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Fact-Checked: President Cyril Ramaphosa’s claims about progress in South Africa since 1994

This article is more than 4 years old

  • While launching a review of the past 25 years in South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa made a number of statements about government achievements since the first democratic elections. 

  • The president was correct about the South African economy and the number of electrified households in the country. But his claims about inequality levels are hard to prove.

  • The president was incorrect about university student enrollment numbers, and the number of people the state has provided with antiretroviral treatment.

How has South Africa fared since its first democratic elections in 1994? That’s the question a new government report released by the country’s presidency sets out to answer. 

The introduction says it “reflects both the highlights and lowlights” of the last 25 years. 

The country’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, launched the report at the University of Mpumalanga in the north-east of the country on 8 November 2019. During his speech he made a number of claims about the government’s achievements.

Did Ramaphosa get his facts right? This report interrogates five statements about university enrollment, health, the economy, inequality and access to electricity.


Total university enrollment was “around 300,000” in 1994.



During his speech, Ramaphosa claimed that total university enrollment increased from “around 300,000” in 1994 to “over one million” in 2019. 

The latest figures from the Department of Higher Education and Training show that 1,036,984 students were enrolled in 26 universities in 2017. 

But Ramaphosa’s claim that enrollment was “around 300,000” in 1994 is not supported by the new report released by the presidency. 

The report says there were 495,356 students enrolled in university in 1994. This number has been previously reported by the higher education department. A slightly higher figure of 525,000 has been reported by the Council on Higher Education, an independent statutory body.

Ramaphosa put the figure at 500,000 during his first state of the nation address in 2018.

No available estimates put it at “around 300,000” in 1994. We rate Ramaphosa’s claim as incorrect. – Kate Wilkinson


45,500 people received antiretroviral therapy from the public health sector in 2004.



“Access to antiretroviral therapy in the public health sector has grown from 45,500 patients in 2004 to over 4.7 million in 2019,” said Ramaphosa.

The report cites a 2017 journal article as the source of the figure for 2004. A table in the article shows that 45,500 people were on antiretroviral treatment in 2004. 

However, not all were in the public sector, as Ramaphosa claimed. The figure was estimated using both statistics from the public sector and surveys which measured the number of people treated in the private sector and by non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Africa Check spoke to Dr Leigh Johnson, one of the article’s authors and an epidemiologist at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Research. He said that the article did not calculate a breakdown showing private and public patients.

For this he pointed us to an earlier paper of his from 2012. In it, Johnson estimated that there were 47,500 people on antiretroviral treatment in 2004. Of these, only 9,600 were receiving their treatment through the public sector. The vast majority of patients (80%) received their treatment from the private sector or NGO programmes.

Number of patients receiving antiretroviral treatment in South Africa in 2004
Provider NumberPercentage
Public sector 9,60020.2%
Private sector 34,10071.8%
NGO programmes3,9008.2%

SOURCE: Access to antiretroviral treatment in South Africa, 2004 - 2011 (Note: Numbers are rounded to the nearest 100. Due to rounding, the rows may not sum to the total.)

Johnson said his 2012 estimate of the number of people on antiretroviral treatment in South Africa in 2004 (47,500) differed from the newer estimate (45,500) due to a change in methodology. 

“The methods we have used to estimate these numbers have changed over time. Previously we were just taking the raw data and we weren’t trying to fit any kind of statistical model to it,” he explained. “What we have done in the more recent paper is to try to fit smooth time trends to the data. That process has led to some change in the numbers.”

The latest annual report from the department of health shows that there were 4,629,831 people on antiretroviral treatment as of 31 March 2019.

Ramaphosa was incorrect about the number of people on antiretroviral treatment in the public health sector in 2004. – Kate Wilkinson


The size of the South African economy over the past 25 years has doubled.



Commenting on the importance of human resources and talent in South Africa, Ramaphosa claimed that the size of the country’s economy has doubled over the past 25 years. 

The size of a country’s economy is measured by its gross domestic product (GDP). This is the value of all goods and services produced in a given period, usually a year.

GDP can be measured by using current or nominal prices, which take into account inflation over the years. But it’s important to separate inflation from real economic growth, Prof Jannie Rossouw, head of the school of economic and business sciences at Wits University, previously told Africa Check. 

World Bank data based on constant or real GDP – where the effect of inflation is removed – shows that South Africa’s economy grew 1.9 times from US$225.6 billion in 1994 to $429.8 billion in 2018. (Note: Figures from 2019 are not yet available.)

Based on this data, Ramaphosa’s claim is correct. – Cayley Clifford 

READ: Checking the claim again and again – until they get it right


South Africa remains the most unequal society in the world.



Inequality is commonly measured with the Gini coefficient. This is a measure that provides a figure between 0 (perfect equality) to 1 (perfect inequality). 

According to the World Bank, South Africa had a Gini coefficient of 0.63 in 2015. When Statistics South Africa calculated the figure using the same data, the result was 0.64

“No other country in the database maintained by the World Bank had this level of Gini coefficient,” Victor Sulla, a senior economist with the World Bank, told Africa Check.  

But the database consists of only 164 countries. The data needed to measure inequality for several countries is unavailable, Prof Julian May, former member of the South African Statistics Council, told Africa Check. 

This includes countries such as Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are known to have high inequality levels. 

We rate the claim unproven because data is not available for all the countries in the world. May said that it would be correct to say that South Africa is the most unequal of the countries for which there is data.  Cayley Clifford

READ: Baleka Mbete, the World Bank and that Al Jazeera interview 


84% of all households in South Africa have electricity.



According to Statistics South Africa, 84.7% of households were connected to the mains electricity supply in 2018. This was up slightly from 84.4% in 2017. 

Just 65.7% of households rated their electricity supply as “good”. 

“This represents a decline of 1.8 percentage points since 2010 when 67.5% rated electricity supply services as ‘good’,” the Statistics South Africa survey said. - Naphtali Khumalo

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