Children in South Africa

Author/s: Katharine Hall
Date: November 2019


This indicator shows the total number of children living in South Africa, as well as child population numbers by province, population, age group, sex, geographical area and income quintile.


Data Source Statistics South Africa (2003 – 2019) General Household Survey 2002 – 2018. Pretoria, Cape Town: Statistics South Africa.
Analysis by Katharine Hall & Winnie Sambu, Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town.
  1. Children are defined as persons aged 0 – 17 years.
  2. Population numbers have been rounded to the nearest thousand.
In mid-2018, South Africa’s total population was estimated at 57.7 million people, of whom 19.7 million were children under 18 years. Children therefore make up 34% of the total population.

The distribution of children across provinces is slightly different to that of adults, with a greater share of children living in provinces with large rural populations. Together, KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Limpopo accommodate almost half of all children in South Africa. Gauteng, the smallest province in terms of physical size, has overtaken KwaZulu-Natal to become the province with the largest child population: 21% of all children in the country live in Gauteng. Gauteng also has the largest share of the adult population (28%) and the largest share of households. The child population of Gauteng has grown by 42% since 2002, making it the fastest growing province.

There have also been striking changes in other provincial child populations since 2002. The number of children living in the Eastern Cape has decreased substantially (by 14%), while the number of children living in the Western Cape has risen by 22%. The North West has also seen a substantial increase of 19% in the child population since 2002. A rise in the child population is partly the result of population movement (for example, when children are part of migrant households or move to join existing urban households), and partly the result of natural population growth (new births within the province).

We can look at inequality by dividing all households into five equal groups or income quintiles, based on total income to the household (including earnings and social grants) and dividing that by the number of household members, with quintile 1 being the poorest 20% of households, quintile 2 being the next poorest and so on. Quintile 5 consists of the least-poor 20%. Two-thirds of children live in the poorest 40% of households (i.e. the poorest two quintiles).

The gender split is equal for children. In terms of the apartheid-era racial categories, 86% of children are African, 8% are Coloured, 4% White and 2% Indian.

These population estimates are based on the General Household Survey (GHS), which is conducted annually by Statistics South Africa. The GHS collects data on about 20,000 households and over 70,000 individuals. The population numbers derived from the survey are weighted to the mid-year population estimates using weights provided by Statistics South Africa. Using previously weighted data (the 2013 population model), it appeared that the child population had remained fairly stable, with a marginal reduction of 0.2% in the population size between 2002 and 2015. However, there was considerable uncertainty around the official population estimates, particularly in the younger age groups.1 In 2017 Statistics South Africa updated the model and recalibrated the mid-year population estimates all the way back to 2002,2  and re-released the data with new weights in 2018. The Children Count team reanalysed all the data retrospectively. Based on the recently revised weights it appears that child population has grown by 8%, increasing from 18.1 milion in 2002 to 19.7 million in 2018.

1 Dorrington R (2013) Alternative South African Mid-year Estimates, 2013. Centre for Actuarial Research Monograph 13, University of Cape Town.
2 Statistics South Africa (2018) Mid-year Population Estimates 2018. Pretoria: Statistics South Africa.
This indicator shows the number of children under the age of 18 years who live in South Africa. Population shares are calculated by dividing the number of children per category by the total number of children in the population.

The population numbers are drawn from the General Household Survey after person weights are applied. The person weights are calculated to yield the mid-year population figures for each year, as estimated by Statistics South Africa.
The numbers are derived from the General Household Survey, a multi-purpose annual survey conducted by the national statistical agency, Statistics South Africa, to collect information on a range of topics from households in the country’s nine provinces. The survey uses a sample of 30,000 households. These are drawn from Census enumeration areas using multi-stage stratified sampling and probability proportional to size principles. The resulting estimates should be representative of all households in South Africa.

The GHS sample consists of households and does not cover other collective institutionalised living-quarters such as boarding schools, orphanages, students’ hostels, old-age homes, hospitals, prisons, military barracks and workers’ hostels. These exclusions should not have a noticeable impact on the findings in respect of children.

Changes in sample frame and stratification
The sample design for the 2015 GHS was based on a master sample that was designed in 2013 as a general purpose sampling frame to be used for all Stats SA household-based surveys. The same master sample is shared by the GHS, the Quarterly Labour Force Survey, the Living Conditions Survey and the Income and Expenditure Survey. The 2013 master sample is based on information collected during the 2011 population census. The previous master sample for the GHS was used for the first time in 2008, and the one before that in 2004. These again differed from the master sample used in the first two years of the GHS: 2002 and 2003. Thus there have been four different sampling frames during the 14-year history of the annual GHS, with the changes occurring in 2004, 2008 and 2013. In addition, there have been changes in the method of stratification over the years. These changes could compromise comparability across iterations of the survey to some extent, although it is common practice to use the GHS for longitudinal monitoring and many of the official trend analyses are drawn from this survey.

Person and household weights are provided by Stats SA and are applied in Children Count analyses to give estimates at the provincial and national levels. The GHS weights are derived from Stats SA’s mid-year population estimates. The population estimates are based on a model that is revised from time to time when it is possible to calibrate the population model to larger population surveys (such as the Community Survey) or to census data.

In 2013, Stats SA revised the demographic model to produce a new series of mid-year population estimates. The 2013 model drew on the 2011 census (along with vital registration, antenatal and other administrative data) but was a “smoothed” model that did not mimic the unusual shape of the age distribution found in the census. The results of the 2011 census were initially questioned because it seemed to over-count children in the 0 – 4 age group and under-count children in the 4 – 14-year group.

The 2013 model was used to adjust the benchmarking for all previous GHS data sets, which were re-released with the revised population weights by Stats SA, and was still used to calculate weights for the GHS up to and including 2015, even though it is now known that the mid-year population estimates on which the weights are based are incorrect. All the Children Count indicators were re-analysed retrospectively, using the revised weights provided by Stats SA, based on the 2013 model. The estimates are therefore comparable over the period 2002 to 2015. The revised weights particularly affected estimates for the years 2002 – 2007.

It is now thought that the fertility rates recorded in the 2011 population census may have been an accurate reflection of recent trends, with an unexplained upswing in fertility around 2009 after which fertility rates declined gradually. Similar patterns were found in the vital registration data as more births were reported retrospectively to the Department of Home Affairs, and in administrative data from schools, compiled by the Department of Basic Education. In effect, this means that there may be more children in South Africa than appear from the analyses presented in these analyses, where we have applied weights based on a model that it is now known to be inaccurate.

Statistics South Africa suggests caution when attempting to interpret data generated at low level disaggregation. The population estimates are benchmarked at the national level in terms of age, sex and population group while at provincial level, benchmarking is by population group only. This could mean that estimates derived from any further disaggregation of the provincial data below the population group may not be robust enough.

Reporting error

Error may be present due to the methodology used, i.e. the questionnaire is administered to only one respondent in the household who is expected to provide information about all other members of the household. Not all respondents will have accurate information about all children in the household. In instances where the respondent did not or could not provide an answer, this was recorded as “unspecified” (no response) or “don’t know” (the respondent stated that they didn’t know the answer).

For more information on the methods of the General Household Survey, see the metadata for the respective survey years, available on Nesstar or DataFirst