What your height might say about your living standards

Woman measuring height of teenager patient in clinic
Woman measuring height of teenager patient in clinic

If you thought black suffering reached its apogee during apartheid‚ think again.

In fact‚ the first three decades of the 20th century took a particularly heavy toll on blacks‚ according to a new study based on height.

Three researchers at Stellenbosch University’s Laboratory for the Economics of Africa’s Past said height is a widely accepted indication of a population’s standard of living.

“[Evidence suggests] that the first three decades of the century were particularly bad‚ perhaps due to the increasingly repressive labour policies in urban areas‚ and famine and land expropriation‚ which weighed especially heavily on the Basotho‚” Bokang Mpeta‚ Johan Fourie and Kris Inwood write in a working paper.

They said genetic characteristics explain about 80% of height variation within most populations‚ adding: “Adult stature is a sensitive indicator of childhood well-being because individuals cannot realise their potential for physical growth if they are [prevented] by poor nutrition‚ exposure to disease or undue physical labour.”

The economists turned to male height records because of the absence of pre-democracy statistical records on black South Africans. They used four sources: - Data on 8‚172 black World War 2 military recruits born between 1895 and 1927; - 500 cadavers at Wits University‚ with birth years between 1897 and 1980; - Records of 2‚777 men from the 1998 Demographic and Health Survey; and - Data on 2‚886 men born between 1958 and 1990 who were part of the first wave of the National Income and Dynamics Study.

Their findings show that black men born between 1900 and 1930 reached an average height of 167cm‚ a centimetre shorter than their counterparts born at the end of the 19th century. This suggested “a strong deterioration in living standards”.

From 1930 until the National Party election victory and the start of apartheid in 1948‚ heights increased by 1cm. “The most likely explanation ... is South Africa’s decision to leave the gold standard in December 1932‚ which boosted production in mines and with it employment for black men.

“After 1948‚ black male heights increased by another centimetre until the mid-1980s‚ when our sample period ends.”

The economists add: “The roots of interracial inequality… are not limited to [the] apartheid era but lie deep in the history of segregation‚ exploitation and appropriation that characterised 19th and early 20th century South Africa.”