The bones don't lie

2017-10-01 06:00

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Bones don’t lie and the tales they tell reveal otherwise hidden histories.

The world over, a scarcity of data is a perennial problem for those seeking to decolonise the historical record.

Statistics relating to the social and economic circumstances of those undervalued by officialdom are few and far between.

In South Africa’s case, this means that throughout the 20th century, very little information was collected about the living standards of black South Africans.

The state did not prioritise the health of black children or their parents’ quality of life, so most of this went unmeasured.

Ours is a history rich with commentary on the effects of colonialism and apartheid, but with few numbers.

Sol Plaatje wrote first-hand accounts of the devastating effects of the Native Land Act of 1913.

Missionaries mention the tumultuous aftermath of the Mfecane, the Rinderpest, the discovery of minerals and the ingress of white settler families from the Cape Colony into the interior.

But without statistical support, the human significance of such events is often underestimated. Which is where the bones come in.

Innovative economic research, undertaken by Bokang Mpeta, Johan Fourie and Kris Inwood at Economic Research Southern Africa, uses the relationship between growth, nutrition and income – as indicated in adult height – to make inferences about living standards.

The researchers caution that the link between socio-economic status and average height is not necessarily linear and can be subject to several confounders, but this novel approach gives us a glimpse into an otherwise invisible set of social and economic circumstances.

With it comes added understanding of the causes of inequality.

Genes play a part, but childhood living standards are crucial in determining ultimate adult height.

The bottom line is that when times are tough, food is scarce, disease rates rise and children grow less and become adults who have failed to reach their full stature potential.

Thus, an analysis of adult black male stature can deepen our grasp of the economic history of black living standards in the 20th century.

So, what happened to height?

The study, which was funded by National Treasury, drew on South African stature records obtained from three data sources: black southern African males born between 1895 and 1927 who enlisted in the South African military between 1940 and 1945; males whose skeletons form part of the Raymond A.

Dart Collection of Human Skeletons, housed in the School of Anatomical Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand; and finally, individuals born after 1960 and measured in the 2008 National Income Dynamics Study survey.

Plotting the data shows three distinct trends in black living standards over the 20th century.

Black males born in the late 19th century were, on average, just over 168cm tall. Over the next three decades, the heights of black males fell by 2cm to 166cm. This suggests a strong deterioration in living standards.

The greatest decline in stature occurred in the two decades after South Africa became a union in 1910. This period saw the introduction of increasingly repressive and racially discriminatory legislation.

The 1913 Land Act – which limited the sale of land to black people outside the so-called native reserves – combined with labour regulations in the form of the 2011 Mines and Works Act – which legally set up the employment colour bar – limited the ability of black men to find skilled or semiskilled work and repressed black workers’ incomes.

After 1932, black male heights increased by about 3cm in 15 years. One explanation for this rapid increase is South Africa’s decision to leave the gold standard in December 1932, which freed the price of gold and unleashed a boom in mining production.

There was also an industrial boom stimulated by World War 2.

This increase in height comes to an abrupt halt in about 1948 with the introduction of legislative apartheid.

From that point, black male heights remain static – at about 169cm – until the end of apartheid.

The impact of 20th century racial inequality did not affect all black people in an identical way.

Ethnic categorisation can be inaccurate and politically problematic, but if one takes individual measures at face value, stature reveals significantly different histories by communities and those living in specific regions.

For the first three decades, Xhosa men in the sample were taller than Sotho or Zulu men.

The height of Sotho men fell significantly during the first three decades, which may be attributed to the collapse of agriculture in then Basotuland, which was devastated by cattle diseases and serial droughts.

After 1932, the mining boom saw the heights of Sotho and Zulu men rise rapidly.

A comparison of black and white male heights for the same period offers a stark indication of increasing racial inequality.

In the 1930s and 1940s there was a large increase in black and white male heights, confirming the economy-wide effect of the mining and World War 2 boom, but the gap remains and increases over time.

The average height difference between white and black South African men for the first decade of the 20th century was 6.5cm. By the 1980s, the difference had increased to 8.9cm.

Clearly, height has a genetic component, but socioeconomic factors are also important.

The authors point out that while South and North Koreans born in the 1940s were of similar height, the adult heights of North Koreans have stagnated, while those of South Koreans have increased by 6cm – the same gap between black and white South Africans at the start of the 20th century.

This study in stature gives us otherwise unobtainable proof of the quality of life of black South Africans in the 20th century. When the economy grows, so do the people.

When times are tough, the troubles are not evenly distributed. Whether our 21st-century children are growing or shrinking, only time will tell.

Mpeta, the study’s lead author, said the study allowed her to “feel the presence of the people behind the numbers and statistics”.

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Read more on:    national treasury  |  economy

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