Early roots of “coloured” poverty: How much can 19th century censuses assist to explain the current situation?

15 April 2014

The coloured population comprises almost 10 per cent of the South African population, earning only a slightly smaller proportion of national income. The average income of this group hides, however, startlingly large disparities in living standards. Their Gini coefficient has been rising, and depending on the data source one uses, appears to be close to or even above 0.60 – a level exceeded by few countries. Poverty levels are high; roughly one-quarter to one-third of all coloured people can be classified as poor, depending on the poverty line used. This poverty is in spite of the fact that during the apartheid era, coloureds were never subjected to quite the same levels of economic and socio-political discrimination as blacks and shared common languages and much of their culture with whites, which could have served as lubricant for social mobility into the middle class. Taking cognisance of these facts, the question arises why so many coloured people find themselves in a poverty trap. This paper takes a historical approach in an attempt to provide some pointers as to why poverty has remained so pervasive within this group. We present statistics on the socio-economic position of this population group, starting in 1865, when the first official census was conducted in the Cape Colony. We highlight information of interest wherever early censuses allow. This is followed by an examination of censuses and surveys dating from 1970 onwards, using micro datasets. Patterns of educational progress and exclusion are highlighted and compared with those of other groups, where possible and appropriate, because