A growing population will put more pressure on our underperforming economy, says the writer. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)
Job summits, growth indabas and development imbizos. The talk fests never end. But perhaps the most critical issue lurks unremarked upon, or at best skirted around. It’s that there are just too many of us.

Unfortunately, the concept of “population control” causes pretty much the same reaction among most South Africans as does “eugenics” among post-Nazi era Germans. That is, suspicion and outrage.

Who can forget the Nationalists’ visceral fears regarding the sheer weight of numbers? It was what fuelled family planning, aimed at blacks, while whites were encouraged by Nat politicians like MC Botha to “have a baby for the republic”.

Some 50 years on, the idiocy hasn’t changed, except for the hue of the honcho - note that it’s always the men who demand more babies. Now it’s Julius Malema, who is issuing calls for black women to have more babies “for the revolution”.

The Nat call for “Botha babies” was, deservedly, a resounding flop. From 1968 to 1994, whites increased by a quarter from 3.6 million people to 4.4 million. The black African population, however, more than doubled, to 30 million.

According to StatsSA figures, the total population now is 57.7 million, from 38.6 million in 1994. The black African population is 46.7 million, whites 4.5 million, coloureds 5.1 million and Indians 1.4 million.

Demographics is a textbook example of the power of compounded growth rates. Over time, small numbers have huge effects, as is reflected in the fact that the UN as recently as 2016 estimated South Africa would reach the 58 million level only in 2022. The statistical push is from the net birth rate, the pull is from migration.

South Africa’s overall fertility rate is a respectable 2.4% - 2.1% is population-replacement level - especially when compared with the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, where it approaches 5%. But when broken down, it varies considerably, according to the most recent government estimate I could find, that dates to 1998: 1.5% for whites, 2.2% for Indians, 2.3 for coloureds and 4.3% for black Africans.

Population pressure is not a crisis somewhere down the line. It is now.

We have arguably the greatest unemployment crisis in the world and it is getting worse, not better.

Ann Bernstein, director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise, captures it graphically: there are more people in total looking for work than there are living in seven of the nine provinces and, if one wanted to cut unemployment by half, one would have to create industries that employ 11 times more people than are working in the entire mining sector.

Since employment reflects racial demographics it is the black African community that is most affected.

Social Welfare and Population Development Minister Geraldine Fraser Moleketi in 1998 declared that South Africa needed an explicit population policy to achieve sustainable development. Migration had to be addressed. The family unit would be recognised as the critical component necessary for social progress.

Unfortunately, that portfolio - now the Department of Social Development - has long since dropped the population component in favour of the welfare one. It is a self-inflicted political blind spot that South Africa can ill afford.

* Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.