What is a population census?

A population census, as defined by the United Nations, is “the total process of collecting, compiling, evaluating, analysing and publishing or otherwise disseminating demographic, economic and social data pertaining, at a specified time, to all persons in a country or a well-defined part of the country”.

The four essential features of the census are:
• individual enumeration
• universality within the agreed territorial boundaries
• simultaneity: conducted at the same time for all persons, and
• defined periodicity
A population census is the most complex and massive exercise a national statistical office undertakes. It requires mapping the entire country, mobilising and training a huge number of enumerators, conducting a comprehensive publicity campaign, canvassing all households to participate, collecting individual information, compiling vast amounts of completed questionnaires, and analysing and disseminating the data. For many people, the census may be the only time that the state reaches them and asks them a question.

A population census is typically held every five years, but because of a lack of capacity within Statistics South Africa, it was decided that the interval will be extended to 10 years. A Community Survey was conducted in the place of the 2006 census.

The importance of a population census

The census plays an essential role in public administration. The results are used to ensure:
• equity in distribution of government services
• distributing and allocating government funds among various regions and districts for education and health services
• delineating electoral districts at national and local levels, and
• measuring the impact of industrial development, to name a few
The census also provides the benchmark for all surveys conducted by the national statistical office. Without the sampling frame derived from the census, the national statistical system would face difficulties in providing reliable official statistics for use by government and the public.
Census also provides information on small areas and population groups with minimum sampling errors. This is important, for example, in planning the location of a school or clinic.
Census information is also invaluable for use in the private sector for activities such as business planning and market analyses.
The information is used as a benchmark in research and analysis.

Historical background

Prior to the advent of democracy there was no reliable information available about the country as a whole. In 1996 the post-apartheid government conducted its first population census. This was followed by a census in 2001. The next census was scheduled for 2006, but because Statistics South Africa was not in a position to conduct a successful census, this was rescheduled for 2011. A Community Survey took the place of the 2006 census.
The 2011 Census will thus be the third census conducted by a democratic South African government and forms part of the 2010 round of African censuses, which aim to provide comprehensive data on the continent, for improved planning and to aid development.