The National Income Dynamics Study is one of a kind, allowing over 100 interviewers to track nearly 30 000 citizens across the country and measure the changing dynamics of their lives. Each member of each household is interviewed and measured. From this we know that poverty is falling, but that nearly two-thirds of those classified as poor in the 2008 survey were still poor in 2012; that nearly half of employed youths don't have stable employment; and that chronic lifestyle disease is the second most pervasive illness after HIV/AIDS.
On a wet late-summer's morning, Thulani Nhlapo punches coordinates into his GPS and we set off from Mthatha, through thick traffic and muddy potholes, to the national road. We drive north, climbing through the mist, and then east on a gravel road until we reach a village some 40 kilometres from what was once the capital of the 'independent' homeland of Transkei.
We cannot see the huts and homesteads that cluster in these hills, because the mist is too thick. But we can see the earth, cracked by erosion, grazing goats almost under our wheels, and a few herdsmen huddled up against the morning cold.
This is the poorest region in the country. Oxford professor, Michael Noble, has shown that by almost any measurement – income, education, health or wealth – the old Transkei is still South Africa's most deprived area.
We reach the spot that Nhlapo has aimed for: a small, neat homestead of brightly painted huts. Mrs Nomakhaya Ndlovu [not her real name] welcomes us into the biggest hut. The room is bare except for a few wooden and plastic chairs, a sideboard with ornamental plates and pots, and a fridge that does not work but is used as a cupboard. The interior walls are bright pink. On them are sheets of prayers in isiXhosa: Ndazisa ukuba/Sibambene/Ngantoni na/Ndicele uXolo ('Let me know what I have done wrong, so that I can ask for forgiveness').
Here we find 28-year-old Palesa More, who has come down from her home on the East Rand. She checks the GPS co-ordinates outside, and inside takes out a tablet and a notebook and carefully writes down the names of all the people living in the homestead. She is one of the 128 interviewers currently in the field for the National Income Dynamics Study, known as NIDS.
Nhlapo, 31, is a field supervisor for Geospace, survey specialists who have been contracted by the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) at UCT to interview thousands of people around the country for this study.
There is nothing else like NIDS in the country – or indeed in most countries. There are only a handful of similar household income and expenditure surveys in the world that track the same people on a regular basis.
Some 28 000 individuals in South Africa are tracked every two years. They are guaranteed confidentiality. Each member of the household is interviewed, measured, weighed, and has his or her blood pressure taken. From this we know that poverty is falling, but that nearly two-thirds of those classified as poor in the 2008 survey were still poor in 2012. (This NIDS video charts the movements.) And about 22% of those who were non-poor in 2008 had fallen into poverty by 2012. That nearly half of employed youths (46%) don't have stable employment. And that obesity rates are soaring, making chronic lifestyle disease the second most pervasive illness after HIV/AIDS.
"It is the only survey where we get to see the dynamism in people's lives," says Ingrid Woolard, an economics professor at UCT and one of the principal investigators of NIDS.
NIDS is now in its fourth wave, and the interviewers have spread out across the country like a small, patient army. They interview every person in a household except very young children, or those in prison or hospital. To visit one household can take a whole day, even longer.
It depends on how many people are in a household, says Mike Brown, the operations director of NIDS. In a middle-class Cape Town suburb there may be three, but in the old homeland areas, households can consist of 12 or more. The largest household in the survey was in KwaZulu-Natal, where there were 39.
Brown has designed the software for the NIDS survey. An Englishman, he found his way to South Africa via development work in Tanzania and Mongolia – "two years in minus-40 temperatures, eating boiled horse every day". He says although there are 28 000 permanent people interviewed, at times this rises to 40 000. If someone joins a household, they are interviewed. "Say there's some family tragedy, and six nieces and nephews move in with you; we are going to need to know they are there, to understand how the household income works."
Commissioned by the Policy Unit in the Presidency in 2007, NIDS aims to provide a picture of the changes in people's lives in the country. It is intended to provide empirical evidence for policy-making. Brown's experience in other parts of the world has taught him that "there is lots of policy made without evidence; so it was a high-leverage thing to do".
Mastoera Sadan, the project manager of NIDS, has worked in the Presidency for the past 11 years. She says it became apparent to government ten years ago that it needed to understand the changing dynamics in South Africa. NIDS has helped to draw a picture of how lives change. "We should see it as a national resource, and work hard to ensure that government uses it," she says. "Otherwise we are just doing things by the seat of our pants."
Here are a few important lessons from the NIDS data: one is that among the poorest people, there is enormous "churn", to use Brown's term. In many households, "the slightest windfall" – like getting a job – is enough to push them out of poverty. But losing a job, or having indigent relatives move in, can push them back just as quickly.
The second lesson is that child-support grants are well targeted, and make a difference – not only to the health of children, but to their chances of staying in school longer.
The third, and most salutary, is quite how unequal a society we are. The graph on income distribution drawn up by NIDS is a long, meandering flat line that rises sharply on the right-hand side of the page. Translated, it means many people have little, and a few people have lots. "It's a very bipolar country in terms of haves and have-nots: you have income or you don't, you have wealth or you don't, you have education or you don't, you have health or you don't. There's very little middle ground," says Brown.
But 97% of better-off South Africans – individuals who earn more than R5 000 a month – think they are worse off than they are. A question in the NIDS survey asks people where, on a ladder of six rungs, they think they are. The majority of the richest believe they are two or three rungs below where they actually are (an amazing two percent think they are among the very poorest). Partly, this is a legacy of apartheid. Our separation is still so profound that, as Brown says, people in Sea Point "regard themselves as terribly poor – because their neighbours are in Clifton, not in an informal settlement".
About one-third of the poorest, though, correctly understand that they are on the lowest rung of that ladder (the rest think they are better off than they are). Mrs Ndlovu is near the bottom. She has six children, three of whom are entitled to grants, and her husband gets a disability grant. She has, since the last interview, taken in a nephew whose parents have died. But, she says, another relative is getting the foster grant.
More, the NIDS interviewer, has a long list of questions; addressed first to the household, then to each individual in it. Mrs Ndlovu is about 40. She has six children. Her first was born when she was 16, her youngest 12 years ago. She has never worked, and has lived in the village all her life. (According to NIDS, 'movers' – migrants – are more likely to find work than 'stayers'). She left school in grade seven. She gets about R2 400 a month in grants "but it finishes soon".
But, she says, things are better than they were ten years ago. Grants have improved her life. Under a threadbare windbreaker, she wears a faded ANC T-shirt, with an image of President Jacob Zuma. 'Vote ANC', it says.
Her assets are: a vegetable garden, 11 goats, 15 sheep, three chickens, two dogs (and two skeletal puppies), two horses, three pigs, a cat, and an affectionate kitten.
She is puzzled when asked how much her house is worth. More asks how much she thinks she would get if she sold it. She shrugs and says, maybe R5 000.
It is perhaps in these surveys that the poor, separated by distance, education and language from the rich, get some glimpse into the lives of the top 20%.
"Do you have a TV?" asks More.
But she laughs harder when asked if she has a swimming pool and glances outside at the sandy patch in her yard where her pig is lying.
She has a radio and a cellphone (as almost all South Africans do). Her income goes almost entirely on food and on school uniforms. Her children get their schoolbooks free, but she has to cover them. There is a communal tap a few metres from her house, but it is sometimes broken. Better to rely on her large green water tanks – Jojos – to collect the summer rainwater. She has electricity, but uses it only for light – it is too expensive for heat or cooking. And she has a pit latrine with a ventilation pipe.
When the children return from school, they are interviewed, measured and weighed. The youngest tries to persuade me that a bicycle (for him) would be a good investment in his education. He could ride to school instead of doing the 20-minute walk. But More quickly disabuses him of any notion of a bicycle. The interviewers give 'incentives' – small gifts such as beanies or clocks – but never money. The fieldworkers tell the interviewees that the information is for the university. And perhaps government can use it to make their lives better.
In fact, the data on schools seems to have had some effect. There is now a school within two kilometres of every household. The problem, though, in the case of the Ndlovu children, is that the school only goes to Grade 9. After that, they must walk further. We cannot establish how her teenage son has navigated those difficult senior school years because he "gets away" without being interviewed, as More says. After pasturing the goats and sheep, he goes out and does not return, despite her pleas.
Young men, says Brown, are among the poorest of the poor. They are not eligible for grants and are unlikely to get a job. They are the most disaffected and volatile group. In the urban areas, this is more apparent. Young men are the most reluctant to be interviewed, says Woolard.
Nhlapo recounts how he ran into trouble one evening interviewing a woman in Diepsloot, in Gauteng, who had moved in with her boyfriend. The boyfriend returned to their shack as Nhlapo was asking about her possessions and whether she had a bank account.
He was angry. "He asked why we chose this specific house, why didn't I go to the leader. And then he wanted to whistle to call the people so they could do mob justice on me ... That was the worst experience."
Nhlapo gave him a brochure that explained the survey in English. When he said he didn't understand, Nhlapo explained in isiZulu. "But he complained that I was speaking deep Zulu ... he was just being difficult."
Eventually, he and his female colleague negotiated their way out of there, and past a "big dog" in the yard, which they persuaded the suspicious householder to restrain.
Nhlapo goes everywhere in the country – rural villages, suburbs, small towns, informal settlements and the 'high wall' areas. Of these, he says, informal settlements and "high walls" are the worst. Those in informal settlements can and do compare themselves with better-off urbanites. Those in the "high wall" areas, mainly whites, often don't answer their doorbells.
"But you see how others live, and you think, wow, I get to eat a seven-colour meal every day."
South Africa, says Brown, is a country of gatekeepers. The interviewers in the Transkei carry a signed letter from the local chief. In the "high wall" areas, they rely on body corporates and security guards to gain access. In the informal settlements, they face danger if they don't know who to ask for "permission" to interview the residents.
He is also struck by the lack of "social cohesion" in the country. "When people ask me what is the most 'developmental' thing they can do, I say, pay your taxes."
The point of NIDS, though, is not to prescribe. "In government we struggle with complexity," says Sadan. "Politicians in particular want simple answers to complex social phenomena."
As the sun begins to fade, the battery on More's tablet dies. She still has four household members to interview, including Ndlovu's husband and the recalcitrant teenage son.
"You need to be patient when you're doing this," says Nhlapo. "Sometimes people are rude to you, sometimes you finish in one day. Sometimes you come back eight times and can't find the person."
Story by Pippa Green, media manager for the Research Project on Employment, Income Distribution and Inclusive Growth (REDI) at SALDRU. Image by Kim Ludbrook, EPA.
This story first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 16 March 2015.
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