Research reveals how height has stifled socio-economic growth for black SA men

Throughout the 20th century, very little information was collected about the living standards of black South Africans.

Stellenbosch University economics lecturer Bokang Mpeta together with her colleagues Johan Fourie and Kris Inwood have compiled research that dissects black living standards in South Africa prior to democracy.

The research paper is called Black living standards in South Africa before democracy: New evidence from heights

Mpeta tells 702 host Azania Mosaka that they have had to resort to a different and unique approach in determining the previously undocumented standards of living of black South Africans.

She said the alternative they settled on was using height to make their determinations.

The relationship between growth and nutrition is pretty self explanatory. If you have good nutrition, especially in the first few years of your life, you're assumed to be able to grow in your full genetic potential in height.

Bokang Mpeta, Lecturer in the Dept of Economics at Stellenbosch University

So, the correlation then between nutrition and income is that many people who aren't able to access health care or to feed their children, often have kids who are unable to grow above their genetic potential. If you average that over a whole population, you can then compare living standards of populations.

Bokang Mpeta, Lecturer in the Dept of Economics at Stellenbosch University

Mpeta further explains that at the dawn of the twentieth century, the difference in height between black and white men was around 6.5 centimetres. She adds that towards the end of apartheid the gap widened to approximately 9 centimetres.

Mpeta clarifies that their research paper does not make direct links between historical events and changes to heights.

We plotted on a graph the change in heights of black males over the 1900 period towards the end of the twentieth century.

Bokang Mpeta, Lecturer in the Dept of Economics at Stellenbosch University

We found that during the 1913 Land Act there was a sharp decline in black male heights says Mpeta while in 1932, when South Africa's mining sector boomed, an increase in height was recorded.

After apartheid, in 1948 you see another decline and stagnation in the height of black men.

Bokang Mpeta, Lecturer in the Dept of Economics at Stellenbosch University

She goes on to say an increase in height in any population can be viewed as an improvement in that populations socio-economic conditioning.

Compared to other countries on the continent, black men in South Africa fair quite poorly whereas men are more comparable to developed countries.

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