Black advancement in South Africa

Have black South Africans seen much advancement? In an effort to address this issue, recent articles have thrown around lots of statistics. As a professional statistician, I decided to have a look at the data. What I found suggests that black South Africans have made amazing progress.

Between 1996 and 2012, real per capita income for the whole country grew by 24.7%. Over that same period, it grew by 90.2% for blacks. Black South Africa accounts for a bigger share of the economy and has almost twice the buying power per person it had a mere 16 years ago.

We know this extra buying power hasn’t been shared equally because inequality among blacks is almost as big a phenomenon as it is in the country as a whole. The fraction of blacks in the upper middle class ($10-$20 per day) increased from 8% to 16% during the last decade. Blacks used to make up only a quarter of that class but now they account for just over half of it. Black movement into the top three living standard classes, the elite, is even more impressive. Only 3.5% of blacks were in this group in 2001 but in 2012, 13% formed part of the group.

The improvement in living standards for poor blacks is less encouraging, but, nonetheless, there has been substantial improvement here too. The proportion of blacks in the bottom three living standard classes has dropped from 50% to 15%. While, in 2000, 11.3% of blacks lived on less than $1 per day, in 2006, a mere 6 years later, only 5% did – nine years ahead of the millennium goal target. The figure must be much lower now. Some of this is due to the large expansion of the social budget and some to economic growth. It is safe to say that the incidence of extreme black poverty is less than a third of what it was at the turn of the century.

In 2001, most blacks were overwhelmingly really poor and rarely comfortable, a ratio of 14.3 to 1. Eleven years later, the numbers of really poor and economically comfortable blacks in South Africa are roughly equal.

The improvement in material standard of living is evident when specific products and services are considered. At the upper end, black car ownership has doubled from 5% to more than 10%, and more than 50% of new home purchases in formally white suburbs were made by blacks, up from 43% in 2005. Nearly 10 million hectares of farm land has been transferred from white to black ownership and about 1/5th of this through private transaction. Blacks now account for more than half of medical aid membership and own more than a third of the shares on the JSE. More than 50% of all university degrees are awarded to blacks. Generally, access to a phone has grown from 26% to 84%, and access to electricity probably doubled from around 40% to about 80%. Black adult literacy has risen from about 77% to 85% and the level of youth literacy is even higher.

Quite apart from material standard of living, of interest too is the change in black access to positions of higher status and responsibility. There has, of course, been a massive shift from white to black within the state sector and government. The proportion of judges who are black has doubled from 30% to 62% even though the underlying proportion of lawyers who are black is much lower, increasing from 12% to 16%. Currently, 17.4% of South Africa’s professors are black and 70.5% are white. This is in line with what we see among lawyers but far short of the situation among judges. The question arises whether black representation among professors is reasonable. A PhD is seen as a requirement for a professorship (although a Masters Degree is sometimes accepted) and on average it takes 20 years between earning a PhD and becoming a professor. Fifteen years ago, South African blacks earned 15% of PhDs; today, they earn 26% of them, accounting for 40% of the growth in PhDs. Blacks certainly hold less than 15% of the PhDs with at least 20 years’ experience at the moment, so black representation among professors right now is actually higher than it is in the underlying qualifications, just like the judiciary. The number of black professors should increase at the same annual 9.9% rate as black PhDs.

Changes in the private sector are also quite marked. For example, the proportion of top management in black hands has doubled from 16% to 32% since 2000. As in the case of the judiciary, the underlying proportion of black senior management is much lower but also doubled from 9% to 18%. The same argument about qualifications and experience that applies to professors also applies to top management.

Especially interesting is that black South Africans account for 78% of new businesses formed since 2002, which is almost exactly in line with their demographic representation. This is an underestimate since it excludes informal businesses and black empowerment deals. That means blacks already have equal access to the market.

There are many who think that anything less than full and immediate proportional racial representation at every level is unacceptable. They believe that blacks having virtually no interest in playing rugby is no excuse for the low black representation in professional rugby. They think SARU should do what it takes to create that interest. They believe that lack of qualifications, skills or experience is an insufficient excuse for not putting black people in elite positions of responsibility. These people are inclined to deny that any significant transformation has happened but the truth is that black South Africans have made a lot of progress. As a rough rule of thumb, black South Africans have at least doubled both their absolute, and relative, position since the turn of the century, and stand to make even more progress in the near future.

Serious obstacles still remain for black advancement. One is high unemployment. Another is a failing education system. South Africans perform badly in international comparisons even relative to our African neighbours like Zimbabwe and Swaziland. Many of our schools simply aren’t effective at instilling real skills.

Recent economic policy has kept the rate of economic growth much lower than it could be. If economic growth was unhampered black progress would have been even more impressive.

Author: Garth Zietsman is a statistician. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. 

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