What do numbers tell us?

The answer to that question might be: “Very little, if you don’t examine them carefully”.

But isn’t it strange that so many people believe that “the economy grew by 10% last year” or “we have the highest literacy rate in Africa” without asking what those statements mean in any terms that affect real life, or without even asking how they were calculated.

Let’s start at the beginning, with numbers that should be simple because we can count them directly. If we can’t agree on how many people there are in Zimbabwe, there isn’t much we can agree on.

Why have we heard people in recent years giving us such different answers to that simple question? Some have claimed we have a population of more than 15 million; some say less than 10 million. The first answer is that nobody has counted how many we are for 10 years. Another census is due this year and we hope it will be allowed to give us accurate answers.

Meanwhile we might ask where those different answers came from.The highest figures are based on the results of the 1992 census. Someone takes the 1992 population total and assumes that the population continued increasing each year at the same rate we saw between 1982 and 1992, which was about 2.3% if I remember right. That would give us a population today of something like 16 million. But we know population growth did not continue at the 1982-92 rate. Death rates increased, mainly due to HIV/AIDS. Birth rates dropped for a number of reasons. Both these factors would give us a lower total for today’s population.

Perhaps you remember a census was held in 2002, but results were not widely publicised. It showed we had a population of 11.3 million, not much more than in 1992. The growth rate had dropped dramatically. This continued the trend shown by the demographic survey held in 1997, which showed that growth for 1992-7 averaged less than 1.5%/year. Growth was slowing, and it is reasonable to assume it continued slowing. In fact, Dr Timothy Stamps, then Minister of Health, said late in 2001 that the annual number of deaths had overtaken the number of births: the population was decreasing by 2002, and the numbers emigrating made the decrease more rapid.

The health situation has not improved and emigration has continued, so it is reasonable to conclude that our population today is less than it was 10 years ago. Don’t be fooled by World Bank or UN figures that claim we have something like 12-13 million people in Zimbabwe. They can only use the figures that governments give them, and our government clearly did not give them the results of the 1997 inter-censal survey or of the 2002 census.

Birth, death and migration statistics are more difficult to obtain than they were 15 years ago so, although we can be fairly sure our population is dropping, we don’t know whether the decrease is faster than it was in 2002. So we don’t know the present total.

That is very convenient for some people. For example, if our present population is less than the 11.3 million recorded in 2002, how could there be 5.6 million voters on the electoral rolls, as we were told recently? It used to be true that half our population was under the age of 16 and there are always some people who fail to register to vote. Voters must be at least 18 years old, so how can more than half the people living in Zimbabwe be registered voters? Maybe birth rates have continued to drop, but death rates don’t seem to have decreased, so we probably don’t have an ageing population.

But we know registered voters are growing older; more than 14,000 voters on the 2008 roll were born on 1 January 1901. Dead voters included Desmond Lardner-Burke, Ian Smith’s Minister of Law and Order and his wife. Presumably they voted for Zanu (PF). We need to make sure they don’t repeat that performance at the next election.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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