Poor health, education suppressing the social mobility of South Africans - WEF


Poor health and education are suppressing South Africa's social mobility - or the ability of children to have better lives than their parents, according to a new study by the World Economic Forum.

South Africa ranked 77 out of 82 countries in the forum's inaugural social mobility index, released on Monday ahead of the start of the annual WEF gathering in Davos, Switzerland. The SA delegation to the annual gathering will be led by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, after President Cyril Ramaphosa chose to skip the gathering to focus on tend to "pressing domestic priorities".

The social mobility index measures countries against the five "dimensions" of health, education, technology, work, and protections and institutions to determine how socially mobile they are. According to WEF, social mobility here refers to the ability of people to move "upwards" and "downwards", or see their circumstances improve to become better off than those of their parents. 

According to the study the world's five most socially mobile countries are all Nordic, with Denmark topping the list with a score of 85.2, followed by Finland and Norway - both with a score of 83.6. South Africa's score of 41.4 was brought down by its poor performance in the health, education and work categories, according to the report. The only countries that scored worse than SA were Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cameroon, Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire.

South Africa's income mobility across generations was among the worst on the index. According to the report, it would take 9 generations for those born in low-income families to approach the country's mean income, an indication that wealth in SA is concentrated and it is extremely difficult for poor families to escape poverty. 

"Across economies, children born in less affluent families tend to experience greater barriers to success than those born in more affluent families," states the report. "These inequalities of opportunity may become entrenched and foster long-term economic inequalities as well as deep economic and social cleavages." 

Key takeaways 

  • South Africa was among the lowest-ranked countries in terms of the health access and quality sub-index. Overall, South Africa's score for health was 48.1, with healthy life expectancy of just 57.1 years. 
  • South Africa ranked 80th out of 82 countries in the education access category, as well as the education quality and equity category. "Access to education is also a major problem, with 8.4% of children of primary school age out of the education system, and very limited access to pre-school education across the country," the report read. 
  • Low scores on indices ranking corruption and the quality of government and public services contributed to an overall low score for inclusive institutions at 60.8 points. But SA's ranking of 40 out of 82 in terms of inclusive institutions was also its best ranking across the different dimensions.
  • In terms of work, the WEF noted that South Africa "suffers from the highest unemployment levels in the rankings" with an unemployment rate for citizens with a basic education of 33.3%, and for those with intermediate education of 28.5%. The country ranked ranked 80th of of 82 countries in terms of work opportunities, and also fared poorly in the fair wages comparison. 

The WEF found that if countries could improve social mobility by at least 10 points, this would help drive down income equality and boost economic growth.  To improve social mobility, countries need to ensure fair wages, social protection, lifelong learning and better working conditions, WEF said.

- Additional reporting by Jan Cronje 

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