In our mid-month edition, we carry this thought-provoking column by Pierre Heistein, which first appeared in Business Report.

Last week came with the release of this year’s Social Progress index and once again, South Africa didn’t fail to make life difficult for anyone trying to measure quality of life.

The index measures a number of indicators – both economic and social – and compares countries to their closest peers in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. In South Africa’s case this includes Serbia, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Macedonia, Algeria, China, Jordan, Costa Rica, Peru, Tunisia, Montenegro, Iraq, Ecuador, Botswana and Thailand.

Given the diversity of political and economic regimes among this selection, it’s weak to group them by an indicator as narrow as GDP per capita, but it does tell an interesting story of what different countries are able to achieve with similar levels of resources per person. The story of South Africa is that it provides exceptional opportunity but achieves little with it.

South Africa outstrips its peers in personal freedom and choice and tolerance and inclusion, ranking 27th and 25th out of 133 respectively. Within these categories, South Africa shows higher than average tolerance for homosexuals, immigrants and choice of religion. South Africans enjoy exceptionally high freedom of speech, assembly, association and movement – a stain that has successfully been washed out after the controlling laws of apartheid.


Access to advanced education in South Africa exceeds that of its peers. An interesting finding that came out of the study is that South Africa has one of the highest girls-to-boys ratios in secondary education: 126 girls for every 100 boys.

South Africa’s adult literacy rate is 94.27 percent and secondary school enrolment is almost 95 percent.

South Africa ranks 44th in the world for access to information and communications. There are 149.19 mobile subscriptions per 100 people and 49 percent of the population are internet users. Impressively, South Africa ranks 32nd in the world for freedom of press, putting it far ahead of its economic peers.

But despite all this access to progress, we are too busy killing each other and ourselves with guns, cars and disease to enjoy it. South Africa ranks 127th out of the 133 countries studied for homicide rates – 31.86 people per 100 000 die at the hands of crime. Twenty-five people of every 100 000 die in traffic accidents and 13 commit suicide. South Africans have a 28.85 percent chance of dying from a non-communicable disease – one of the highest in the world – and 28.8 percent of the population are obese.

While the Social Progress index is relatively new, it’s a welcome addition to a range of studies that look beyond just economic performance to measure the success of a country. As the economy with the highest income disparity in the world, South Africa is familiar with the idea that rising financial aggregates do not lift individuals out of poverty, keep their children safe or provide access to self-determination.


This year’s social progress results show an interesting map of where responsibility should lie. Corruption in government is rife – although South Africa ranks only 49th of 133, which says more about the world than it does about South Africa. But indicators show that the government has done well to provide services that individual citizens can’t: fair legal frameworks, freedom of choice, access to education and a wide reaching community safety net (South Africa ranks 29th globally).

The largest problems lie in areas where individuals could take responsibility, but prefer to shirk it. Violent crime is a systematic problem with many causes that the government could address – poor law enforcement, access to weapons and involvement of officials, for example. But ultimately violent crime is driven by the demand for drug consumption, racial prejudice and xenophobia, and the morals and priorities taught in homes; studies show that violent crime is not driven by poverty. Road deaths are not caused by a lack of traffic cops but by people choosing to exceed speed limits and drink and drive, or remain silent when others do.

Social progress is a social problem. Just as economic indicators cannot fully measure quality of life, neither can the government alone improve it.

* Pierre Heistein is the instructor of UCT’s Applied Economics for Smart Decision Making course. Follow him on Twitter @PierreHeistein.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.
The article appeared in Business Report on 7 July.