If there was no HIV/Aids, South Africa would have 4.4 million more people than today, the size of some major cities in the world. This significant slow-down in population growth is, however, causing a slow-down in economic growth and resulting in social ills, researchers warn.
New data by a research organisation, South African Institute for Race Relations (SAIRR), shows that South Africa should count 55 million citizens this year. But it only has a population of 50.6 million.
“The decrease in population has a negative impact on South Africa, because the group living with HIV is aged between 15 and 49 years, which is the most productive part of the population,” as SAIRR researcher Thuthukani Ndebele says.
South Africa was quickly losing large chunks of its workforce and skills, which led to loss of productivity. The institute’s analysis – which is based on statistics sourced from the Actuarial Society of South Africa and the South African Institute for Futures Research – shows that almost a third of all deaths in 2011 were HIV- related. By 2025, this proportion is expected to rise to a whopping 121 per cent more deaths than there were in 2000, according to SAIRR.
Economic experts have no doubt that this will slow down economic growth.
“An epidemic like this, that effects a large proportion of the population, has undeniably a negative economic impact,” David Hornsby, a researcher in the department of International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg says. “It limits the amount of educated and skilled people who participate in production, entrepreneurship, innovation and development.”
SAIRR further predicts that the total number of people living with HIV/Aids will reach six million in 2015, which is double the number recorded in 2000. “This should be a serious wake-up call for South Africa. It would be a serious crisis for the country’s economic and social development,” says Hornsby.
Not only does HIV/Aids reduce life expectancy and increase mortality, it is largely responsible for wider social ills such as orphanhood and child-headed households. In 2009, about two million South African children had lost one or both parents, according to United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).
“Almost a third of South Africa’s population, or 31 per cent, is under the age of 15 today,” Unicef chief of child survival and development Dr Siobhan Crowley says.
“This signifies a serious population imbalance. And the South African government is struggling to provide support to those young people, in terms of education, social welfare and health services.”
The large number of orphans in this age group as well as households led by grandparents has started to create an increased level of dependency on the social welfare system, which demands an ever growing slice of the country’s national budget.
South African social welfare organisations confirm persistently increasing levels of destitution due to HIV/Aids. “The numbers of families in need, people who are unable to meet their most basic needs, are growing continuously,” cautions Bernice Roeland, the director of Cape Town-based NGO, AIDS Response.
She worries that without concerted efforts to prevent new HIV infections and handle existing infections more effectively, the future burden on South Africa’s social welfare will become unbearable.
“Issues like social welfare, health, food security, poverty and housing are all tightly interlinked,” says Roeland. “If the long-term investments in our people, especially in our children, are not thorough enough, the social system might eventually collapse.”
SAIRR researchers say they are particularly concerned about the increased burden HIV/Aids will have on the public health system. According to the World Bank, South Africa spent almost nine per cent of its GDP on health in 2009 – almost double the amount than most developed nations. This percentage might increase in the near future even further.
“Nine per cent is a significant amount. Health budgets might have to increase even further, if government wants to prevent HIV/Aids from having an even more negative impact on the economy than it already has,” says Ndebele.
Experts from research, economic and social sectors therefore all stressed the urgent need to make a bigger effort to prevent new HIV infections – as the only way to effectively reduce the costs of the illness places on society.