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Growing old gracefully?:
Ageing in post-apartheid South Africa

Nina Hunter
Julian May1

Paper prepared for the Fourth African Population Conference
"Population and Poverty in Africa: Facing the 21st Century Challenges"

Tunis, 8-12 December 2003

This paper represents work in progress and findings are still tentative.
Posted with permission of the authors.
Julian May be be contacted at; Nina Hunter can be contacted at
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Executive Summary

This paper focuses on the a category of the older population not frequently included in analyses of the elderly: the so-called 'near old', aged 50 to 59, traditionally defined in African culture as being elderly, who are preparing for the transition to old age. These are the next generation of old people, living in a period of high vulnerability.

Those aged 60 to 69 are in 'old age' and may experience reduced earnings, but not necessarily reduced health or strength, while those aged 70 to 79 are in 'late old age' and have likely undergone a transition from principal to nominal decision maker. The 'frail old' are aged 80 and over, and find themselves in a period of extreme dependency. The analytical framework that will be adopted in this paper is the life cycle perspective which views development as occurring in a sequential progression. From this view chronological age is a useful index of change over time, although some developmental processes are time dependent while others are time independent. Most research on the elderly in South Africa has focused on the impact of the Old Age Pension, and therefore on those aged 60 and over.

Some of the research has shown that similar percentages of older Africans give financial support as receive it from their children, while the elderly play an important role in caring for their grandchildren and in promoting health care. A recent qualitative study has pointed to the caring and supporting that is undertaken by grandmothers in households with HIV positive children and grandchildren.

There are a number of themes of vulnerability as 'old age' is approached: a risk of unemployment or retrenchment; rising costs of living; the possibility of a loss of assets or constraints to the effective use of assets; the possible reintroduction of reproductive work; the impact of being compromised in earlier life stages or the risk of earlier investments being compromised; the possible costs of losing an adult household member for which costs have been made and the costs of launching the next generation. In order to investigate the situation of the 'near old' two datasets have been used: a 10 percent sample of the 1996 Census and a dataset comprised of the population 50 and over from the 1998 and 1999 October Household Surveys, which together constitutes a sample of 26,918 individuals.

Findings show that while not as many of the 'near old' as those in 'old age' are household heads, this group face noteworthy responsibilities in terms of performing important household tasks such as fetching water and wood, and a larger proportion of this group have parents that are still alive, meaning that there are caring burdens which they may face in addition. The health and disability status of this group is not substantially better than that of those at older ages. In addition, only 44 percent of the near old are employed in some way - about three quarters of these are employees, while 13 percent are unemployed. A surprisingly high percent are already retired, and a large proportion are homemakers. Education levels among this group do not seem to be high - only 11 percent have completed their schooling, not substantially less than the nine percent of those in 'old age' who have done so. Finally, in terms of chronic poverty there does not seem to be a noteworthy difference between this group of the elderly and those at older ages. Moreover, the same percentage of the 'near old' are ultra-poor as the next age category. Most of the analysis seems to point to the stark lack of differences between the near old age group and those at older ages that would be expected. Near old-age' thus represents an important issue for investigation in which opportunities might still exist to prevent poverty among older people.


  1. Respectively Research Fellow and Associate Professor, School of Development Studies, University of Natal, Durban. This paper has benefited from comments received from Amanda Heslop of HelpAge International. Financial support made by the Mellon Foundation and HelpAge International is gratefully acknowledged. Please address any correspondence to the authors at the following address: School of Development Studies, Memorial Tower Building, University of Natal, King George V Avenue, Durban, 4001, or email: or

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