Demography records it all: Jeanne Alexandra Cilliers, ‘A demographic history of settler South Africa’, PhD Dissertation, Stellenbosch University, 2016


Abstract: Economic incentives affect demographic outcomes. That is to say, fertility, mortality, migration and mobility are a result of economic performance, growth and inequality. While demographic changes may be slow, the long-run effects can be significant. The Western demographic transition of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has had a profound effect on the living conditions of people across the world. Instead of having six or more children, most families today have only two, and life expectancy in most Western countries doubled in the four or five decades around the turn of the twentieth century. It is within this broad framework relating to the nature and causes of demographic transitions that this dissertation is orientated. How these demographic changes spread across the globe remains an important question for theoretical and empirical research, with obvious policy implications. It is therefore surprising that so little is known about the demographic history of South Africa, the wealthiest African country during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the first to undergo a demographic transition. There is remarkably limited empirical evidence of what living conditions, social interactions and family formation might have been like for the inhabitants of eighteenth, nineteenth and early-twentieth century South Africa. By focusing on the demographic characteristics of European settlers and their descendants in South Africa, this dissertation begins to provide a more comprehensive account of South Africa’s demographic history. The first question addressed in this study investigates the nature and causes of the settler fertility decline. It aims to provide, for the first time, a thorough descriptive account of the changing levels of fertility and explores land constraint as a potential mechanism for the limitation of fertility. To do so, it uses geographic and socioeconomic differentials in fertility over time, first, in a simple regression analysis framework and second, in an event-history analysis framework, to allow for a deeper understanding of the possible mechanisms at work at the individual level. The second question addressed in this study relates to the gender composition of offspring as a determinant of future fertility behaviour. While couples in modern societies have been shown to have gender neutral preferences for their offspring, new research on past populations suggests that a preference for sons over daughters might have influenced couples’ fertility decision-making behaviour, and potentially have limited the onset of the fertility decline. An investigation into whether a preference for sons existed in the settler Cape Colony context, through an eventhistory analysis of birth-spacing behaviour at high parities, conditional on the couple’s existing offspring gender-mix, informs the debate on within-marriage birth control practices in history, as well as the effect of economic development on couples’ fertility behaviour. Finally, in societies with a large rural majority and a small group of elites, the prospects for social mobility are said to be limited. However, the liberal theory of industrialism suggests that social mobility will likely increase as a result of the process of industrialisation itself, as new occupations replace those held by members of previous generations. Industrialisation is also expected to result in a shift away from ascription by birth towards achievement-based mobility. The third question addressed in this study investigates whether social (occupational) mobility increased under late nineteenth and early twentieth-century South African industrialism and whether or not this translated into real improvements in settler living standards.

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