The biggest causes of death in South Africa

 ·30 Apr 2024

Stats SA has published its latest Mortality Report for South Africa, revealing the main causes of reported deaths in the country in 2020 were due to Covid-19, diabetes, and strokes.

There were 489,744 recorded deaths in South Africa in 2020 using death certificate data from the National Department of Health, with the vast majority being due to natural causes (442,558) and the rest being due to non-natural causes (47,186).

Notably, deaths due to natural causes spiked higher in 2020 (the highest since 2011), while non-natural causes dropped (the lowest since 2011).

This is due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which landed in the country at the start of the year, leading to a prolonged national lockdown that skewed all kinds of data—from economic metrics like productivity and unemployment to criminal activity.

According to Stats SA, the Covid-19 pandemic had a significant impact on deaths in South Africa.

The general trend in the number of registered deaths processed by Stats SA indicates an increase between 1999 and 2006, when the number of deaths peaked at 614,578.

From 2006, deaths decreased every year—until 2020.

2020 saw a marked increase in deaths, which was to be expected, given the impact of the pandemic.

Also in line with other characteristics of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of older South Africans who died also moved away from previous trends, with deaths spiking in those aged 55 and over.

Natural deaths

Looking at the top 10 causes of natural deaths in South Africa, Covid-19 emerged as the biggest killer in 2020.

“Eight of the ten leading causes of death in 2020 were the same for the three-year period, although they differed in rank as well as proportions. The Covid-19 pandemic first reached South Africa in 2020 and became the leading cause of death,” Stats SA said.

Diabetes mellitus came in second as the leading underlying cause of death.

The most notable change in rank was for tuberculosis, which moved from being ranked first in 2018 (accounting for 6.1% of deaths), second in 2019 (5.5%) to seventh in 2020 (accounting for 4.0% of deaths).

The top 10 natural killers in South Africa are:

  1. Covid-19
  2. Diabetes mellitus
  3. Cerebrovascular disease (eg, stroke)
  4. Hypertensive disease (eg, hypertension)
  5. Influenza and pneumonia
  6. Tuberculosis
  7. HIV
  8. Ischaemic heart disease (CHD)
  9. Other heart disease
  10. Other viral disease

Looking at unnatural causes of death, most of these deaths are in “other external causes” or accidental injury, followed by assaults.

The list of accidental injuries is quite broad, with the largest portion (44%) of unnatural deaths being unspecified.

The biggest specified cause is exposure to inanimate mechanical forces, which claimed 8,056 lives.

Assaults – which is another long list of violent crimes, including death from firearms and other forms of aggressing – are next on the list, with 5,668 deaths attributed.

Transport accidents continue to be a big killer South Africa, with 4,592 deaths attributed in 2020 – a year when far fewer people were on the roads due to Covid lockdowns.

The full list of all causes of death in South Africa can be read below:

Read: 84 people murdered every day in South Africa- these are the most dangerous areas

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