South Africans’ stories tell how the country is changing

SOCIAL MOBILITY

News that South Africa has entered a recession has added more uncertainty to the lives of many citizens.

Thirty-nine percent of South Africans who were not poor in 2008 experienced poverty at some point by 2015 (using a poverty line of R1 283 a month at the time).

Those at the comfortable end of the middle class are not immune from this. At least 10% fell into poverty between 2008 and 2015.

Beyond this, 47% of people were stuck in income poverty and consistently found to be poor between 2008 and 2015.

On the upside, compared with their parents, children are successfully completing more years of schooling. But one of the biggest social problems highlighted by the National Income Dynamics Study is the overall improvement in educational attainment for the poor does not necessarily translate into upward income mobility.

Children of low-earning parents — domestic workers, day labourers and farm workers or those engaged in trade such as selling goods on the side of the road — remain the lowest earners. This is perpetuating South Africa’s historical patterns of poverty and inequality.

To make the country work we need to know what is changing, what works and what does not, so that we can learn from successes and failures. South Africa is part of a select group of countries that collects hard evidence of the changes taking place in people’s lives. It is to our country’s credit that we undertake this huge task to feed into national policy alongside other nations such as the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States and Australia.

Since 2008, the National Income Dynamics Study has been tracking 28 000 South Africans who give up their time to tell their stories to give a robust and accurate picture of the changing nature of their lives. Every two years they get a knock on the door at wherever they are living now (South Africans move a lot) and describe their situation covering such topics as education, health, income, work and access to
services.

By doing this repeatedly, it is possible to see what is really making a difference. For example, children who receive the child support grant are seen to be taller, complete more years of schooling and have a lower chance of having to repeat a school year. By collecting this data repeatedly (otherwise known as panel data), we can really see whether policy is making a difference, change what is not and address otherwise invisible social issues.

To tell the whole of South Africa’s story properly, the National Income Dynamics Study needs to listen to the individual stories of citizens of all kinds. To keep on doing this, 8 000 new households are being approached this year and are being asked to join the 10 500 already being visited.

This is not an easy task; South Africa is a different place now than it was in 2008.

Many of the upper echelons of society — the middle class, upper-middle class and elites — are increasingly hidden behind security and high walls and becoming hard to reach and talk to. The danger is that the changing stories of those behind high walls will end up being diluted in South Africa’s policy conversations.

Indeed, Afrobarometer data indicates a steep fall in a sense of belonging and a gradual decline in trust in institutions in South Africa since 2009.

To counter this, the National Income Dynamics Study has launched a “be part of the big conversations” marketing campaign to encourage the disheartened to open their doors and be heard.

To successfully build a country, solid evidence of change is needed rather than hearsay. The information that the National Income Dynamics Study gathers is the story of South Africa. It is the story of us. The study’s fieldworkers are out on the streets conducting interviews at the moment. To ensure this vital national asset represents us all, we need to tell our stories when they come knocking.

Mike Brown is director of operations at the National Income Dynamics Study, a
project of the University of Cape Town’s Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit

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