South Africa: How Population Data Can Help Countries Plan and Tweak Policy

analysis

Statistics South Africa, the country's statistical service which gathers and analyses a range of data, recently released its mid-year population estimates for 2019. The data places the country's estimated population at 58,78 million people. But why is it important? The Conversation Africa's Natasha Joseph asked demographer Nicole de Wet-Billings to explain.

Why does population data matter? What is the value of knowing how many people there are in the country and who they are in terms of age and other metrics?

Population data is essential for planning purposes. Any country needs to know the size and composition of its population - around age and sex structure, among other factors. Knowledge about distribution is important, too: where do people live and work? That helps to plan how many schools, clinics, hospitals and jobs a country needs.

How does South Africa's data collection compare to the rest of the continent? And how is the country doing in terms of managing and sharing this data for analysis and study?

South Africa's data collection is constantly improving. That's especially true when it comes to metrics that weren't collected or were distorted for political purposes during apartheid. Examples include data on race or population group.

Statistics SA also does a good job of making its data available for analysis and research. This is important since researchers, policymakers, planners and even politicians can access the same data and the data can be used to inform policies and programmes.

One of the points the report raised was the increase in South Africa's aged population - this group now makes up 9% of the population. What are the implications of this?

It means that people are living longer - and this is a good thing. The fact that 9% of the population is older than 65 means that more people are surviving into old age and this speaks to the successes of various health-related initiatives, including the success of antiretroviral treatment in the country.

However, it also means that the country will have to reconsider its services for the elderly to include more care for degenerative diseases. And, since the elderly do not work, it'll be important to think more about their financial needs, too. For example, more people will be accessing pensions and there might be a need to increase pension amounts in the future.

Also since the elderly often live in households where other adults may be unemployed - given the country's high joblessness rates - the government may also need to think about how those households can be helped when their elderly members stop working.

There is also interesting data about internal migration patterns. What does this tell us, and how does it help with policy and planning?

These show a lot more people moving to Gauteng, Western Cape and the North West provinces, which are all areas of high economic activity. So the flows need to be analysed in relation to employment, education and service delivery as possible reasons for the movement.

In addition, the current condition of services and infrastructure in these three provinces will need to be evaluated to make sure they can meet the needs of these additional people.

Given all the data we have at hand, where is South Africa likely to be population-wise in the next decade? Do any trends stand out to you?

South Africa's fertility rates have remained consistent for a long period of time so I don't think we will see any see monumental growth on this front.

But, with the strides being made in antiretroviral rollout and the increased awareness about non-communicable diseases such as cancers, diabetes and so on, we will see an increase in the proportion of elderly people in the population.

Nicole De Wet- Billings, Senior Lecturer, Demography and Population Studies, Schools of Social Sciences and Public Health, University of the Witwatersrand

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