The South African Institute on Race Relations says that for every employed South African, there are nearly three others who are dependent on them. While that number has dropped, it is still very high globally and speaks to the country's consistently high unemployment rate.
A new study issued in mid-January finds that every employed South African supports 2.8 people - using the ratio of those with jobs to the total population.
High rate of dependency
Lucy Holborn, a research manager at the South African Institute for Race Relations
that conducted the study, says this kind of dependency means the average salary has to stretch pretty far.
"A good example of some of evidence we've had that supports this idea of dependency was in the aftermath of the Marikana massacre [shooting of striking miners in 2012]. We looked at the profiles of the men that were killed and some of the other men who were involved in the strike. Many of them talk about having five or six dependents, not only children, but wives, grandparents, extended family members," Holborn said. "Often in their case back in rural areas back in the Eastern Cape and other places."
To give a comparison, Zambia has a ratio of 1 to 1.9, Liberia is at 2.5, Greece is at 1.9 and China is below one.
Holborn says South Africa has one of the higher rates of dependency in the world. "It really demonstrates how serious our labor market issues are," she explained.
And those market issues are at least twice as worse for black South Africans. The institute says that if you look at the statistics by racial category, employed blacks here support 3.2 people, whereas whites with jobs carry only 1.4 dependents.
Holborn says the racial gaps can be attributed to education and social advantages.
"On average, their education levels are higher, and have been historically for enough generations that things like, social capital, is much higher in the white population," she said. "So for instance a new graduate out of university in a white family may be more likely to have a relative who is working at a senior level in a company and is able to get work experience."
Almost 20 years after racial segregation ended under apartheid, progress has been made in reducing dependency from 1997, when nearly 6 people relied on every employed person. The institute notes the main reasons for this drop are a decline in the country's fertility rate and a higher number of people in the workforce.
But Holborn says that statistic, while hopeful, still does not address the underlying issue: chronic unemployment - which has been hovering at about 25 percent for the last decade.
Education is key
Holborn says that is mainly due to a dismal education system that does not prepare South Africans for the job market - even if they have the opportunity to learn.
"First, we need to fix basic education. That will involve challenging teachers unions, looking at the quality of teaching," Holborn noted. "Then, also looking at higher education options, with a lot of emphasis on universities."
Economist Mike Schussler agrees that the quality of education needs to improve - as well as policies to support that goal to really reduce unemployment and dependency.
"There are people in the mining industry that earn well over 10,000 rand [$1,130 per month] that have no skills and qualifications and then at 14,000 rand [$1,585] is what our teachers earn. That's not a big enough difference for our teachers. Our biggest problem is the people who aren't earning anything. That is the problem, unemployment is the problem," Schussler stated. "Not the people who are earning money. The excluded are really the real poor."
Focusing on unemployment
Holborn agrees that the employed tend to be well represented by politicians and unions, while the unemployed have little political power and remain unable to change their lot.
Schussler says it is past time for the government here to get serious. “I think and I sincerely hope that the government will start realizing that this is very, very, big problem in more than just talk," he said. "But in action. "
Otherwise, he says, no matter how much South Africa has achieved, there is no way as a country to feel proud with so many out of work and dependent.