Despite South Africa’s continuous improvement in its Human Development Index value for nearly three decades, the country’s overall rank has been declining over the past three years.

The Human Development Index (HDI) measures each country’s social and economic development by combining three basic dimensions of human development –education, health, and Gross National Income (GNI) per capita. The average value of these three dimensions is placed on a scale of 0 to 1, where greater is better. A high HDI value implies that the country in question has a relatively high standard of living and a low HDI value implies that the country in question has a relatively low standard of living.

Out of the 189 countries ranked on the HDI 2020 prepared by the United Nations Development Programme, Norway is ranked first with an HDI value of 0.957, Ireland and Switzerland tied for second, each with a score of 0.955. Among African countries, Seychelles performed best, with an HDI of 0.796, followed by Algeria with 0.748, and Tunisia with 0.740.

South Africa has a score of 0.709 out of a possible 1. In nearly three decades, South Africa’s HDI has been improving. Between 1990 and 2019, its HDI value increased from 0.627 to 0.709, a 13.1% improvement.

However, despite South Africa’s HDI score improving over the long term, its ranking has declined over the last three years. In 2016 it was ranked 111th out of 189 countries, and it is now ranked 114th out of 189 countries. This suggests that the country is not developing as rapidly as it should, and other African countries such as Botswana, Algeria and Libya are overtaking it.

There are several factors contributing to South Africa’s decline in the HDI rankings.

Years of schooling

The education dimension includes looking at the mean number of years of schooling for adults aged 25 years and above, as well as the expected years of schooling for children of school-entering age.

‘Mean years of schooling’ is the average number of completed years of education of a population aged 25 years and above, excluding years spent repeating individual grades. Between 1990 and 2019, South Africa’s mean years of schooling for adults aged 25 years and above increased by 3.8 years. However, despite South Africa’s mean number of school years increasing, the quality of education is impaired by a lack of resources, a shortage of qualified personnel and militant teachers’ unions.

South Africa’s education system has long been beset by a variety of problems. The National Department of Education reports that the number of school dropouts is directly related to several factors; for example, some learners in KwaZulu-Natal walk up to 14 km to school. In addition, poverty has made some learners look for employment opportunities to help support their families. The high levels of poverty and unemployment force many young people to work at an early age.

A report published by the National Income Dynamics Study shows that the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a 20-year school dropout record. The rotation of timetables has meant that some learners are not in school every day, and some at home do not have enough support or time for schoolwork.

A School Monitoring Survey report from the Department of Basic Education revealed that public schools across all provinces are still disadvantaged by poor infrastructure, teacher absenteeism and lack of water and sanitation. This creates frustration and resentment and in many cases results in school dropouts.

Life expectancy

The health dimension is assessed by life expectancy at birth, which is the average period that a person may expect to live. South Africa’s life expectancy is at 64.1 years and between 1990 and 2019, South Africa’s life expectancy at birth increased by 0.8 years.  Although South Africa’s life expectancy slightly increased, there are growing risks that could lead to the country’s life expectancy decreasing.

There are close to 3 500 clinics in South Africa and only 54.9% of those clinics are deemed ideal. This means only 1 906 clinics have good infrastructure, adequate staff, adequate medicine, good administrative processes, and sufficient adequate bulk supplies. This is a clear indication that the public healthcare system relied upon by millions of South Africans is in a dire state.

There is also a shortage of healthcare professionals. Due to population growth alone, the shortfall in essential health workers will continue to worsen, and with the government’s intention to introduce the monopolistic National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme, there is major concern that South Africa could see an exodus of key medical personnel.

All this could threaten the gains that South Africa has made with life expectancy.

A country’s Gross National Income (GNI) per capita is the third dimension used for the HDI. GNI per capita is the total amount of money earned by a nation’s people and businesses, divided by the midyear population.

South Africa’s GNI per capita is US$12,129. It rose by 21.6% between 1990 and 2019, but it is low compared to other countries. Liechtenstein has the highest GNI per capita at US$131 032, followed by Qatar at US$92 418 and Singapore at US$88 155. Among African countries, Botswana has the highest GNI per capita at US$16 437, followed by Libya at US$15 688.

Skills mismatch

The absence of work prospects and a failing education system have severely hurt South Africans’ income levels. The failing education system results in poor educational outcomes that have led to a skills mismatch in the South African economy. Also, government red tape negatively impacts small, medium, and micro enterprise (SMMEs) operations and eventually their employment capacity.

It is widely acknowledged that SMMEs are negatively impacted by hostile regulatory environments, In addition, South Africa is currently experiencing an energy crisis. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research estimates that load shedding cost the economy between R60 billion and R120 billion in 2019.

According to this report, the total economic impact is equal to R338 billion over the previous 10 years. Clearly, this is not good for the economy and has a detrimental effect on employment and income levels.

In order for South Africa to improve its ranking, it must prioritize its citizens by doing the following: First, there is a need to improve school performance by hiring qualified teachers and helping children from poor households to gain access to better-performing schools. Second, government must remove unnecessary regulations such as the Black Economic Empowerment that especially hurts small businesses. Third, the government must scrap populist polices such as NHI and Expropriation without Compensation because such policies scare away investors. Only then can South Africa start to rapidly ascend the HDI rankings.


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Tawanda is a research analyst for the Centre For Risk Analysis (CRA). He is primarily involved in writing chapters for the Socio-Economic Survey of South Africa, a reference guide on major trends in various social and economic fields. Tawanda’s other responsibilities include writing opinion pieces, assisting in research projects and reports and liaising with the media. Tawanda holds an Honours in Business Management from the University of Limpopo and is currently studying towards his Masters in Business Management.