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How much can we rely on Census 2022?

How much can we rely on Census 2022?

The latest South African Census, released this week, is a hugely important set of numbers that will be used to shape policy and budgets. But is it accurate enough?

Three experts expressed concern to Daily Maverick this week about the extent of the undercount of the just-released Census 2022. The undercount refers to the proportion of the population who were missed during counting.

For Census 2022, that figure is 31%.

The experts, who did not wish to be named, stressed that a fuller picture of what happened would be available only once the relevant Census data has been worked through. But the undercount figure of 31% is considered a significant cause for alarm.

The previous closest contender was in 2001 when the undercount was at 17% – a figure former Statistician-General Pali Lehohla would later characterise as Stats SA having “lost the plot”.

For Census 2012, the undercount of 14.6% was considered a concern – particularly because the previous year, Lehohla had promised that the double-digit undercount would be a “thing of the past”.

In this latest census, the undercount has more than doubled.

In developed countries, the census undercount usually hovers around one to 2%. Different countries employ different methodologies to calculate the undercount, so direct comparisons are difficult, but research suggests that the average in African countries is less than 5%.

Stats SA bullish, regardless

Stats SA has downplayed the problem of the undercount on this occasion.

Asked by Daily Maverick whether the fact that the undercount had doubled from 2011 was considered a concern, a joint response from the post-enumeration survey and Census 2022 project teams said:

“Census 2022 was affected by unprecedented challenges, including riots, ongoing Covid-19 lockdowns and climate change issues such as flooding in some parts of the country.

“Stats SA endeavours in all their collections to have improved coverage rate. We will continue to innovate with the aim of improving coverage generally in our surveys and census.”

62,027,503 and counting — the Census 2022 data in charts

Elsewhere, Statistician-General Risenga Maluleke has been quoted as saying that the validity of the Census numbers should not be doubted because the necessary adjustments had been made to reflect the undercount.

“The provinces with the higher undercounts mean they will have higher adjustments when we are dealing with adjustments out of what we got and what we are adjusting, and this is done in line with the United Nations methods and that makes sure that we have the quality of our data guaranteed,” Maluleka was quoted as saying by EWN.

Two of the experts Daily Maverick spoke to this week drew attention to the particularly high undercount of white and Indian South Africans.

The Census 2022 findings showed the white population of South Africa in marked decline, dropping to 7.3% of the population. In certain age groups, such as 0 to 4-year-olds, whites are recorded as low as 4% of the population. The Indian and Asian population accounts for 2.7% of the total population.

The post-enumeration survey records the undercount for white South Africans as 61.64% and for Indian South Africans as 72.3% – as compared with an undercount for black South Africans of 36.74%.

[UPDATE: On 1 November 2022, Stats SA contacted us to tell us that the undercount figures contained in the post-enumeration survey were incorrect because they were preliminary estimates, not final estimates. Stats SA says that the final undercount figure for white South Africans is 24,86% and the final undercount figure for Indian South Africans is 42,10%].

Stats SA hinted to Daily Maverick that white and Indian South Africans may have been more reluctant to open the door to Census counters, or less accessible, saying: “Stats SA continues to have challenges with conducting fieldwork in high-walled and gated communities. Census was no exception.”

Part of the complexity is that the post-enumeration survey, which takes place after the Census and is used to estimate the undercount, had a very high undercount itself.

“According to the results from the matching process, a member of the in-scope population had an approximately 58.54% chance of being enumerated in the Census, 65.96% chance of being enumerated in the post-enumeration survey, and 38.61% chance of being enumerated in both,” it states.

Figures around homelessness and migration

Two aspects of the Census findings have already raised eyebrows: the figures around homelessness and international immigrants.

The Census recorded 55,719 homeless people nationally. 

Daily Maverick asked Richard Bolland, the founder of New Hope SA – an organisation that works with unhoused men in Cape Town – what he made of that figure.

“I don’t have any concrete figures for South Africa but there have been a number of research findings in Cape Town to suggest that the number of unhoused people is around 14,000,” Bollard said. (Census 2022 records 9,743 homeless people in Cape Town.)

If one were to extrapolate from that, Bollard suggested, 55,719 “seems a very low estimate” for total numbers nationally.

census 2022

The Census figures for international immigrants, meanwhile, have surprised many. It records 2,418,197 international migrants – which would suggest that in the decade between 2001 and 2011, South Africa gained more than a million migrants, but in the decade between 2011 and 2022, less than 300,000.

Making these results more confusing is the fact that the 2020 mid-year population estimates by Stats SA estimated that there were 3.9 million migrants in South Africa.

This was a figure Stats SA reiterated in August 2021, with Statistician-General Maluleke quoted as saying: “If one uses the output of foreign-born persons enumerated in Census 2011 and adds to it the net international migrants for the period 2011-2016, as well as the period 2016-2021 from the 2021 mid-year population estimates, one would get an estimation of 3.95 million persons.”

What explains the almost 1.5 million discrepancy?

Diego Iturralde, from Stats SA’s mid-year population estimates team, said there were several reasons why foreign-born people might want to avoid being counted as such – including the periodic upticks in xenophobic violence.

“In essence, we share your concern about migrant numbers, but we do not feel this is due to them being mainly missed out, but rather that foreign nationals may have reported themselves as South African-born,” Iturralde said.

“We are quite confident around the population count and do not feel that we would need to add to that count the foreign-born people who are not captured as such. We will continue to monitor any migration data that we collect so as to update this number…” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Les Thorpe says:

    Where I reside in the Western Cape, I am aware of many, many Malawians and Zimbabweans who are either employed (as gardeners, waitrons, construction workers, etc.), or are looking for work and who specifically avoid any contact with the authorities. Apparently one of the most common ways to enter South Africa is to obtain a three month visa at any border crossing on the pretext of vacationing, and then overstay (for years and years). I do not believe that Stats SA has any idea of the number of illegal immigrants/undocumented foreigners in the country. The numbers probably equate to over five million.

  • virginia crawford says:

    It’s hard to imagine that the census figures for Jhb CBD, for example are accurate. Extrapolate this and consider that most illegal immigrants would avoid filling in any forms. So no, I don’t trust these figures.

  • Cachunk Cachunk says:

    This is an ANC government led initiative, so it’s bound to be catastrophically incorrect.

  • Ali Botha says:

    Someone on our Community Facebook page (Howick, KZN) asked people to comment on whether they were included in Census 2022… that was 3 days ago, so far the comments are all ‘no’. Some organisation was paid a significant amount of money to produce totally unreliable data.

  • Nic Bosveld says:

    Another ”tick-the-box” exercise by the cadres. Done and dusted, details don’t matter.

  • Cornay Bester says:

    So using the same high governmental standards I can pay 31% less tax?
    If you don’t succeed the fist time, try again. Numeracy was never a government strong point.

  • Erna Westdyk says:

    There are just to many people saying that they weren’t counted for this Census to be correct.

  • Lawrence Sisitka says:

    From our own experience here in the rural area around Makhanda, I would say that the 31% estimate is probably fairly accurate. In our immediate area none of the farmworkers or informal rural dwellers were counted; they never even saw an enumerator. I know, because we informed everyone to expect the census people to come, and no-one did. I did follow up after the first week and was told the situation would be rectified before the process closed, but it wasn’t. There was apparently a big issue with one of the senior enumerators disappearing with a vehicle he had been provided with, and it was known that he did not count a single person. We ourselves were only counted because we did it online. My friends in Joza and other townships said that they knew of only a few people who were counted in their areas. So, yes, I am sure there was quite substantial undercounting, which of course defeats the whole purpose.

  • David McCormick says:

    Up to now, news reports on Census 2022 have felt hollow. Statistics reported do not feel correct to me. While I do not have the figures, Cape Town alone feels like it has 55,000 homeless. What is the criteria for being considered homeless? Are the people who build illegal shacks on City, Provincial and National land considered as having a roof over their heads? There is no infrastructure to support these settlements. Many of the illegal structures are in areas that get flooded in the wet seasons. The only statistic of Census 2022 that is possibly correct is that there is a 31% undercount, but of what?

  • Charles Guise-Brown says:

    I really struggle to understand how the govt and media are making such a big deal about the total population when we have an id system for all citizens and residents and border control. Sure there is a big number, > 1 million illegally in SA. Sure the census helps with the geography of the population for the allocation of funds to provinces. But the total population? What does the DHA do in the 10 years between censuses as it is supposed to register all births and deaths and immigration and emigration? Just saying.

    • Linda Harrower says:

      I agree completely. We live in an age of data intelligence. Just put the right people in the right places that can ensure our various data sources are structured to enable this data to be correlated to provide many useful insights.

      May I add that in Cape town none of my family or friends were approached although I did see a cluster of young women on the corner of our street that I presumed were census-takers but the anticipated knock on the door never came. We completed it online mainly because of requests by our premier to do so. This has to be the way to go in future. Many poor people have cell phones and with free data could be persuaded to do so. I wonder how much it cost to train and pay the census-takers, and whether payment was performance related.

  • Frank Fox says:

    I guess I am the exception then. I live in a boomed suburb in the North of Gauteng and the census people were here in numbers. We were forewarned of their visit so were successful in counting us. That doesn’t change the criticism of the census results though. Just thought I would add a small positive to all the negative comment.

    • Steven D says:

      Amazing how the picture can change so much in such a short distance. In Joburg’s West Rand, I didn’t see one Stats SA staff member and I don’t even live in a gated estate, much less a boomed-off suburb.

  • Richard Robinson says:

    “…the undercount figure of 31% is considered a significant cause for alarm.”

    A normal day for the Ineptocracy…

  • Arnold Nadel says:

    We did the census online, but most of our neighbours did not. There were only numerators walking in the street, but did not make any attempt to enter any house.

  • Johan Buys says:

    You’d imagine with modern technology, the gap is not hard to quantify.

    So if 101 Wisteria Lane was covered in 2011 census but has no data for 2022 – we know it has not disappeared…

    Aerial mapping very easily identifies buildings and even size of the building. Overlay the 2022 data on the visible map, you’ll see how many homes were not covered and you can make assumptions based on 2011 data as well as neighborhood data for the missing homes.

    Does it matter?

    Well, resounding yes! The central revenue allocation to provinces and municipalities is derived from census data. So if council knows it has 250,000 residents, but Census says it has 170,000 then council has a significant revenue problem on its hands.

  • Bewe 1414 says:

    I want to add: the Census is nonsense. Do you know how many people actually lie about their “race”. There is just no way of knowing who is what anymore, because we all have mixed heritage. If you happen to look a little darker than brown, then well done- you have yourself a ticket to benefits. What about “black people” that look like “coloureds”. I hate the race thing. I think it is crap. If the country wants to use useful data, then they must use the financial status of people to plan adequately.

  • Colin Braude says:

    Has the census been compared to the Voters Roll and Population Register?

  • Ben.fredlund says:

    In Hilton, KZN. As far as I know there was no attempt to visit from the census team, and I work from home.

    I completed our household return online.

  • Kid Charlemagne says:

    I recall the “middle class” balking at the idea of allowing some stranger into their homes and having to answer a litany of seemingly silly questions. Then, the online option was introduced where you could complete the exercise in the comfort of your cordoned-off community. The fact that that didn’t solve the problem, suggests other issues with our government continue to fester.

  • Matthew Quinton says:

    The census team came past my house and I didn’t let them in.

    I knew about the online option but I honestly deeply and truthfully could not give a flying f&ck about taking part, or being counted, or describing myself in terms of age, “race” or anything else.

    As long as the ANC in charge I am just not interested in being counted and being used as a stat for whatever devious use they make of it. It certainly wont be used for anything useful and paying TAX in this country is tantamount to funding crime.

    I did have a laugh at the reasons for the undercount however… “climate change” hahahahahahah… Best one yet.

    So I guess the new “Apartheid Legacy” is now “Climate Change”

    Ah yes… the Southern African inability for self criticism is spectacular. Maybe the White and Indian saffers are just completely gatvol?

    If someone could find a way to build a dam across the river of denial and generate “hayibo”electrical power we would solve the Eskom crises overnight.

  • Bewe 1414 says:

    I really want to stress this point: RACE categories are a farce, which makes census a farce. Reason: Your race – is basically what you think you are. What are the criteria for being black? Are you going to compare shades of skin colour, because so many black people look like coloureds. Coloured people look like white people and vice versa. We cannot use your surname to define race, neither can you use language to define race. You can be so fair skinned, and yet meet all the criteria, which people use today to declare “blackness”, that you can then declare that you are black. So, what criteria would you use to define race? Your race is what you think you are. You will then tick the appropriate block. And if you are unsure, the census staff will list you as “other”. So, one can see how stupid defining race really is. Why everyone is not protesting this race categories- is because it benefits only certain categories. Honestly, can anyone tell me who their ancestors were 200 years ago- so that they can be certain they’re in no other races in their genealogy? So, you see, your race, is just a figment of your imagination, that was invented by people who wanted to enslave people of other cultures as a means of degrading their humanity. Yet we are still using these categories today.

    • Eduardo Fernández says:

      I understand your point. Here in Latin America, we are very mixed, but we also had to fill in (in Ecuador, census 2022) the category of race, which were White, African, Mixed, Indigenous. Being indigenous means belonging to one of the many indigenous groups in a small country like Ecuador, and you had to specify that group. That is not difficult being indigenous, as everyone identifies with one. But for the other categories, it is not reliable at all. We don’t think of ourselves as blacks and whites, simply. Some people see their skin and that is the answer. Some people look like Spaniards and even Scandinavians, some people look like Africans, but most of us are in the middle. The worst, the worst part, even as it was voluntary, was the question about sexual orientation. I answered the form for my family, how can someone ask such a very personal question? I didn’t.

  • Dr Kerryn Krige says:

    Stats SA is a wonderful institution which collects a raft of data on a range of topics. There are always inadequacies, limitations and difficulties with any research process. These are acknowledged, and is the point of having the data. Data collection is the start of the discussion (and policy development process), rather than the end of it, which is implied here. It is also disingenuous for the author to use a hard-to-reach population group (homeless people) as an example of inadequacy in the count. Instead appreciate that we have the data, we have the data over time because of Stats SA, and we have different types of data, which allows us to check, question and recheck our assumptions. This is not a weakness. It is a strength.

  • Rob Wilson says:

    I do not know a single person who says they trust the government with detailed information, so why would they willingly fill in a census form?

  • mike muller says:

    Careful with how you present the results:

    The Census 2022 findings DID NOT show”the white population of South Africa in marked decline” – the overall number showed a small INCREASE !

    The PROPORTION fell and, in addition, the number of CHILDREN did fall. So the white population is increasing slowly and getting older – just like most of Europe… 😏

  • I live here in Kloof, Durban, KZN in a Cal de Sac. There are 9 of us living here in my house alone and NOT ONE OF US WERE ASKED TO be a part of the census. Let alone ANY ONE else in the other 8 houses. So the figures that are quoted in the census are laughable, to say the LEAST.

  • My family and I have not been counted in the past three censuses. I therefore have serious doubts that little if any information published as a result will be useful.

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