Opinion: If we're honest the real State of our Nation has improved substantially

09 February 2017 - 17:27 By Frans Cronjé

The State of the Nation Address this week has brought into stark relief the political and economic crises confronting our country.

Preparations underway for the State of the Nation address on Thursday 9 February 2017.
Preparations underway for the State of the Nation address on Thursday 9 February 2017.
Image: GCIS

From very high levels of unemployment to very low levels of economic growth, and a largely detached government and political leadership, these are all very serious crises. But what is at risk of being lost in the analysis is that South Africa has also made considerable social and economic progress since 1994.

Consider that, in the economy, growth rates rebounded from the negative levels recorded through much of the 1980s and early 1990s to average just on 3% between 1994 and 2003 and over 5% between 2004 and 2007. Total real GDP more than doubled. Per capita GDP increased from under R45 000 per head in 1994 to over R55 000 today. Real disposable income per capita increased from under R25 000 in 1994 to just over R32 000 in 2015.

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By 2004, bond yields were half of what they had been in 1994. The budget deficit was steadily eroded between 1994 and 2008. Surpluses were recorded in two years. Government debt levels were cut in half in the first decade after 1994. Inflation today is a third lower than it was in 1994. Interest rates are half what they were.

The number of black people with jobs has doubled over the past twenty years. The labour market participation rate has increased from 45.5% in 1995 to just under 60% today. The number of people who depend on every person who works has fallen from 3.8 in 1995 to 2.5 today. Since 2000, the number of black management employees has been increasing at three times the rate of white management employees.  

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The number of households living in a formal house with clean water, proper lavatories, and electricity, has more than doubled since 1994. Households who cook with electricity have increased from 4.3 million in 1996 to 14.1 million today. We group people’s living standards into ten categories, where category one is the lowest and category ten is the highest. Since 2001 the proportion of people in categories one to three has fallen from 38.8% to 10%. The proportion of children who are malnourished has fallen from 13.1% in 2000 to under 5% today.

The number of children who pass matric has doubled since 1994. The number of university students has doubled and the proportion who are black has increased from around 50% to over 70%. The number of black African people with a degree increased from 330 000 in 2002 to 796 000 in 2015.

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As levels of education improved, the middle class expanded. The number of motor cars registered in the country – a key measure of the middle class – increased from 3.9 million in 1999 to 6.9 million in 2016. The number of black buyers of suburban property caught up to the number of white buyers.

In the public healthcare sector, the number of nurses is today 50% higher than it was in 2000. The number of general practitioners in the public sector increased from 7 591 in 2000 to 13 656 in 2015. The number of specialists increased from 3 881 to 4 986 over the same period. The stillbirth rate fell from 27 per 1 000 births in 2001 to 21 per 1 000 in 2014. The number of new HIV infections has fallen by half since 1999.

In terms of community safety, South Africa’s murder rate has fallen from 67 per 100 000 people in 1994 to 34 per 100 000 in 2015. It is still extraordinarily high, but the point we are trying to make with this piece of data – and across all the above areas of data and policy – is that ours is not a country of outright failure; we have also made a great deal of progress.

Despite the dire threats of race wars and rising racial tensions, polling we have conducted shows that a significant majority of South Africans respect one another across lines of race, and agree on the importance of working together to build a better future. A majority still believe that race relations are better today than in 1994.

In material terms, life in South Africa is much better than it was 20 years ago. This perspective is missing from a lot of the current analysis. It is not a question of saying everything is fine – it is certainly not fine and there are very grave problems of educational standards, labour market access, and relative poverty. But it is a question of acknowledging that despite our current troubles, a lot of good has been achieved which South Africa can build on over the next decade if the correct policies are in place to make higher levels of investment-driven growth possible.   

Frans Cronje is a scenario planner and CEO of the IRR – a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. His second book A Time Traveller’s Guide to South Africa in 2030 will be released in April.

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