NiDS: telling South Africa’s story since 2008

11 October 2019 | Story Nadia Krige. Photo Hansueli Krapf, Wikipedia. Read time 9 min.
Just over 20% of South Africans can be considered middle class, while slightly less than 30% are stuck in a poverty gap.
Just over 20% of South Africans can be considered middle class, while slightly less than 30% are stuck in a poverty gap.

After 10 years of forging partnerships and delivering research excellence, the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) has drawn to a close its time as implementation partner for the National Income Dynamics Study (NiDS). Murray Leibbrandt, professor of economics at UCT and director of SALDRU, provides a retrospective on this phase in South Africa’s first and only national household panel study.

With a nationally representative sample of over 28 000 people from 7 300 households across the country, NiDS was launched in 2008.

NiDS was developed by the South African Presidency as an instrument to gain a better understanding of the socioeconomic dynamics at play in South Africa – a little more than a decade into democracy. The idea was to gain first-hand information about the livelihoods of those who call South Africa home – whether citizens or not – with a focus on overarching societal themes ranging from fertility and mortality to education and migration to income dynamics.

As a longitudinal study, NiDS tracks the same set of people and their households by interviewing them every two years for the long-term. SALDRU was selected as the preferred implementation partner in a competitive tender process, a role which they performed with passion for the first five waves of NiDS up until the end of 2018.

 

“Questions like: Who escapes poverty? Who flourishes? Is the middle class growing? Who gets right to the top?”

“NIDS has the ability to answer questions around social-dynamic issues that no other instrument in the country currently can,” says Leibbrandt. “Questions like: Who escapes poverty? Who flourishes? Is the middle class growing? Who gets right to the top? What does the top look like? How do people stay there?”

Through insights gained into the lives of individuals, the study tells an accurate story about South African society, a story that has been – and will hopefully continue to be – instrumental in facilitating the development of evidence-based policy-making.

Laying a sound foundation

Of course, getting an operation of such magnitude and national importance off the ground requires a good deal of preparation. 

Fortunately, SALDRU was given a full year – the duration of 2007 – to lay the groundwork for the first wave of NiDS. The team had to establish a nationally representative sample of households. This they did in partnership with Statistics South Africa, which provided SALDRU with a database of about 400 representative areas across South Africa.

“Once we knew where we would be working, we listed all the dwellings in the sampling unit and then randomly selected about 20 dwellings within that unit whose household members would then participate in the survey,” Leibbrandt explains.

These randomly-selected participants were notified and became “our NIDS people”, as Leibbrandt affectionately calls them. In certain areas, the team had to get permission from chiefs and headmen and their urban equivalents – the managers of townhouse complexes.

 

“We were asking extremely sensitive questions about everything from people’s income to sexual behaviour. In retrospect, it turns out that people feel way more prickly about the former than the latter.”

“We rarely had anybody refuse,” Leibbrandt recalls.

During this year of preparation, SALDRU also set up comprehensive questionnaires that would cover the most prominent socio-economic aspects at play in South African society. Leibbrandt explains that apart from the general household questionnaire about assets, household membership and community circumstances, each adult and each child received a questionnaire of their own.

“We were asking extremely sensitive questions about everything from people’s income to sexual behaviour. In retrospect, it turns out that people feel way more prickly about the former than the latter,” Leibbrandt notes wryly.

Shattering assumptions

In the initial 10 years and five waves of NiDS research, Leibbrandt says that a story of a struggling South African society emerged.

One of the assumptions challenged by the NiDS results is the picture of a flourishing South African middle class with a burgeoning population of ‘black diamonds’ who are set to send our country soaring.

As Leibbrandt puts it: that’s the middle class we need, but unfortunately don’t have.

In a recent working paper, Leibbrandt – with co-authors Rocco Zizzamia, a research officer at SALDRU, and Dr Simone Schotte, affiliated with the University of Göttingen at the time – describes the middle class as those who no longer have to look over their shoulder and worry about falling back into poverty.

“We were able to use NiDS to show that there’s a very thin number – just over 20% of South Africans – who genuinely sit in that area,” he says. “Fortunately, there has been some increase in the black African component of that middle class, currently making up about 60% of it.”

 

“NiDS has been very influential in showing the benefits of social grants for schooling, for early childhood development and for baby nutrition, among others.”

He fills in the picture of South African society further by describing an elite group, of less than 5%, for whom poverty is the furthest thing from their minds, and a group of slightly more than 30% who were poor every time they were visited and are effectively stuck in a poverty trap.

Another thing NiDS has been able to show is that for the vulnerable section of society, social grants are nothing short of lifesavers – often keeping starvation at bay.

“NiDS has been very influential in showing the benefits of social grants for schooling, for early childhood development and for baby nutrition, among others,” Leibbrandt says.

This has been useful in shattering another widespread assumption – often held by those among the elite – that social grants are essentially a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Surfacing vulnerabilities

From the start, the mandate of NiDS was to provide input for evidence-based policy-making in an ever-complex South African society.

When asked how the panel study achieved this, Leibbrandt says that NiDS’s strength lies in being able to reveal the vulnerabilities of South Africa by gaining insight into the everyday stumbling blocks obstructing those trying to get ahead and make a living.

“We need our government to prioritise things that are going to stabilise the lives of our people and facilitate their proactivity,” Leibbrandt says.

 

For the vulnerable section of society, social grants are nothing short of lifesavers – often keeping starvation at bay.

With five waves of NiDS research completed and the data generated freely available, he believes that there is more than enough evidence for the government to identify the things that simply cannot be sacrificed at this time. These include education, health, community safety, infrastructure and public transport.

A partnership success story

Leibbrandt believes that another important story that NIDS tells is one of a multi-layered partnership between SALDRU, government departments, fieldworkers, academics and – of course – the people who participated.

“These partnerships have made it possible to produce world-class social science with the potential of making a real impact on society,” he concludes. “And that’s the dream for most academics – and something that’s understood to be useful by the patient NiDS respondents.”


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