Are there 70-million people in South Africa?

Immigrants outside the Department of Home Affairs. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Immigrants outside the Department of Home Affairs. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

The last census estimated that there were 52-million people in SA. Recent reports cited claims by an academic that 20-million people weren't counted.

How many people are there in South Africa? The country’s last census, conducted in 2011, estimated that there were 51.8-million people in the country. The latest population estimates put the number at 54-million. But could the population be as high as 70-million?

Eric Nealer, a professor of public administration and management at the University of South Africa (Unisa), certainly thinks so. The Afrikaans newspaper Beeld and website Netwerk24 recently published an article about his claims. 

Nealer, they reported, believes Rand Water, a Gauteng province water utility, may not have the capacity to provide water for the uncounted millions. “There are possibly 70-million people in South Africa and not 51.8-million as shown in the 2011 census,” the report read.

Could there be an extra 20-million people in the country? We looked into the claim and compared the numbers.

What is the claim based on?
Nealer told Africa Check that there had been: 

• A 20% undercount in the 2011 census, which would add another 10.5-million people 

• Yearly population growth of 2%, which would add another 4-million people 

• The “counted number of illegal immigrants”, which would add another 6-million people.

On this basis, Nealer concluded that there are an additional 20.5-million people in South Africa. This, according to his calculations, would bring the country’s total population to 72.5-million people. 

He told Africa Check that it was necessary for him to “play devil’s advocate in warning our macro planners about the growing and now also seemingly unmonitored population of the country”. He did not provide evidence to support any of his claims.

Undercount: 10.5-million people
Nealer claims that there was an undercount of 20% in the last census. “Stats SA has acknowledged an undercount in each and every census they carried out ... I cannot but think that we again had an undercount of at least 20% in the 2011 census,” Nealer wrote in an email.

He’s half right. Stats SA has reported undercounts in every census it has conducted. In 1996 a 10% undercount was reported and it jumped to 17.9% in 2001. But in 2011 the undercount was 14.6%, not 20% as Nealer claims. Undercounts this high aren’t good. Stats SA notes that the average undercount in African countries and globally is less than 5%.

Stats SA uses what is known as Post Enumeration Survey to determine the extent of an undercount or overcount. The survey is conducted immediately after the census to evaluate the quality of census data and provides a statistical basis for adjusting census data, such as population estimates.

Nealer did not provide any evidence to support this claim. But it appears that he has wrongly concluded that an undercount percentage was not used to adjust the census population estimates. 

Angela Ngyende, the demography manager at Stats SA , told Africa Check that the population estimate of 51.8-million people had taken the 14.6% undercount into consideration.

While there was controversy surrounding the release of the 2011 census data, we were unable to find evidence to support Nealer’s claim.

Population growth: 4-million people
Nealer has also relied on a higher, unsubstantiated population growth estimate. “Taking into account the lack of effective counting of citizens in the country the current population growth figure ... of 1.5% is also debatable”, said Nealer. He consequently based his calculations on his own annual population growth rate estimate of “approximately 2%”.

In 2014, Stats SA estimated that the population growth rate was 1.58% and that there were 54-million people in South Africa.

Dr Latifat Ibisomi, from the University of the Witwatersrand’s Department of Demography and Population Studies, told Africa Check that Nealer needed to back up his claim. “We rely on Stats SA’s number. They have calculated that figure and if anyone else has opinions or other estimates then they should prove them,” she said.

Illegal immigrants: 6-million people
Nealer told Africa Check that while official figures showed around 5-million illegal immigrants in South Africa, he believed this number was “debatable”. He estimated the number of illegal immigrants to be 6-million.

Professor Loren Landau, director of the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand, told Africa Check that “there’s no reason to believe that there are 6-million ‘illegals’ [living in South Africa]”.

“While the census figure is almost certainly an undercount, it corresponds to most of the other data points we’ve seen. Moreover, I’ve never seen any justification for a particular, higher figure,” he added. The 2011 census estimated that there were 2.3-million foreign born nationals living in South Africa.

The census counts both legal and illegal immigrants as noted by a Stats SA 2011 discussion document. Diego Iturralde, executive manager for demography at Stats SA, told Africa Check that “some undocumented migrants may have avoided the census enumerators for fear of their personal data being passed onto the authorities and hence the 2.3-million may be marginally higher”. 

However, he said that this would have been compensated for by the Post Enumeration Survey.

The vast majority of immigrants – legal and illegal – would have been counted in the last census and were included in the 2011 population estimate.

Conclusion – The claim cannot be substantiated
Nealer’s claim that there are 72-million people in South Africa cannot be substantiated. The most recent census data suggests there are currently 54-million people in the country.

Nealer used questionable census undercount percentages, population growth rates and illegal immigrant numbers to support his claim. Although he said that he would provide evidence to support his claims, he did not do so.

Africa Check is a non-profit fact-checking website.
Visit the website on www.africacheck.org

Twitter: @AfricaCheck

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