Masilo Matseke

JOHANNESBURG - Five months ago, African heads of state decided that Africa should enhance the demographic dividend at their 29th Summit in Addis Ababa.

A demographic dividend is the net economic benefit emanating from demographic shifts in the composition of the structure of the population. The dividend is preceded by a transition that consists of a tectonic increase of the proportion of the working age population 15-64 relative to that of the age group 0-14 at the bottom of the pyramid and 65+ at the top.

For the economic benefit to be derived this age group must not only be economically active but must be marked by high labour force absorption rates.  Key drivers of a demographic transition are a sharp decline in deaths, an increase in life expectancy and a sustained level of the number of children ever born to women followed by a rapid decline in births.  

Key drivers of a demographic dividend are a demographic transition accompanied by high levels of labour force absorption rates.  For this to happen the population must be equipped with the right skills to be productive and must be healthy. Social cohesion and governance are important ingredient for a demographic dividend.   

The meeting of the heads of states is part of executing the ambitious Agenda 2063 programme and aims to resolve some of the most crucial development questions affecting and afflicting the African continent such as unemployment and poverty.  But above all pursuing Africa’s future to be a driving force in world economic affairs.  In another seventy years every third person on earth will be an African.  

The question is in the context of the CRVS conference what should African technocrats do to address the political quest for harnessing a demographic dividend for Africa.  South Africa provides some interesting pointers and lessons for this vexed question. In Africa the age group 0-14 constitutes upwards of 40 percent of the population which suggests that fertility has remained relatively high in many countries.  

The North African countries in particular Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria have lower fertility rates, so is South Africa.   The total fertility rate (TFR) in South Africa has declined almost monotonically to reach a TFR of 2.4. Despite the rapid decline in fertility and achieving a successful demographic transition, South Africa has not tasted the fruits of a demographic dividend for the 90 percent of the population defined as African Black and Coloureds.  However school attendance for the age group 6-12 is almost universal while attendance and completion rates both at high school and tertiary are very low. Economic over the six decades growth in South Africa has been relatively slow compared to other regions of the world.  

Unemployment has remained stubbornly high and rates of completion at tertiary across races reveals a statistic that provides sleepless nights for policy makers.
South Africa prides itself with a rich statistical base out of which policies can be made.  But in spite of this rich raft of data, the country faces a nightmare of not securing a demographic dividend for the African Black and Colored population groups whilst it has achieved a demographic dividend for Whites and all indications point to Indians achieving the same.

Questions for consideration 

How are African countries going to ensure that there is sufficient data to know, understand and respond to this crucial question that heads of state have put before African technocrats – enhancing the demographic dividend?

We know that the demographic dividend is not automatic, what is the extent to which African states are addressing the demographic transition in order to harness the dividend? 

Given the experience of South Africa, whereby the dividend for Blacks specifically and for the Colored communities is very unlikely - and I surmise that there is no exceptionalism for South Africa in Africa with the only difference being that South Africa has much better organised statistics - what are our answers and responses to the political leadership of the continent for enhancing a demographic dividend?

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa