Fewer children the new norm

2014-03-29 00:00

EVERY morning Thobile Cele and Lihle Mshengu rise before dawn and travel across Pietermaritzburg to a cleaning job, which starts at 6 am.

They dream of a better life.

“I have other goals. I want to achieve more,” said Mshengu (26), who’d like to be a nurse or work in an old age home. She has two children and doesn’t want any more. Her goal is to make money “for their future”. Cele (26), has one child and wants to study further. She said she’d like to have two more children, but later.

The pair’s aspirations and choices are part of a decades-long pattern that has contributed to the biggest plunge in fertility seen yet on the continent. South Africa’s fertility rate (the number of children a woman has in her lifetime) has fallen dramatically in the past 50 years and is approaching “replacement rate”, when the country’s population stabilises.

What is significant is that the biggest driver of this is women. In a country where patriarchal values still prevail, this assertion by women of control over their own fertility is no small victory and has long-term implications for the country.

A recent report by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), using data generated by Stats SA, highlighted that the country’s fertility rate had declined by 13,7% since 2002. Probing the significance of this revealed that, while the report itself was flawed — because, according to University of Cape Town demographer Professor Tom Moultrie, SAIRR had “provided as fact assumptions that Stats SA had produced as estimates” — SA’s fertility has been falling since the sixties.

“Nothing has happened in the past 10 years that’s more significant than what’s happened in the preceding 40 years,” he said. “In the sixties, the fertility rate was over six children per woman, whereas now it’s around 2,4 children per woman. This has long-term implications. It means the per-capita budget will increase in the future.”

Some of the contributing factors to this decline are surprising. Among several listed in a 2012 report by Stellenbosch University’s Economics Department on SA’s “fertility transition” — including the apartheid government’s state family planning programme, urbanisation, education of women and HIV/Aids — is the explanation of how the migrant labour system inadvertently empowered women by forcing them to become more self-reliant. In the absence of men, many responded by gaining more control over their lives and functioning as heads of their households. Many acquired their own incomes and chose to either delay or avoid marriage, consequently finding it easier to limit the number of children they had.

This report sees the education of women and a lower prevalence of marriage as the biggest contributors to the fertility decline. Moultrie disagrees, saying the availability of contraception is the most important factor. “It’s normal for a first birth to happen outside marriage. Marriage is not a hugely important predictor. Education is a massive influence, but it doesn’t influence biology.

“South Africa is in the natural process of demographic transition because of a number of factors, including there being more safety nets and provision for old age, and urbanisation, which started with the abolition of influx control. Women are being exposed to other ways of seeing the world; for instance, they watch TV and see American sitcoms. They are now more able to say, ‘ his is my body and my choice’, and available contraception allows them to exert that choice.”

He said what was interesting is that the most frequently used methods of contraception are the longest lasting and least visible — for example, implants and injections.

“In a gendered society like SA, these methods allow women to make their own choices. The history of Depo-Provera in this country is contentious, but the evidence is that until recently, it was the preferred method of contraception and large numbers of women used it.”

Back at the office where Mshengu scrubs and polishes, the reason for the fertility decline is simple and, she said, shared by men and women.

“We all have one dream. We just want to achieve things.”

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