern contraception available to everyone. In addition to reducing the birth rate and infant and maternal deaths, this can deliver a range of other benefits including more education for girls, better mother and child health and more female participation in the labour force. In South Africa, where fertility rates have already fallen substantially, increased children’s and women’s wellbeing is likely to be the major benefit.

In high-fertility countries, including many African ones, spending a dollar on family planning should produce benefits worth over $90, one third of which would be down to reduced infant and maternal mortality and two thirds to increased income growth. South Africa, with its lower fertility rate, has less progress to make, but reaping the benefits of the demographic dividend relies on reducing the current birth rate further. Spending a Rand on family planning is still likely to produce benefits worth 30 Rand or more.

Another big issue on the population front is continued urbanisation. Nearly two thirds of South Africa’s population is urban (compared to 38% in the region as a whole), and this proportion is expected to increase to 77% by 2050. One of the drivers of city growth will be migration pressure from poorer countries in the region.

Urbanisation has potentially important positive implications for development, including higher wages, better schooling and better healthcare, but it is important that the downsides such as overcrowding and pollution are minimised. It is likely that investing in successful urbanisation would be very cost effective.

Population aging in South Africa will require policies which will provide economic security to older people while sustaining strong economic growth, two potentially conflicting goals. However, in the South African context, it is important, for example, to untie social safety nets and health and pension systems from formal labour markets, to improve lifelong learning opportunities and promote ‘healthy aging’ to avoid the danger of the country getting old before it gets rich.