South Africa: race and the census

While I was in Cape Town last week, the South African statistics bureau released preliminary results from the 2011 census. Interesting stuff for someone who is particularly interested in the census and race politics.

For South Africa, the obvious and immediate questions that come up are, how are life styles evolving? And how does this compare across the races?

The various news outlets seem pretty confused about whether to report good news or bad news. For instance, the Mail and Guardian headlines that it will take, “50 Years for Blacks to Catch up,” with

an article that begins:

The first flush of data from Census 2011 released by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) on Tuesday showed a number of differences between the races, especially white and black. But none stand so stark as the inequality in education and income.

And indeed, most of the headlines point out the obvious — that enormous income and wealth differentials remain between whites and blacks, on average.

But the more important story is the trends:

South Africa’s older white population (with a median age of 38, compared to 21 for black people) didn’t grow wealthy faster than their black counterparts over the last 10 years. In fact, quite the contrary. Black household income growth between the 2001 census and the latest version averaged 169%, compared to an increase of just 88% for white households.

And of course, averages don’t tell the whole story. Can you really compare the income of individuals with vastly different educational profiles? And alternatively, the types of data that the census captures, such as years of schooling, don’t account for the important differences in terms of quality of education, which continues to skew heavily towards whites. This is no longer the product of deliberately discriminatory policy, but a more complicated story that is tied to longstanding patterns.

So is the news bad or good? Ok, I’ll admit that I also think it’s pretty tough to boil down a very complicated picture to a single digestible message, but from what I’ve seen, I think the numbers look better than I would have thought. Service delivery appears up everywhere, and most relevant trends are positive. Over the next few weeks and months, I plan to dive more deeply into the data, and I will report back again.

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