Institute of Race Relations reckons there are ‘Reasons for Hope’ – Really?

by Steuart Pennington

This is the second “Reasons for Hope” document the IRR has published, so let’s troll through the findings, but before we do that let’s reflect on Bill Gates’ reminder that “bad news arrives as drama, while good news is incremental – and not usually deemed newsworthy” TIME Jan 2018.

So, what ‘trends’ have we missed?


Real GDP per capita: This has increased from R42 368 in 1994 to R56 020 in 2017 – over 30%, rapid growth occurred during the boom years from 1994 to 2007 and has since slowed down. Same can be said for per capita income, 32% in the first decade 10% in the second decade.

Inflation: in the 1980s we had inflation reach a peak of 20%. Between 1994 and 2017 it has remained consistently in the 3% to 6% range. Why? Sensible macro-economic management.

Budget Deficit: (difference between how much we spend versus how much we earn as a country) At -7.1% in 1994 it has consistently come down even to the point when we had a surplus in 2007. It is now at -4.3% projected to decline to -3.5% in 2021.

Government Debt: (How much we owe as a country) using government bond yields as a measure of debt financing costs, the yield has reduced from 16.8% in 1994 to 8.7% in 2018. However, our debt to GDP ratio has steadily increased since 2007 and now stands at 50%, the highest in 20 years.

Labour market performance: 1994: 43% of black South Africans were economically active, in 2017: 58.7% “the impact on living standards and independence, dignity, and self-respect of households was considerable” says IRR.

Demographics of Seniority: 1996: 8% of executives were black and 10% were in management. 2016: 37% of executives were black and 36% were in senior management representing an improvement over the period of 363%.

Employment: 1994: 7.9 million people were in employment, of which 4.9 million were black. 2017: 16.1 million are in formal employment of which 12 million are black. This figure ignores some 6.5 million blacks who are employed in the informal sector. This represents a growth of 141%, during the same period the population grew by an estimated 25%

Living Standards:

Living standards are measured in 10 different categories LSM 1 – LSM 10. 2001: 38% of South Africans lived in LSM’s 1-3 and 45% in LSM 4-7. 2015: 10% lived in LSM’s 1-3 and 67% in LSM’s 4-7.

Formal dwellings, piped water and electricity provision: 1996: there were 5.7 million formal households and 1.4 million informal shacks. 2016: there were 13.4 million formal households and 2.1 million informal shacks (If each household comprises four people, then 53.6 million South Africans live in formal dwellings). 11.5 million households have flush toilets. 15.2 million have electricity for lighting. 10.8 million have refuse removal.

Motor vehicle ownership: 1999: there was 3.8 million ‘owned’ cars. 2017: that number was 7.1 million.

University Enrolment: 1985: 211,000 students registered and in 2015: 825,000 registered, a growth of 289%. 1985: 20% of enrolments were black and 64% white. 2015: 70% of enrolments were black and 16.4% were white.

University Standards: there are 20,000 registered universities globally, South Africa has 26 universities, 11 of our universities are ranked in the top 800, or top 4% (Source QS Survey) in 2018, 7 in 2012.

Life expectancy: 2017: South Africans live for 10 years longer than they did in 2002.

Health: HIV/Aids new infections have reduced from 650,000 in 1999 to 267,000 in 2016. The infant mortality rate has reduced by 32%. The number of general practitioners has grown from 7,500 to 14,000 (+85%).

Crime: the murder rate has dropped from 67 per 100,000 in 1994 to 30 per 100 000 in 2017. (This still makes us a top 10 country in terms of violent crime, sadly 75% of the victims know their attackers by name. 2018 saw an increase in the murder rate of 6%)

Clearly, much of the above is incremental and mostly unnewsworthy ‘according to’ Bill Gates

Some other stats not included in the IRR report, that I think are relevant:

Tourism: in 1994 we had 3.5 million visitors, in 2017 just over 16 million visitors. South Africa is the third fastest growing tourism destination globally.

Road Network: our road network is the 10th largest in the world as measured in kilometers (not as ratio of the country’s size)

Population growth: for a population to remain stable 2.2 children per fertile woman is required. South Africa’s current growth rate is 2.3 children per fertile woman.

The number of social grant recipients in 1999 was 22 000. In 2018 the number is just over 12 million children receiving R410 a month

64% of our youth feel generally content, 43% are using social media to find goods and services suited to themselves, 93% have a social media account (UCT Unilever Institute)


If ‘bad news arrives as drama’ well, there’s plenty of drama in South Africa. A ‘technical’ recession; civil protests everywhere; burning govt. buildings; Eskom on the brink; failing municipalities; rising crime; expropriation without compensation; endless corruption cases; the Zondo Commission of Inquiry; broken bridges in JHB; Trump tweets on SA…………. more than enough to keep our journalists busy. As Bill Gates says “it is good that bad news gets attention. If you want to improve the world, you need something to be mad about. But it has to be balanced by the upsides. When you see good things happening, you can channel your energy into driving even more progress.”

As the IRR concludes, Our sense is that far more has been achieved in South Africa over the past two decades than many people understand. There is a lot to be proud of and in no way is it true to say that ‘South Africa is no better than it was in 1994’, or that ‘South Africans have refused to work together to bring about change’. This is a substantively better society to live in than it was in 1994. We think that, as a result of that progress, social and other relations remain predominantly sound. But there must be no doubt that the radical inflection of government policy after 2007 did great harm to the South African economy and stalled much of the progress that was being made up to that point. If policy makers can adopt sensible ideas that draw investment, create new wealth and jobs, and grow the economy, then there is no reason to believe that the trajectory our country was on into 2007 cannot be resumed. But it is now more certain than ever that, if the requisite degree of economic performance cannot again be secured, reckless and dangerous commentators and politicians in our midst may deflect public criticism of their own failures down lines of populist and nationalist incitement. That must be stopped if our hope for a better future is to be realised.”