Yesterday and today, but what of tomorrow?

The 2007 Community ­Survey conducted by Statistics South Africa gives an impressive account of our developmental progress, concluding that “today is better than yesterday”. The survey also makes it clear that our society is undergoing massive changes. From the most intimate relations to the most abstract levels of social interaction, communities are in flux.

So while today might be better than yesterday, policymakers also need to ensure that tomorrow will be better than today. The survey raises as many questions about the future as it answers about the present, providing a useful glimpse of some of the policy challenges that lie ahead—none of which lend themselves to easy answers.

Growing urbanisation is likely to be a constant for decades to come. More than 70% of households are now in formal dwellings. If the rate of formal housing provision continues we are likely to see a steadily growing urban sprawl around major centres, which will require a constant supply of land. Building more houses will also set in motion the need for infrastructural developments to support residential living.

The choices we make about these developments might seem positive today, but will they be sustainable in the future? As it stands, the national electricity grid cannot cope with current demand. If we undertake to provide more electricity in the way that we do now, how will we supply it reliably?

The increase in formal housing has been accompanied by growing access to waste removal. Reports suggest, however, that existing landfill capacity is already reaching saturation in the metropoles. How will South Africa cope? And how will we handle the increased sanitation needs of our expanding formal housing developments without destroying our environment?

The survey also highlights the impact of social and economic trends on the family and the kinds of communities we are building. Though the number of households is growing, the average household size is shrinking. More than 40% of households now consist of one or two people. Research undertaken by the Human Sciences Research Council notes that more women living on social grants are becoming heads of households, but many of them lack the resources to migrate to potential job centres. Meanwhile, more black youth are migrating on their own in search of independence from family.

In poor communities, on average, six people depend on one wage earner. And it is widely accepted that it is increasingly difficult to find permanent employment in the agricultural and industrial sectors, leading to high levels of mobility motivated by the search for employment.

South Africa is experiencing increased social atomisation, with smaller and smaller units of living reshaping and disaggregating family interdependence.

Changes in the family structure and labour force account for a large part of the shifting relations between men and women—including making women more independent—while the social status of women linked to grants will also have long-term consequences for gender relations.

These trends have important implications if we believe that social cohesion and institutions such as the family can encourage constructive forms of community. This will also have policy implications for how we address challenges such as risky sexual practices, criminality and violence. Greater atomisation makes it more difficult to create shared spaces with common values and feelings of obligation towards others. Combined with the expansion of formal housing developments that absorb families from informal settlements, it implies that social trust built up through local familiarity over time cannot necessarily be assumed in the future, and will have to be actively fostered.

On the education front the survey notes that the number of people over 20 years old with no education declined from 17,9% in 2001 to 10,3% in 2007. This tells us that more South Africans should be literate. The link between poverty, job creation and education is, however, worth exploring. Most new jobs are created in the service sector and favour low skills. Such jobs tend to be low paid and transient, and do not lift people out of poverty over the long term.

Although the Community Survey highlights an increase in some secondary schooling among South Africans over age 20, it also shows a troubling trend: a decrease in those with grade 12 qualifications between 2001 and 2007, from 20,4% to 18,6%. More youth are going on to secondary schooling, but fewer are matriculating. How do we account for this? If we are to create a more skilled labour workforce, we need to reverse this trend, generating more students who are eligible for tertiary education.

The Community Survey tells us that we have made important advances in improving the quality of life of South Africans in a range of areas, and this has a positive effect on the dignity and livelihood of citizens. The survey also tells us that most people feel their lives have improved.

The successful solutions we develop to address the urgent social problems of ordinary South Africans will, however, have to be considered not only in relation to how we feel today, but also tomorrow and the day after.

Suren Pillay, a senior lecturer in political studies at the University of the Western Cape, is on secondment to the democracy and governance programme of the Human Sciences Research Council

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