By Michael Schmidt

South Africa's white population's growth rate is declining - but there appears to be a massive surge of people reclassifying themselves coloured in order to improve their upward mobility.

The Bureau of Market Research (BMR) at Unisa found in a study that the average annual population growth rate dropped from 1,5 percent a year for the 1996- to-2001 period, to 0,87 percent per annum for the 2001-to-2005 period.

But the slowing population growth rate was not enough to give the government a break from straining to reach unattainable development targets, said BMR researcher Hendrik Steenkamp, because the country's reported economic growth of 4% was largely jobless growth.

In this, Dr Clifford Odimegwu, director of Wits University's demographics project, was in agreement.

On average, the study found, the total population experienced a net growth of 398 000 people a year between the last census in 2001 and this year.

Coloureds experienced 1.17 percent per annum growth, Africans 0.96 percent and Asians 0.89 percent. But whites suffered a -0.05 percent decline.

This net loss of 2 420 whites over the past five years was probably due in part to emigration patterns, said Steenkamp, noting that there had been a significant undercount in predominantly white residential areas because of the "iron gates and Rottweiler effect" that kept census-takers at bay.

But there are other social forces at work as well: the continuation of official race classification in the guise of affirmative action in the post-apartheid era has seen the self-defined coloured population soar from 3,6 million people in 1996 to an unlikely 4 million people in 2005.

Steenkamp said the figures showed that even the coloured population's growth rate was slowing, relative to previous estimates, so he doubted that any current "self-re-classification" was much of a factor.

But Odimegwu said it was possible that blacks were increasingly reclassifying themselves coloured to improve their upward mobility, especially in the Western Cape.

"This needs to be unpacked," he said.

The statistics game in South Africa was still a hit-and-miss affair, with a 17 percent undercount in Census 2001, which gave a total of 44,8 million South Africans - revised upwards in the middle of this year - to 46,9 million thanks to, among other factors, better mortality information.

Steenkamp said there had to have been undercounts of as much as 40 percent in some districts for a 17 percent average. The HIV prevalence of 10 percent of the population was also having an effect, he said.

Steenkamp's study also shows that three quarters of South Africa's 1,1 million Asians live in KwaZulu-Natal, almost 60 percent of all coloureds live in the Western Cape, while almost 40 percent of South Africa's 5,2 million whites live in Gauteng and nearly 20 percent in the Western Cape.

For reasons that are still unclear, Gauteng's total number of residents this year is - at 8,5 million - significantly down on the 8,8 million given by Census 2001.