South Africa’s “Right to Read and Write”

On International Literacy Day, the 8th of September 2021, The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) launched the “Right to Read and Write” at the Constitutional Court. I was one of nineteen authors who contributed to the report over the last two years. I think it is a landmark document and encourage everyone to read it (full report here). I will include only the Preamble and Postscript here to give you a sense of the document, but it is worth reading the whole thing! Minister Motshekga’s short opening speech at the event is also worth watching.

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The Right to Read and Write

Preamble

1.1 Introduction

South African society has one supreme law that stands over and above all others: the Constitution. It is the body of fundamental principles that outlines the legal foundation for the existence of our republic and states the rights and duties of its citizens and those we elect to govern us. One of those fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution is that “Everyone has the right to a basic education” (Section 29(1)(a))

In many senses this particular right is a special right in the Constitution and different from  many others since it is ‘immediately realizable.’ Unlike the other socioeconomic rights in the Constitution – such as the rights to housing, to healthcare, to food, water, security, and further education – there is no qualification to the right to a basic education. There is nothing that says the state must work towards the ‘progressive realization’ of the right to a basic education, or that the realization of the right to a basic education is ‘subject to available resources.’ There are only two socioeconomic rights in the entire Constitution that are not subject to such limitations and progressive realization, and these are: (1) The right to a basic education (Section 29(1)(a)) and (2) Children’s core socioeconomic rights to ‘basic nutrition, shelter, basic health care services and social services’ (Section 28(1)(c)) This was not an accident. In their wisdom, the drafters of the Constitution recognized that in addition to other necessary measures of redress, it was only through the systematic prioritization of the next generation that South Africa would be able to transcend the multifaceted and far-reaching consequences of apartheid.

When the South African Constitution was being written, it was expressly noted and understood that education would hold a privileged place in the new democratic dispensation. Neither redress nor prosperity would be possible without it. The Constitution’s mandate to ‘free the potential of each person’ was contingent on the realization of this right for all who live in the country. As Constitutional Court Justice Bess Nkabinde ruled:

‘‘The significance of education, in particular basic education, for individual and societal development in our democratic dispensation in the light of the legacy of apartheid, cannot be overlooked… [B]asic education is an important socioeconomic right directed, among other things, at promoting and developing a child‘s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to his or her fullest potential. Basic education also provides a foundation for a child‘s lifetime learning and work opportunities”

–     Governing Body of the Juma Musjid Primary School v Essay.

While the unqualified right to a basic education has not been legally contested, it is still not entirely clear what is (and is not) included when one speaks about a ‘basic education’. The Constitution itself does not provide an explication of this right which specifies how it is to be realized and what conditions would need to be met for this right to be said to have been realised or not.

In 2013 the Minister of Basic Education prescribed the Regulations Relating to Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure which set out the ‘necessary resources’ that form the minimum core of this right in terms of infrastructure. Subsequent court interpretations of these regulations demonstrate that South Africa now has a set of defined norms for basic physical infrastructure such as running water, electricity, sanitation, and a safe built-environment (Equal Education v Minister of Basic Education 2019 (1) SA 421, ECB), as well as basic educational materials such as one textbook per subject per child (Minister of Basic Education and Others v Basic Education for All and Others [2016] 1 All SA 369, SCA). This has gone some way to make explicit what the State’s minimum obligations are in the fulfilment of this right, at least in terms of infrastructure and textbooks. To that extent it has begun to explicate or ‘unpack’ the meaning of the right to a basic education by specifying its minimum content.

However, what has been lacking in much of this unfolding process is the specification of minimum outcomes that must be met for the right to a basic education to be said to have been realized for an individual. What is the minimum set of knowledge, skills and dispositions that an individual must possess for their right to a basic education to be said to have been realized? Alternatively, are there certain specific measurable ‘core’ outcomes that, if a child is unable to achieve them, one can say definitively that their right to a basic education (or at least some fundamental component of it) has been denied?

It is the contention of this background paper that one of these minimum ‘core’ outcomes with respect to the right to a basic education, is that a child must be able to read and write with understanding at a basic level, in their home language, by the age of ten. Put differently, this fundamental skill is one of the tools by means of which the constitutional promise is to be fulfilled. Unless and until the child is educated to the requisite minimum level, the constitutional promise remains unfulfilled. The purpose of this document is to provide a clearly articulated, evidence-based, and measurable definition of what it means to “read and write, with understanding, at a basic level.” In so doing it aims to operationalize this right by making one additional core component of the right to a basic education explicit. This component would be the “Right to Read and Write.” Whilst it is clear that the right to a basic education envisaged in the Constitution goes well beyond merely the ability to read and write, it is equally clear that if a child is denied this most basic skill (to read and write with understanding) they have at the same time, also been denied the right to a basic education.

In the same way that the government, the courts and civil society now have a shared understanding of the physical resources that are necessary for the realization of the right to a basic education (textbooks, toilets, teachers etc.), the intention of this document is to move towards a similarly shared understanding of the content of the right to a basic education with respect to outcomes, and to do so by providing a clearly articulated, defensible, measurable, and research-informed definition of what it means to read and write at a basic level.

Postscript

The Constitution of South Africa was, and is, one of the landmark achievements of our young democracy. It sets out the rights and obligations of citizens and those we elect to govern us, as well as charting a course to a non-racial society founded on ‘human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms.’ While the Constitution is clear and unequivocal – everyone has the right to a basic education – it is the ongoing task of civil society, government, legislature, and the judiciary to explicate what that means. Rights are not self-fulfilling, nor obligations self-evident.

It has been the aim of this document to put forward a defensible explication of one core component of the right to a basic education, and that is the ‘right to read and write.’ It is our contention here that no child can reach their full potential without being able to read and write for meaning and pleasure. We believe that if that is the case then the onus is on us to find a way to measure this right and whether it has been realized.

By drawing on a wealth of experience and research we have attempted to put forward an evidence-based argument for what it means to read and write at a basic level. It is the role of the Executive branch of government to decide whether it agrees with the above interpretation of this component of the right to a basic education.  And it is the role of the Judiciary to adjudicate whether the Executive’s actions and interpretations of this right are in keeping with the text, spirit, and ethos of the Constitution.

The Right to Read and Write:

“Every child in South Africa has the right to read at a basic level, in their home language, by the age of 10. That is to say, they can read and understand a short and simple text and answer 80% of the literal and straight-forward inferential questions they are asked that are based on that text. Approximately 60-80% of these questions should be classified as ‘Very easy’ or ‘Easy’ questions.

“Every child has the right to write at a basic level, in their home language, by the age of 10. That is to say that they can express themselves in writing by using a collection of simple and related sentences with correct grammar and punctuation.”

Links I liked #32

“Our social imagination is partly constituted by our ruling metaphors, and the key metaphor of the age of meritocracy is ‘the ladder’. As David Cameron put it in 2013: ‘You help people by putting up ladders that they can climb through their own efforts.’ But this may not paint quite as inviting a picture as Cameron hoped. Ladders are confining modes of ascent, which don’t leave much room for choice: there is no overtaking and the direction of travel is fixed, rung by rung. Ladder-speak tends to ignore the fact that ladders are used for descending as much as ascending, and has nothing to say about what happens when someone on the way down meets someone on the way up. And of course there will always be some people who prefer to take the lift. Where, in any case, are all these competitors in the Great Ladder-Climbing Championships trying to get to? The metaphor suggests a once-and-for-all ascent: you climb a ladder to get somewhere; ladder-climbing is not a way of life.”

  • Debate: I came across this debate-by-letters and loved the banter between academics. “Deidre McCloskey & Economists’ Ideas about Ideas.” Read the whole thing –
  • Assessment: SACMEQ is notoriously under-documented. This 2019 Kenya Report on SACMEQ IV (2013) is helpful in that regard. 
  • Martin Gustafsson’s pice in The Conversation about the incoming wave of teacher retirements. Watch this space.
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in collaboration with RTI (Ben Piper et al., who else 🙂 ) have published a series of really helpful reports on:
  1. Structured Pedagogy: How to guides and literature review
  2. Practical language choices for improving Foundational Literacy and Numeracy in sub-Saharan Africa,
  3. Language of instruction in Foundational Literacy and Numeracy Programs in sub-Saharan Africa: The Basics,
  4. Classroom level assessment,
  5. System level assessment
  • Reports: Useful OECD PISA-for-Development report (2020) on out of school youth in 5 countries (Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay & Senegal)

Economics of Education (2021)

It’s that time of the year again! I’ll be teaching my postgraduate Applied Economics of Education course at Stellenbosch University. The course runs from the 10th of August to the end of October 2021, with in-person lectures from 9:00-11:00 on Tuesdays and in-person STATA pracs from 11:00-13:00. The full syllabus can be found HERE doc. If you have a strong interest in the course and would like to apply to be an auditor please complete the Google Form which is inside the course outline. Every year there are a number of local and international auditors that enrich the course by their participation. Approved auditors can join in-person at Stellenbosch or electronically via Zoom. There are a limited number of spaces for auditors and those with a quantitative and/or postgraduate background will have preference. Note also that all auditors have to do the readings and hand in the weekly reading reflections as your price of entry! I’ve included the list of readings for each lecture below:

(1) Inequality in South African education

  1. *Spaull, N. (2019). Equity: A price too high to pay? In Spaull, N. & Jansen, J. (eds): South African Schooling: The Enigma of Inequality. Springer.
  2. Collini, S. (2021). Snakes and Ladders. London Review of Books. Vol.43 (17) April 2021.
  3. Pabón, F., Leibbrandt, M., Ranchhod, V., & Savage, M. (2021). Picketty comes to South Africa. British Journal of Sociology. 2021 (72) p.106-124

(2) Sampling, assessment, and trends over time

Much of the economics of education involves analyzing sample-based surveys of educational inputs and learning outcomes. Of particular importance are the four international assessments South Africa participates in which are TIMSS (Gr5 & 9 maths and science), PIRLS (Gr4 reading), SACMEQ (Gr6 maths and literacy) and TALIS (teacher survey).  This session covers issues of inter-temporal comparability, how surveys sample schools, representivity, basic statistical concepts in sampling, interpreting results from cross-national surveys and some of the literature that has looked at this issues in SA and sub-Saharan Africa. This will also be useful for your pracs.

  1. *Van der Berg, S. & Gustafsson, M. (2019). Educational outcomes in post-apartheid South Africa: Signs of progress despite great inequality. In Spaull, N. & Jansen, J. (eds): South African Schooling: The Enigma of Inequality. Springer.
  2. *Spaull, N., and Taylor, S., (2015). Access to what? Creating a composite measure of educational quantity and educational quality for 11 African countries. Comparative Education Review. Vol. 58, No. 1. (optional extras: Taylor & Spaull, 2015 and Lilenstein 2018 for francophone West Africa)
  3. Singh, A. (2015) How standard is a standard deviation? A cautionary note on using SDs to compare across impact evaluations in education. Development Impact. World Bank. (Online). Available: [Accessed: 11 July 2018]

(3) Early grade reading in South Africa: What do we know?

  1. *Spaull, N. & Pretorius, E. (2019). Still falling at the first hurdle: Early grade reading outcomes in South Africa. In Spaull, N. & Jansen, J. (eds): South African Schooling: The Enigma of Inequality. Springer.
  2. *Ardington, C., Wills, G., Pretorius, E., Mohohlwane, N., & Menendez, A. (2021) Benchmarking oral reading fluency in the early grades in Nguni languages. International Journal of Educational Development 84 (2021)

(4) Education in the time of COVID-19 in South Africa

  1. *Ardington, C., Wills, G., & Kotze, J (2021, forthcoming). COVID-19 learning losses: early grade reading in South Arica. Manuscript for RISE conference.
  2. *Shepherd, D. & Mohohlwane, N. (2021). The impact of COVID-19 in education – more than a year of disruption. NIDS-CRAM Wave 5 Working Paper.
  3. Spaull, N. & Van der Berg, S. (2020). Counting the cost: COVID-19 school closures in South Africa and its impact on children. South African Journal of Childhood Education. Vol 10(11).

(5) Teachers and the budget in South Africa: The R200bn question

  1. *Spaull, N., Lilenstein, A., & Carel, D. (2020). The Race between Teacher Wages and the Budget – the case of South Africa 2008-2018. RESEP.
  2. Gustafsson, M. (2012). Incentives for teachers within the salary system. DBE. Pretoria.
  3. Gustafsson. 2020. Selected extracts from teacher demand work.

(6) Government plans for South African Education

  1. *Gustafsson, M. (2019). Pursuing change through policy in the schooling sector 2007-2017. In Spaull, N. & Jansen, J. (eds): South African Schooling: The Enigma of Inequality. Springer.
  2. *Van der Berg, S., Gustafsson, M., & Malindi, K. (2020). Education and skills for the economy and links to labour markets in South Africa. Position Paper June 2020. National Planning Commission.
  3. Department of Basic Education. (2020). Action Plan to 2024: Towards the realisation of Schooling 2030. Overview. Full document. DBE. Pretoria.
  4. Presidency (2019). Medium Term Strategic Framework (MTSF) 2019-2024. Presidency. Pretoria

(7) The myth of evidence-based policymaking

  1. *Cairney, P. & Oliver, K. (2017). Evidence-based policymaking is not like evidence-based medicine, so how far should you go to bridge the divide between evidence and policy? Health Research Policy and System 15:35.
  2. *White, H. (2019). The twenty-first century experimenting society: the four waves of the evidence revolution. Palgrave Communications 5(47) 2019.
  3. Ganimian, A. (2017) Not drawn to scale? RCTs and education reform in developing countries. Research on Improving Systems of Education. (Online).  [5 June 2019]
  4. Kremer, M., Brannen, C., & Glennerster, R. (2013). The Challenge of Education and Learning in the Developing World. Science 340, 297 (2013)
  5. Ravallion, M. (2020) Should the Randomistas (Continue to) Rule? Working Paper 27554. NBER Working Paper.

(8) #FeesMustFall: Who should pay for higher education?

This ‘lecture’ is actually a class debate. The class will be split into two opposing teams and the motion is “This House believes that higher education should be completely free for all students who are accepted by higher education institutions in South Africa.”

  1. *Van Broekhuizen, H., Van der Berg, S., & Hofmeyr, H. (2016). Higher Education Access and Outcomes for the 2008 National Matric Cohort. Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers 16/16.
  2. Davis Tax Committee. 2016. Report on the Funding of Tertiary Education. (Online).
  3. Chapman, B. (2006) Income Contingent Loans for Higher Education: International Reforms. Handbook of the Economics of Education (Vol 2) pp 1435-1503.

(9) Vouchers & Public Private Partnerships

  1. *Epple, D., Romano, R., & Urquiola, M. (2017). School Vouchers: A Survey of the Economics Literature. Journal of Economic Literature, 55(2), 441-492.

(10) Are we there yet?

This session will discuss South Africa’s current rates of improvement, promising avenues for improvements and key research questions going forward.

  1. *Cruz., L & Loureiro, C. (2020). Achieving world-class education in adverse socioeconomic conditions: The case of Sobral in Brazil. World Bank

Gustafsson, M. (2019). How fast can levels of proficiency improve? Examining Historical Trends to Inform SDG 4.1.1 Scenarios. UNESCO Institute for Statistics. (also see blog here)

1,3m vaccinations behind (FM op-ed)

South Africa is currently in a race against time. As COVID waves come and go, and new variants emerge it is now more clear than ever that there is only one route out of the mess we find ourselves in and that is vaccination. On that front there is both good news and bad.

The good news is that both of South Africa’s vaccines – Pfizer and Johnsson & Johnsson (J&J) – seem to offer strong protection against the Delta variant driving the third wave. So if you’ve been vaccinated and developed an immune response (typically 2-4 weeks after vaccination) you won’t get severely ill from COVID. The other good news is that vaccine acceptance is increasing over time. In an earlier round of the nationally representative National Income Dynamics Study Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Nids-Cram) we reported that in February this year 71% of South Africans agreed to get vaccinated. In our latest results launched today, this has increased to 76% in April/May 2021.

The bad news is that the Delta variant is twice as transmissible as the original COVID virus, and hospitals are overwhelmed. Private sector hospital admissions in Gauteng, the Free State and the Northern Cape are exceeding the peaks experienced in the second wave. Gauteng alone had more than 4000 hospital admissions in the last week of June and as of 2 July was at 91% hospital capacity (public and private).

Unfortunately, at the end of June only 5% of the population had been vaccinated with at least one dose of a vaccine, well behind countries like Pakistan (6%), Botswana (7%), India (20%), and Brazil (35%), and obviously the US (55%) and the UK (67%). In fact as of the 1st of July South Africa ranked 126th in the world with the same vaccination rate as Libya (5.6%) and Venezuela (5,1%) – both essentially failed states.

Why is this? Originally we were told that supply was the main constraint. Yet we now have 7,4-million doses of the vaccine in our borders and have had more supply than we’ve been able to administer since May. To date only 3-million people in South Africa have been vaccinated. 

We were also told that we didn’t have enough money. Yet in February this year the Finance Minister announced that there was now “total potential funding for the vaccination programme to about R19-billion“ made up of R6.5-billion to procure and distribute vaccines, R2,4-billion for provincial health departments to administer the vaccines and a contingency reserve of R9-billion “given uncertainty around final costs.” Why is it then that five months later we only vaccinate on weekdays and not on weekends? Department of Health Spokesperson Dr Lwazi Manzi explained: “Basically, the provinces indicated they don’t have the budget to be able to pay the overtime over weekends.” And according to the Western Cape Treasury’s estimates that’s correct. They find that ‘operational costs’ amount to R108 per vaccine dose administered (p.102) including contract staff, hiring more nurses, overtime etc. If that figure is correct it will cost provinces R5,8-billion to administer 54-million doses (the number that’s needed to reach 40-million people since Pfizer requires 2-doses. That means that the contingency reserve is necessary and – at least at the time of writing – it had not been released to provinces, despite being technically “available.”

So practically speaking, what does this look like? The graph below shows the daily vaccination numbers from 17 May until 4 July 2021. It shows how vaccinations virtually disappear on Saturday and Sunday each week, as well as on June 16th, a public holiday.

Figure 1: Vaccines per day (17 May to 4 July 2021)

Using the average vaccination rates of the Friday prior and the Monday after, I estimate that between 17 May and 5 July 1,3-million additional shots could have been administered if we vaccinated on Saturdays and Sundays as well as on June 16th. Put differently, we are 1,3-million jabs behind schedule because we aren’t vaccinating on weekends. What this comes back to is state capacity. The South African state does not currently employ people primarily on competence and as a result is not able to implement its own plans, let alone expedite them. In response to a Parliamentary question from the opposition earlier this year, Minister Senzo Mchunu reported that 35% of the public sector’s 9,500 most senior managers in the country (at national and provincial level) “do not have the required qualifications and credentials for the positions they currently occupy.”

Does this help to explain why eight weeks into the national vaccination program we are still unable to either source, unlock, transfer or distribute the funds needed to pay staff for overtime so that they can vaccinate on weekends? How is it that the National Treasury announced R19-billion in available funds in February but in July we are still told by the Department of Health that there is no money? It’s as if we are fighting a forest fire on weekdays and then we send the firefighters home for the weekend because we can’t pay them overtime for Saturday and Sunday, even while the fire rages on.

There is another question about whether nurses should be the only people allowed to administer vaccines. The process is relatively straightforward and given the limited number of nurses in the country and the need to vaccinate 40-million South Africans in a year, others should also be authorised to administer COVID-19 vaccines. This is exactly what the United States has done. In February this year they passed theSixth Amendment to Declaration Under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act (PREP) for Medical Countermeasures Against COVID-19. This essentially limits the medical liability of military officers administering the vaccines. As the US Military explains: “The PREP Act allows the Department of Health and Human Services to issue a declaration to provide legal protections to certain military personnel involved in mass vaccination efforts.” As a result the US Army has now administered more than 1-million vaccine doses in America.

Why can’t some of South Africa’s 70,000 Community Health Workers administer vaccines under the supervision of nurses at big sites with clinical oversight? What is the point of issuing a Disaster Management Act (and perpetually extending it) if we don’t actually use it to implement drastic measures to avert the disaster? If the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) is obstinate that only nurses can do it, then it should be summoned to Parliament to explain why this is not possible.  Why can’t Parliament issue a similar liability waiver for trained Community Health Workers for the duration of the pandemic? After all, there have now been 3-billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered worldwide with no side effects in 99,99% of cases. This is now the most studied medical event in human history.

The government is already well behind it’s own vaccination plan having only vaccinated 60% of the target for the end of June (3 million of a forecasted 5-million people) and is an entire age-category behind schedule. Currently we are administering less than half (130,000) the number of daily doses required (250,000) to meet the target of 40-million vaccinations by February 2022.

The situation at hand also points to a lack of coherent leadership. The former President, under whose watch thousands of incompetent cadres were deployed to (and remain in) high office, is now en route to prison. Our Health Minister is on paid leave due to corruption and Deputy President David Mabuza is currently in Russia for a “medical consultation.” The Deputy President, who took “long leave” for the Russia trip, is also the Chairperson of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Vaccines.

Why does all of this matter? It matters because the coronavirus pandemic is causing suffering on a scale that we have not seen before in South Africa. The latest Nids-Cram were released today (8 July) and paint a grim picture of the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic.

When asked in April and May this year, 10% of South African households with school-going children said that at least one child in their household had not returned to school since the beginning of 2021. That means that school dropout for those aged 7-17 years has now tripled from 230,000 pre-pandemic to 750,000 in April/May, i.e. an extra 500,000 children have dropped out of school during the pandemic. Whether this is temporary or permanent dropout is, as yet unknown, although previous research shows that the longer children remain out of school the higher the likelihood of permanent dropout.

By June of this year the average primary school child has also lost 70-100% of a year of learning compared to previous cohorts. That is to say that the average Grade 3 child in June 2021 knows about as much as the average Grade 2 child in June of 2019. These sorts of losses will take more than a decade to recover. Ongoing rotational time-tables means that children’s access to free school meals is also compromised. While this has increased from 46% in November 2020 to 56% in April 2021, this is still below the pre-pandemic level of 65%. The Department’s own reporting to the High Court confirms this.

Throughout all the waves of NIDS-CRAM respondents were asked whether anyone in the household went hungry in the last seven days because there wasn’t enough money for food. If there was a child in the household another question was asked as to whether any child had gone hungry. Using the latest NIDS-CRAM data, Professor Martin Wittenberg and Dr Nicola Branson at UCT estimate that in April 2021 approximately 10-million people and 3-million children were in a household affected by hunger in the past seven days.

The study also revealed the ways that the pandemic has affected South Africans differently. Although by March 2021 men’s employment had largely recovered to pre-pandemic levels, women’s employment was still 8% lower than in February 2020. To add insult to injury, women have also not benefited from the two COVID-19 government relief grants (UIF-TERS and the R350 SRD grant) at the same rate as men, despite being worse affected by job losses. Women only account for 35-39% of the beneficiaries of these grants.

The latest set of results from NIDS-CRAM (Wave 5) is also the last round of data collection for this research project. The aim of NIDS-CRAM was to collect reliable data on a broadly nationally representative sample of South Africans to help policy-makers and the public make informed decisions in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. It was always scheduled to be five waves, which are now complete. The NIDS-CRAM collaboration, made up of over 30 colleagues and researchers from six South African universities NIDS-CRAM has written 67 research papers over the last year, covering everything from hunger and employment to vaccine acceptance and mental health (all papers are available at cramsurvey.org and the data is available for download at DataFirst). It has been an incredibly enriching experience, working with such dedicated and collaborative academics united in our belief in the importance of evidence and social justice.

Yet it has also cemented in my mind the critically important role that civil society has to play in holding the line in this democratic experiment we call South Africa. In different ways and at different times civil society has stepped into the gap created by the government and held it to account. The investigative journalists at amaBungane and Scorpio were the ones who exposed the rot of State Capture and the looting of State Owned Enterprises like Transet and Eskom, estimated to be at least R50-billion. And for what? For fancy suits and shitty weddings in Dubai? There is a shamelessness about those who have been exposed. Who refuse to resign in the face of blatant evidence of their corruption and moral debasement. We need to stop calling it “stepping aside.” This is euphemistic at best. These people remain on full pay, perhaps all the way until they go to jail, and even then they may still get them. Just this month it was reported that former ANC councillor Sibongiseni Baba has been sentenced to 10 years in prison after raping a party volunteer – yet he is still paid his monthly salary, despite being behind bars. One wonders if Zuma will still get his R3-million tax-payer funded annual salary when he is in jail. Perhaps that is also for the judicial branch of government to decide. Like civil society the judiciary and independent institutions have held the line, largely driven by the moral fortitude of people like Thuli Madonsela and Justices Zondo and Khampepe. It’s worth dwelling briefly on the powerful role they have played in our current constitutional realignment.

The role of the judiciary

There is a deep sense of poetic justice at play in South Africa’s Constitutional Court at the moment. Ten years ago, Jacob Zuma appointed Mogoeng Mogoeng as the Chief Justice – a contentious appointment at the time. While most of his ten years have been less controversial than was expected, things went south at the end of last year when he opened in prayer at a public event: “If there be any vaccine that is of the devil, meant to infuse triple-six in the lives of the people, meant to corrupt their DNA, Lord God Almighty may it be destroyed by fire, in the name of Jesus.” Soon after this he announced that he would be going on “long leave” until October 2021 when his decade-long tenure was set to come to an end anyway.

In March 2021 President Ramaphosa appointed Sisi Khampepe as the Acting Chief Justice. Originally appointed by Mandela in 1995 as a TRC Commissioner she went on to become a justice of the Constitutional Court and earlier this year she was asked to act as Chief Justice. This was because the Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo (who would normally take the role) had his hands full with the Zondo Commission.

In a 127-page judgment Justice Khampepe lambasted Zuma explaining that his conduct “smacks of malice”, that his accusations were “utterly bereft of supporting facts” and concluded that in the process of dismissing two summons’ from the Zondo Commission and then further dismissing the summons of the Constitutional Court compelling him to testify at the Zondo Commission that he had acted in an “indubitably vexatious and reprehensible manner” and was sentenced to jail for 15-months. Her exact judgment and wisdom are worth quoting verbatim:

“It would be nonsensical and counterproductive of this Court to grant an order with no teeth. Here, I repeat myself: court orders must be obeyed. If the impression were to be created that court orders are not binding, or can be flouted with impunity, the future of the Judiciary, and the rule of law, would indeed be bleak. I am simply unable to compel Mr Zuma’s compliance with this Court’s order, and am thus faced with little choice but to send a resounding message that such recalcitrance is unlawful and will be punished. I am mindful that, ‘having no constituency, no purse and no sword, the Judiciary must rely on moral authority’ to fulfil its functions Acting Chief Justice Khampepe.

Indeed. The last three years have been a moral reckoning for South Africa. The judgment against Zuma has placed the Constitution front and centre in our national discourse showing that everyone is equal before the law, and even presidents can go to jail. Yet that same Constitution also outlines other rights and obligations that we can no longer ignore. As Justice Khampepe reminds us, there are things that tie us together as South Africans that are about more than flesh and blood, or race and class. It is an ideal of a multi-racial country where all have equal worth and where reconciliation is possible.

Yet reconciliation also means sharing wealth and protecting dignity. How can we claim with a straight face that we are all equal when 10-million South Africans and 3-million children experience hunger on a weekly basis? As rich South Africans we are failing our fellow citizens, a fact that is made even more difficult to swallow when one considers that it is we who have benefited the most post-apartheid. I bring this up here because almost everyone reading the Financial Mail is in the wealthiest 5% of South African society (i.e. earning more than R32,000 per month before tax and deductions). From research into the last two decades of tax data we know that the wealthiest 5% of South Africans have been the main beneficiaries of economic growth post-apartheid. While this group is now multiracial, it is also only this group where the big gains have been made.

Research by Aroop Chatterjee, Lĕo Czajka & Amory Gethin presented last month shows that in 1994 the average White South African earned seven times the average Black South African (7-to-1). This ratio has now come down to 4-to-1 in 2019. However, this was entirely driven by the rise in incomes of the richest 5% of Black South Africans. If you exclude that group, the ratio in 2019 is the same as the ratio in 1994. In a nutshell, racial income inequality in South Africa has come down since 1994, but only because of significant income growth among the richest 5% of Black South Africans, not improvements for the poorest 90%. Other research by Ihsaan Bassier and Ingrid Woolard shows that the trend continues right up to the top of the distribution. The real incomes of the wealthiest 1% of South Africa doubled between 2003 and 2016.

At its core this issue is one of moral conviction. In a middle-income country no one should go hungry. In her judgment Justice Khampepe reminds us that the country we aspire to be is founded on rights and obligations made explicit in our Constitution. But it is not only the right to equality before the law but also that “Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected…Everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food and water.” No one needs to tell us that it is morally unacceptable that 1-in-6 South Africans experience hunger on a weekly basis. It is a blight on our national conscience and one that we can (and should) do something about. 

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This article first appeared in the Financial Mail on the 8th of July 2021.

Nic Spaull is an Associate Professor of Economics at Stellenbosch University and the co-Principal Investigator of Nids-Cram.

Funda Wande appoints Nangamso Mtsatse as new CEO

The Board of Funda Wande is excited to announce that it has finalized its appointment of Nangamso Mtsatse as the new CEO of Funda Wande. Following an open and competitive process with over 80 applications, Nangamso emerged as the best candidate to lead Funda Wande into its next chapter. As Professor Sizwe Mabizela, Chair of the Board and Vice Chancellor of Rhodes University said following the appointment:

 “It was the unanimous decision of the board that Nangamso not only stood head and shoulders above the other candidates but is also an exceptional leader with a clear vision to lead Funda Wande into its future. Nangamso is both passionate about literacy and social justice, but also about Funda Wande. The board has full confidence that Nangamso will build on the very strong foundation that Nic has established at Funda Wande and we look forward to working with our donors and partners in advancing our collective objective of giving young people of this country the best start in life. She has our full support. These are exciting times!”

Nangamso is an experienced and respected leader at Funda Wande. Her previous portfolios include being Funda Wande’s Versioning & Relationships Lead, and most recently, the Head of Literacy. Nangamso is also completing her PhD in Education Policy at Stellenbosch University and an affiliated researcher at the Research on Socioeconomic Policy (RESEP) group. She has published her research in the South African Journal of African Languages, the Journal of Education, and the South African Journal of Education (CV here). In January 2019 she was also selected by the International Literacy Association (ILA) as one of the “Top 30 Under 30” researchers around the world. This list “celebrates the rising innovators, disruptors, and visionaries in the literacy field.” Nangamso is currently the Co-ordinator of the ongoing collaboration between Rhodes University and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, a partnership aimed at strengthening the Advanced Certificate in Foundation Phase Literacy offered at Rhodes. Last year Nangamso presented at the eNSPIRED International Dialogue on Equity in Education. Her background video gives an excellent overview of the organisation and her role at the time. 

Closer to home, Nangamso has contributed to a number of important initiatives in the South African literacy sphere. She is a board member of WordWorks, a prominent literacy NGO in the country, as well as a Section 11 Committee Member of South African Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC) “Right to Read and Write” and sub-committee chair of African Languages in the committee. She was also one of the co-authors of the influential “Benchmarking early grade reading skills in Nguni languages” report released in October last year.

 What’s in store?

 When asked how she wants to lead, Nangamso says she is a team player and prefers leading collaboratively:

In my culture we have a saying that if you want to go far you have to go together. We are not the only people working in this space and so we need to collaborate, but I also know that we have a big contribution to make as Funda Wande. I’m looking forward to working with the team to get us closer to our 2030 goal: All children reading for meaning by the age of 10 by 2030.”

In her last of four case studies during the recruitment process she presented her vision of Funda Wande to the full Board and explained “How do we get there?” Her five strategic priorities were “(1) People: Attracting high quality people and making Funda Wande a workplace of choice, (2) Programs: How do we adapt to the COVID-19 reality, (3) Systems and Processes: Building the processes we need to avoid burnout and stress, (4) Advocacy and research: Ultimately government has to solve this problem, we can only try and figure out “what works” and what is scalable, and (5) Funding: Although we are fully funded for the next 3 years, Funda Wande is only possible with ongoing financial support from our donors so nurturing those relationships is key.”

Nangamso takes over from Nic Spaull who founded Funda Wande and is the outgoing CEO. Nic is moving out of Funda Wande and will focus on research and advocacy in the basic education space, and also allow him to spend more time on teaching at Stellenbosch where he is an Associate Professor in the Economics Department. Given that there is a lot to hand-over, and on the advice of the Board, there will be a handover period where Nangamso will be ‘CEO Designate’ as the leadership portfolio is handed over from Nic to Nangamso. Nic will remain available for advice and guidance to both Nangamso and the board in the new phase of the organisation.  After the Chair’s announcement that she was the successful candidate, Nic also expressed his full confidence in Nangamso’s abilities to lead the organisation:

“I have no doubt that Nangamso will thrive in this role and that she is the right leader for this next stage of Funda Wande’s journey. We have a saying at Funda Wande that “authority follows observed competence” and Nangamso has proved herself competent at every task she’s been given and every team she manages. She is a very different type of leader to me and she’ll be the first person to tell you that. But I also think that’s why she’s the right person for the job. She has a really deep understanding of, and passion for, the sector and also has the full buy-in and support of the existing ExCo and the management team. That was really important for me.”

It gives us great pleasure as an organisation to welcome Nangamso Mtsatse in her new role as CEO as we move even closer towards our goal of ensuring that all children read for meaning and to calculate with confidence by age 10 by 2030!

Links I liked #31

  • Cool video: Every year the employees of Allan Gray (the bank) nominate and vote on NGOs that they would like funded as part of the Allan Gray Philanthropy Initiative. This year they developed two short videos explaining some of the SA educational context in visual essays. The first one is above and here.
  • Learning losses 1: Martin Gustafsson wrote a useful UIS report in March 2021 on “Pandemic-related disruptions to schooling and impacts onlearning proficiency indicators:A focus on the early grades
  • Learning losses 2: Cally Ardington has written a detailed and thorough report on learning losses as a result of the pandemic and school closures: “Across the reading tasks, learning losses were between 57-70% of a normal grade 2 year.” Importantly rotational time-tables (50% attendance) are still the reality in 70%+ of SA schools and so these learning losses continue to grow every day.
  • SA’s Planning Docs: In August 2020, the DBE published an updated version of their The Action Plan to 2024 – it’s a comprehensive 150-page document that has lots of useful statistics and analysis and sets out their plans for the next 5 years. It also makes it quite clear that early grade reading is now a top priority: “The plan reflects six priorities identified by the Council of Education Ministers (CEM) early in 2020. These priorities are: (1) Foundational skills of numeracy and literacy, especially reading…”. Look at it in conjunction with Presidency’s MTSF 2019-2024 which also states that one of the “Five Fundamental Goals of the next 10 years” is “(4) Our schools will have better educational outcomes and every 10-year-old will be able to read for meaning” (p.23) 🙂
  • Reading in SA: A collection of SA authors who contributed to the DBE’s benchmarking in Nguni Languages report have now published their work in IJED here: “Benchmarking oral reading fluency in the early grades in Nguni languages” well done Cally, Gabi, Lilli, Mpumi and Alicia!
  • Reading in the US: Great article showing how nearly half of US states have required (by law) that the science of reading must be used in teacher prep, training and assessment. The North Carolina 2021 law looks especially promising. There was also an interesting Economist article this month “American schools teach reading all wrong
  • Inequality & education in SA: Stephanie Allais and colleagues wrote an article for New Frame titled “Is Education the Answer to Inequality in SA?“, largely based on their 2019 “Rupturing or reinforcing inequality? the role of education in South Africa today” For some reason Stephanie and Yael didn’t send it to me then 🙂 I think there are some interesting points in the article but I don’t agree with their main conclusion that “[learning] outcomes will not change without changing widespread poverty.” But it warrants a more thorough response than just a blog post!
  • Jobs: The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation are looking for a “Program Officer – Cape Town, South Africa“, they’re doing lots of interesting work on reading, maths, tech, schools & higher-education in SA so apply if you’d like to work with them!
  • Editorials: Great New Frame article on Johannesburg: “South Africa’s largest city is a world city, the home of jazz, art, politics and insurgent popular aspirations. But it is in precipitous decline, making now the time to act.”  
  • Great French vaccination ad. Vive la France!
  • Also, just for lols Forbes from 2007…
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Hunger in SA

Food crisis: 2.5 million South Africans experience hunger ‘every day’

– Nic Spaull & Mark Tomlinson

As many as 10 million adults and nearly three million children experienced hunger in the past week in South Africa in 2021, and 2.5 million adults and 600,000 children were experiencing perpetual hunger, hunger every day or almost every day.

When people are asked the question, “What does it mean to live in poverty?” you get a whole variety of answers. Some people talk about a lack of income to buy what they need, others talk about a lack of shelter or the absence of choices. These are all quite difficult things to nail down. How much income is “enough”? What is ‘adequate’ when it comes to housing? How do you define ‘agency’? However, there is one universally accepted and universally understood measure of extreme poverty, and that is hunger. If you crave food but have no means of getting it (involuntary hunger) you are living in extreme poverty.

Apart from the obvious anguish and discomfort of experiencing hunger, there are many reasons why hunger is bad. Those who are perpetually hungry are more likely to be depressed, to experience anger and be less able to parent well or work effectively. We also know that the scourge of hunger is detrimental to children, and especially so to infants and pregnant or nursing mothers. Children that experience chronic undernutrition are more likely to be stunted which has profound implications for their being able to cope in school and engage in meaningful employment across the life course. There is increasing evidence that caregivers who are hungry are more likely to experience mental health difficulties, which in turn may impact on the development of their children. Compared to those who are not hungry, preschool children that are hungry will experience higher levels of chronic illness and are more likely to be shy and withdrawn when interacting with their friends.  Sadly, we also know that the parents and caregivers often report feelings of shame about the hunger of their children, further worsening their mental state.   

Exactly how bad were hunger and malnutrition before the pandemic?

South Africa is in the fortunate position to have up to date and reliable data on the extent of hunger in the country, both before the pandemic and now. Before the pandemic there were numerous household surveys estimating rates of hunger, stunting and malnutrition. The General Household Survey (GHS) administered annually since 2000 shows the percentage of households who report child hunger because there wasn’t enough food in the past 12 months. (Note this is an annual figure). Encouragingly this rate of child hunger has halved in the last two decades. Between 2000 and 2018, the rate of child hunger among households with children in them declined from 35% to 16%, largely attributed to the successful roll-out of the Child Support Grant and improving economic conditions over this period. However, hunger is only one measure of malnutrition. One might have food to eat, and therefore not be hungry, but the quality of that food may be poor. Meals composed primarily of processed carbohydrates are far less nutritious than those that include protein, vegetables and healthy fats. We know from research that inadequate diets like this lead to stunting as well as poor attention which impacts on schooling.  

In a paper published this year Professor Servaas van der Berg and his co-authors show that before the pandemic child hunger had declined significantly but stunting had not. In 1995 approximately 30% of children under 5 were stunted in South Africa, but by 2017 this figure was still 27%. UNICEF estimates  that in many other middle-income countries like Brazil, Iran, and China the prevalence of stunting is much lower at 5 or 6%. As van der Berg concludes “It would seem that the improvement in people’s economic circumstances, induced by the Child Support Grant, was not enough to translate into consuming more nutritious food, rather than consuming more food.”

How has hunger changed during the pandemic?

The National Income Dynamics Study Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) has collected data on a broadly nationally representative sample of South African households covering the period from May 2020 to March 2021. It showed that there was a huge spike in reported household hunger in May and June 2020 following the hard-lockdown, with one in four South African households (23%) reporting hunger in the previous week. This has subsequently come down, but seems to have settled at a somewhat lower (but still very high) level of 16-17% of households. The NIDS-CRAM survey has asked households three questions related to hunger: (1) whether they ran out of money to buy food in the last month, (2) whether anyone in the household experienced hunger in the last week, and (3) if there were children in the household, did a child experience hunger in the last week. If anyone experienced hunger in the last week the respondent was asked a follow-up question about how often they had gone hungry (Never, 1 or 2 days, 3 or 4 days, Almost every day, Every day). The most recent data reports on hunger in February and March this year (2021). Van der Berg and his co-authors find that 14% of respondents who live with children said that a child had gone hungry in the past seven days, and 3% said that a child had gone hungry ‘every day’ or ‘almost every day’. Given that this represents extreme deprivation, this is extraordinarily high. By contrast, in 2019 the GHS shows that 15% of households reported a child had gone hungry at least once in the last year.

Figure 1: Reported hunger in the last 7 days (asked separately for “anyone in the household” and “children”) Source: Grace Bridgman’s analysis of NIDS-CRAM Wave 4 (February/March 2021).

But what do those numbers actually mean?

Statistics South Africa estimates that there are approximately 20-million children aged 0-17 years in South Africa. If for a moment we assume that children are equally distributed across households with children in them (a conservative assumption), this would mean that 2,8-million children experienced hunger weekly in South Africa in 2021 and 600,000 children experienced perpetual hunger (i.e. hunger every day or almost every day). Applying a similar approach to the rates of hunger across households, of the 60-million South Africans 10,2-million (17%) experienced hunger in the last week, and approximately 2,4-million (4%) experienced perpetual hunger (every day or almost every day). Clearly, we are not doing enough to alleviate this extreme form of suffering and deprivation.    

The NIDS-CRAM data also allows us to see how households have fallen into and out of food insecurity over the last year. Because we have conducted the survey four times and returned to the same person each time, we can see how their responses change over time. The four time periods cover the months of May/June, July/August and November/December in 2020 and February/March in 2021. The graph below shows that among households with children in them, one third (32%) reported that a child went hungry in the past week in at least one of these four waves of the survey, and 72% of respondents said that their household had run out of money to buy food in at least one of the four waves. Therefore, the “once-off” rates of child hunger and household hunger underestimate the extent of hunger in the country since many households are falling in and out of food insecurity on a regular basis.

Figure 2: Prevalence of running out of money to buy food, weekly household hunger and weekly child hunger in South Africa reported over the four waves of NIDS-CRAM 2020/2021 (all households with children in them). (Source: Shepherd et al, 2021: p.17)

When we think about these disturbingly high rates of child hunger and household food insecurity, we must ask ourselves how is it that we are willing to accept this gross assault on the dignity and humanity of children and adults? Is this the type of country that we want?

South Africa is arguably the most prosperous and modern country on our continent. It has the most sophisticated financial system, the best universities, an independent media, and a highly functional tax collection agency. Yet it also has 10-million people experiencing hunger every week? The ANC claims that it is the only party that can eradicate poverty (Radebe, 2019) and it is true that it was the ANC that initiated and rapidly expanded the Child Support Grant of R440 per month – an incredibly effective, well-targeted grant that reaches 13-million children. It was largely responsible for the big decline in child hunger over the last two decades and is one of the biggest successes of post-apartheid South Africa. But clearly poverty and hunger persist. Why has progress stalled? While economic growth is the long-term solution to poverty eradication, we simply cannot wait for economic growth before addressing the hunger crisis that is clearly all around us. If the government is serious about hunger, and protecting the dignity of the poor, the status quo is not enough.

Hunger is universally condemned across the political spectrum. Those who oppose additional measures to address hunger should be shamed on moral grounds and a lack of conscience. If the ANC is serious about eradicating hunger in this decade then it must announce new and bigger policies to radically address the hunger crisis.  This is a crisis, and one that existed before the pandemic. If bold action is not taken the generational impact will be profound.

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This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick on the 27th of May 2021.

On a similar topic, Mark and I, together with Xanthe Hunt (SU) and Dan Stein (UCT) wrote an editorial for the latest edition of the South African Medical Journal (SAMJ) titled “Hunger as a driver of depressive symptoms: Optimising responses to mental health aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic

“Vaccine war effort needed” (My FM article on vaccines and learning losses)

SA is in flux: we’re waiting for what we know we need, even as we gird ourselves for disappointment. We’re waiting for an uptick in the economy; waiting for jobs; waiting for the ANC to sort out who is suspending who — but most of all, we’re waiting for vaccines.

The latest results of our National Income Dynamics Study — Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Nids-Cram), released this week, show that in February and March this year, the vast majority of South Africans (71%) said they would take the vaccine if they could. The problem is, there is none available.

By May 4, SA had vaccinated only 353,000 people. This is less than half those vaccinated in Kenya (853,000) or Ghana (850,000), and lower than in poorer countries like Senegal (417,000) or Zimbabwe (452,000). This picture is even more sobering if you consider the population size. Only 0.6% of SA has been vaccinated — less than Iraq (0.8%), Somalia (0.8%), Afghanistan (1%), and Libya (1.2%), and also less than the vaccination rate in 140 other countries.

Why is this? SA has the resources. It has the expertise. It has the health infrastructure. Instead, it would seem, there was a failure to strategically plan, and to hedge bets. Given the uncertainty around new vaccines, many countries sourced multiple types in the hope that at least one would work. SA came late to that party, then put all the eggs in the AstraZeneca basket — which proved less effective against the local variant. So here we are, back to square one.

Fingers crossed, May could be a turning point. Health minister Zweli Mkhize says SA will get 6-million Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines and 1-million Johnson & Johnson vaccines this month. And President Cyril Ramaphosa says the government has bought vaccines to cover more than 40-million people. All these vaccines, we are told, will arrive at some point in 2021. However, Ramaphosa hasn’t given specifics. So when those vaccines actually arrive, and how quickly they’re administered, remains to be seen. All while a third wave of Covid threatens to break.

Vaccine hesitancy

While SA has been preoccupied with supply problems (how to get more vaccines), it will, like other countries, soon confront a demand problem: how do we get people to take the jabs we do have? Today, the US has vaccinated about 150-million people (45% of its population), but the average number getting a first or single dose has fallen by nearly 50% since April 13.

That was the day that US health officials announced they would temporarily stop the rollout of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine, because a tiny proportion of people getting the vaccine had developed blood clots.

This was a huge failure of judgment by the US — and by SA, which slavishly followed that approach. The US had other vaccines to offer, while SA simply paused its entire rollout without any other alternative. Among 7-million US adults vaccinated with the J&J jab, six people (0.00009%) developed blood clots. One died. Oxford researchers have shown that you are 8-10 times more likely to get a blood clot if you get Covid than from the vaccine, and 3,000-times more likely to get a blood clot from birth control pills (a 0.3% chance).

While regulators said they pressed pause due to “an abundance of caution”, it was a failure of judgment on multiple levels. SA (unlike the US) had no other vaccine at the time. The US stopped J&J, but continued with Pfizer and Moderna — but SA stopped rolling out the only vaccine it had. Apart from the fact that the mortality risk from Covid is orders of magnitude greater than the infinitesimal risk of blood clots, it means South Africans will have died unnecessarily due to that pause. But there is another more insidious cost: the increase in vaccine hesitancy, since people are now more wary of the vaccine.

Few genuinely understand that you are as likely to get struck by lightning (one chance in a million) as you are to get a blood clot from a vaccine. It’s not going to happen — but thousands of people who were on the fence may now opt against vaccination. The latest Nids-Cram (wave 4) results, released this week, shed light on whether these communication blunders are likely to have an impact on SA’s rollout. While the survey showed that 71% of South Africans are willing to get a vaccine (higher than many countries), the flip side is that nearly a third were vaccine hesitant. The three main reasons for hesitancy were: concern about side effects (31%); lack of belief in effectiveness (21%); or general lack of trust in vaccines (18%). To combat vaccine hesitancy, we need to know not only why people are hesitant, but also who they are.

This new data shows that those most at risk of Covid (the elderly and those with chronic conditions) are more willing to get the jab. By contrast, those least at risk — people aged between 18 and 25 — were less willing, with only 63% saying they would have a vaccination. This isn’t entirely surprising. As research has revealed elsewhere, those who trust social media as an information source (predominantly young people) were significantly more likely to be vaccine hesitant. One unexpected finding from the survey results was that a respondent’s home language was also a significant predictor of vaccine hesitancy, with 42% of Afrikaans home-language respondents being vaccine hesitant. This is higher than the national average of 29% and far higher than in people belonging to seven of the 11 language groups.

Though Nids-Cram is not provincially representative, in light of the predominance of Afrikaans in the Western Cape and Northern Cape, it accords with the finding that people from these provinces had higher vaccine hesitancy rates of 42% and 41%. More research is needed to understand this finding. But it is a key insight because vaccines are being rolled out provincially and the media that reaches them is predominantly segmented by language.

To what extent have the communication blunders affected these figures? It must be said that already in the Nids-Cram data in February and March, high rates of hesitancy were observed among certain groups — even before the temporary pause of the J&J rollout. However, this past weekend Gauteng premier David Makhura revealed that the J&J suspension did seem to be affecting vaccine registrations in his province. In the past three weeks, of the 1.3-million Gauteng residents older than 60, only 235,000 (18%) had registered to get a vaccine.

It shows there is no room for fuzzy messaging around the efficacy and safety of the jab, if we want a successful roll-out. But the bungle around the J&J vaccine points to what I believe is a bigger underlying problem: politicians are slavishly following the recommendations made by medical experts and trying to minimise deaths, rather than weighing up all sources of harm.  Mkhize’s Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) is currently made up of 51 doctors and medical academics, but not a single social scientist. Perhaps if there were people from the social sciences (like communications experts, economists and sociologists), the J&J debacle wouldn’t have happened.

Of course, it is a welcome change that the president and his health minister are listening to medical experts — a notable change from the Mbeki or Zuma eras, when Aids denialism was rampant — but we mustn’t fall off the horse on the other side. Medical experts are trained to measure medical risks, and make judgment calls about the efficacy of trials and rates of transmission. But a vaccinologist will be the first to admit he or she knows little of the non-medical risks like increasing unemployment, rising hunger, and growing learning losses. Measuring the social and economic costs of a nationwide lockdown isn’t part of a vaccinologist’s expertise. Instead, it is the politicians’ job to make the call as to what the right course of action is, when it comes to lockdowns, or opening schools.

Take schooling. Medical experts say the social distancing guideline to prevent the spread of Covid should be 1m-2m. Education officials reply that classrooms were not designed to have such large spaces between children — so if we need that distancing, we need “rotational timetables”, where only 50% of children can attend school on any one day. Last year, SA’s National Coronavirus Command Council accepted the experts’ distancing advice for schools without question, leading to rotational timetables in almost all no-fee schools, which make up more than 70% of the country’s schools. But how does one measure the costs of 5-million children not attending school on any one day for an entire year, or two?

Do the hypothesised benefits of limiting the spread of Covid justify these long-term costs to children? That’s not a decision for the medical experts, but for politicians — who are elected to use their judgment about what is in their population’s best interests, by weighing up the costs and benefits. Let’s consider these nonmedical costs.

Learning losses and school feeding

The rotational timetables that have been implemented in no-fee schools have created two major problems. The first is a loss of school days and learning; and the second is the loss of school meals, since poorer children generally don’t get meals on days they don’t go to school. The phased re-opening of public schools and implementation of rotation timetables means that in 2020, primary school learners lost 60% of a possible 198 school days.

For the first time since the pandemic started, we now also have data on learning outcomes for children affected by the pandemic. This makes it possible to estimate the true educational costs of lost schooling. In a paper published this week, Debra Shepherd and her co-authors examine these learning losses. This research was possible because the department of basic education, together with independent researchers, collected new data from two studies of 130 no-fee primary schools in Mpumalanga, and 57 no-fee primary schools in the Eastern Cape.

By comparing learning gains in 2020 against 2019, researchers estimated the impact of Covid and rotational timetables in no-fee schools in grade 2 and grade 4. The results confirm the worst fears: primary school children in these no-fee schools learnt 50%-75% less in 2020 than normal. Put differently, grade 4 learners in 2020 learnt a quarter of what their peers learnt in 2019.

This is all the more disturbing since education is a cumulative process, where subsequent learning depends on prior learning. Using that same data, we can compare the learning trajectories of children who were in grade 1 in 2019 and see how they fare in grade 2 in 2020. The graph shows how the learning trajectory of those children affected by school closures and rotational timetables flattened in 2020. The impact is likely to be felt for years to come, with some suggesting we will be able to get back to pre-pandemic learning outcomes only by 2030. 

And schools are about more than learning. In 2019 it was estimated that 9-million learners benefited from free school meals. The Nids-Cram survey asked respondents with children at school if their child had received a school meal in the previous seven days. For the dates that schools were open in February and March this year, less than half (43%) said their child had had a meal in the previous seven days. This suggests the feeding programme still hasn’t recovered — it is well below the pre-pandemic level of 65% in 2018 — and the main reason is the rotational timetable. Given the extraordinarily high costs that children are paying, educationally and nutritionally, because of rotational timetables, it is unsurprising that most parents and caregivers support the full re-opening of schools. In November 2020, Nids-Cram respondents with children in their households were asked: “Do you think children should be able to attend school every day?” In all, 58% answered yes. Given all the evidence, it’s unclear why SA still practises rotational timetables.

Risks to learners and teachers

At the start of the pandemic, when there was still so much uncertainty, closing schools was a rational and justified response. We didn’t know if children caught and spread the virus like adults, or if they were at severe risk from Covid.We know now. The risks to children of getting ill or dying from Covid are exceedingly low. To date, 194 children aged between five and 19 have died of Covid in SA — 0.4% of the total 51,527 deaths. For perspective, Stats SA estimates that of those aged between five and 19, about 12,870 die of “regular” causes in a given year. The issue, of course, is that it’s not only children who are at risk if schools increase transmission — there are also teachers and parents to consider.

Again, we have more evidence now than we had last year. In January, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) released a report revealing “no consistent changes in incidence trends, associated with the timing of opening or closing of schools”.

But that’s for the general population — what about teachers specifically? In a report released this week, professor Martin Gustafsson analysed the department of basic education’s national teacher payroll database (Persal) for 2020, to calculate the number of excess teacher deaths from Covid compared to 2019. This is an incredibly accurate source of information on teacher mortality. When teachers die, they are removed from the payroll database. The analysis showed that these “excess deaths” map almost perfectly onto the first and second “waves” of the pandemic (see graph above), indicating they are almost certainly related to Covid. (The slight difference between the red and black lines is due to the delay in reporting national deaths since payroll data is less delayed.) Critically, however, this study reveals that there is no discernible relationship between teacher deaths and when schools are open.

Of the 401,327 teachers on the payroll, 1,678 are estimated to have died from Covid between the end of March 2020 and the end of February 2021. While tragic, it reveals that most “excess teacher deaths” occurred when schools were closed. We don’t see substantial excess deaths among teachers between September and November 2020 — when all grades were attending school. The SA Medical Research Council estimates that SA’s total excess deaths up to January 23 was 125,744. So, excess teacher deaths make up 1.3% of total excess deaths, with the other 98.7% coming from other fields of work and the unemployed. The analysis also shows that teachers at secondary schools are not at higher risk of Covid transmission than teachers at primary schools. This supports the claim that schools are not the main cause of Covid infection among teachers.

Vaccinate like our lives depend on it

According to Mkhize, SA will enter phase 2 of the vaccination strategy on May 17. The plan is to have 40-million people aged 18 years and older vaccinated by February 2022 — all using Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.

To reach that goal, SA needs to administer 188,000 doses a day, every day, for the next 287 days. Yet in the past three months we administered only 353,000 shots. Granted, these were part of the Sisonke trial of health-care workers. But if you do the maths regarding the envisioned rollout rate, this would make SA the world leader in vaccine administration — faster than Chile, the UK or Israel, the three fastest countries to date.

The world leader, Chile, managed “only” 117,000 a day for 132 days. So SA — which now ranks 140th in the world in administering jabs — will have to vaccinate faster than the fastest countries in the world. Most experts I speak to know this is not possible, which is why the thinking has shifted from herd immunity to epidemic control. Covid, like the flu, will be with us for the foreseeable future, with top-up shots to protect against new variants.

The strategy will centre on vaccinating (and re-vaccinating) the elderly and those at high risk. This is still a mammoth task akin to the roll-out of antiretrovirals at the peak of the HIV/Aids epidemic. The government needs to vaccinate like our lives depend on it. But we also need to accept that we are entering a new normal where schools are fully open, and children and teachers wear masks. If we continue to deny children 50% of their education, we are moving closer to the reality of writing off a generation of children, the lost “Covid kids”.

The human and financial costs associated with lockdowns, and an uncontrolled pandemic, are thousands of times higher than any conceivable costs of getting and distributing vaccines. This is why every other country has thrown everything they have at this.

Less than a decade ago, SA went from the country with the highest uncontrolled spread of HIV in the world, to the country with the largest antiretroviral programme. It was thanks to a system-wide urgency, and partnerships between the government, the private sector and donors. And it was only possible because it was treated as a war effort, prioritised above all else.

This is what SA needs to do again.

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This article was first published in the Financial Mail on the 12th of May 2021.

For the full NIDS-CRAM Wave 4 Synthesis Report see here. For the full list of papers see here:

NIDS-CRAM Wave 4 Synthesis Report

Today we launched Wave 4 of our National Income Dynamics Study Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM). Only one more to go! (Phew!) I presented what I think are the 13 main findings from the 11 Working Papers at the launch, I’ve summarised them below. These are a little better summarised in our Synthesis Report which I would encourage everyone to read (it’s only nine pages). To download the full papers on which the Synthesis Report is based (or to get the questionnaires, do-files or panel user manual) go to the NIDS-CRAM Website, and if you want to download the data head to DataFirst.

Key findings from Wave 4:

(1) VACCINES: 71% of South Africans say that they would get vaccinated if a COVID-19 vaccine were available

(2) VACCINES: Vaccine hesitancy is highest among youth, those who trust social media, Afrikaans-HL respondents, and those in WC+NC. 

(3) SCHOOL MEALS: Less than half (43%)of respondents with kids reported that their child had received a school meal in Feb/March 2021 while schools were open (pre-pandemic it was 65%)

(4) LEARNING LOSSES: Children in no-fee schools have learnt 50-75% less in 2020 compared to what they normally learn 

(5) LEARNING TRAJECTORIES: Due to school closures and rotational timetables (only 50% of kids can attend on any one day) we’re seeing the flattening of learning trajectories

(6) TEACHER MORTALITY: Tragically, teacher mortality went up in 2020, but analysis of teacher payroll data shows that excess deaths from COVID follow SA trends NOT school opening/closing. 

(7) TEACHER MORTALITY: Teachers at secondary schools are not at higher risk of COVID-19 transmission compared to those at primary schools. 

(8) HUNGER: Weekly child hunger has declined from 16% in Nov/Dec 2020 to 14% in Feb/March 2021, although it is still nearly double pre-pandemic levels (8%)

(9) HUNGER: NIDS-CRAM has been administered four times in the last year. Two thirds of respondents (67%) said that in at least one of these waves their household had run out of money to buy food in the last month.

(10 HUNGER: One third of respondents (32%) in households with children in them said that in at least one of these four waves, a child had gone hungry in the past week in their household 

(11) EMPLOYMENT: Between Oct’20 and Jan’21 the % of employed adults in the NIDS-CRAM cross-sectional sample declined from 55% to 53% 

(12) EMPLOYMENT: Between October 2020 & January 2021 1/5th of those who were employed lost their jobs and 1/5th of those who weren’t employed found work. 

(13) ECD: Temporary ECD programme closure remains the primary reason (26%) for non-attendance at ECD programmes, and attendance in 2021 (19%) is still well below pre-pandemic levels (38%)

We’re looking for Funda Wande’s new CEO :)

Hello everyone!

After founding Funda Wande more than four years ago we’re now looking for a new CEO! If you know someone who is dynamic, passionate about early grade reading and mathematics and the right person to steer the funda Wande ship into the future please send them the Funda Wande CEO Recruitment Pack (deadline for applications is 31 May 2021). You would be leading one of the most capable, dynamic and passionate bunch of people in South African education. For more about us check out our 2020 Annual Report.

Some background…

Four year’s ago I founded Funda Wande at the request of the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment with the aim of boldly experimenting with the best ways of ensuring that all children learn to read for meaning and calculate with confidence by age 10 by 2030. We have grown from strength to strength and went from having 3 employees in 2017 to over 50 employees in 2021, with offices spread out across four cities (Cape Town, Polokwane, Joburg and Gqeberha (formerly P.E), and trialing promising interventions in three provinces.

I know my time at the helm of this ship is coming to an end, and that a new captain will be needed for the next stage of the journey. Partly this is because of the history of our country and the need for the next generation of young leaders to have the opportunities that people like me have had; to step up to the plate and make their mark on our country. But also because I feel called to move on and into a different space from next year. I know I want to spend more time thinking and writing about some of the seemingly intractable problems in South African education and that needs sustained and undivided attention.

I will still be within the broader Allan Gray Philanthropy ecosystem going forward, but no longer at Funda Wande.

If anyone springs to mind, please forward them this job notice and encourage them to apply (apply here). The deadline for applications is the 31st of May 2021.

Onward and upward…

Links I liked #30

Hello everyone.

It has been a while. It’s been more than a year since I posted a blog about the links that I’ve liked and so there are quite a few. I miss making lists and finding images and sharing things with other people. So this is that, and something I want to do more of. The image above is like design catnip for me, and if I ever started a newspaper I would want it to look like this!

So without further ado here are the links I’ve liked…

  • In this month’s LRB, Stefan Collini has a great article titled “Snakes and Laddersabout the myths around meritocracy, especially in the UK and the US. A few excerpts: “Everything suggests that meritocracy is the camouflage adopted by self-sustaining dynastic advantage in an age of democratic sentiment. The dynasties in question are not the old quasi-aristocratic families (though, as it turns out, they do rather well in the new world of ruthlessly competitive careers), but, even so, a relatively tiny segment of the population is managing to transmit advantage from generation to generation.“…“Helicopter parenting is just superordinate labour applied to the project of reproducing status in a meritocratic regime.’ Thus, ‘investments in human capital, made while parents are still alive, have replaced bequests of physical and financial capital as the dominant means for conveying elite status down through the generations’ – a form of wealth transmission that has the further advantage of escaping taxation.”… “High-status roles that once came with a relatively high salary are now, by corporate standards, ludicrously underpaid. In the US the chief justice of the Supreme Court earns roughly $270,000 per year, while the ‘most profitable law firms pay their average partners over $5 million annually, or roughly twenty times as much (and the signing bonus paid to former law clerks at the Supreme Court, who are perhaps two or three years out of law school, is now $400,000).’ Those who make careers as teachers, public health workers, officials in federal agencies or in local government have fallen far, far behind most of their contemporaries who have gone into the lucrative parts of the private sector.”
  • A revised PIRLS 2011 to 2016 trend for South Africa and the importance of analysing the underlying microdata – The perennially insightful Martin Gustafsson wrote this important paper in 2020 about previous errors in the PIRLS reading score trends. The TL;DR version is that the 2011 scores were incorrectly calibrated and lower than we previously thought they were, meaning that the trend (from 2006–>2011–>2016) is actually a continually upward trend rather than a stagnating one. Important stuff.
  • Teachers’ unions and industrial action in South African primary schools: Exploring their impacts on learning” – an important 2019 paper by Gabrielle Wills exploring the 2007 teacher strikes using SACMEQ III data. Teachers in the wealthiest quartile of schools in SA striked for 5 days on average compared to 13 days for the poorest 75% of teachers (medians are even starker: 1 day compared to 15 days).
  • Quite a few people have been asking about the upper end of the matric performance distribution in SA. This is not something that is typically reported by the DBE in their annual matric publications (for whatever reason). I have been referring people to the appendix of my 2019 paper (Spaull & Makaluza, 2019) where we show the numbers of students achieving at each of the deciles of performance for the ‘main’ matric subjects. For example, there are only 5,815 students who got 80% or more for Mathematics in 2018.

  • Professional development that improves STEM outcomes – Hill et al 2020. Although based on US evidence, a nice meta-analysis. The conclusion: “Overall, we found, the evidence suggests that the most effective programs focus on topics — including curriculum materials, academic content, and how students learn — that build knowledge teachers can directly use during instruction. We argue that such learning opportunities support teachers in making more informed in-the-moment instructional decisions.” (see also Lynch et al 2019)
  • Lots of helpful and interesting articles on early grade reading referenced in this 2020 RISE post by Yue Yi and her colleagues at RISE…including:
  • “Intervening at home and then at school: A Randomized Evaluation of Two Approaches to Improve Early Educational Outcomes in Tonga” (Macdonald et al, 2018).
  • Improving Reading Instruction and Students’ Reading Skills in the Early Grades: Evidence From a Randomized Evaluation in Haiti” (Guzman et al., 2020).
  • A 2006 evaluation of Breakthrough to Literacy in Botswana (Peacock & Morakaladi, 2018).
  • “The impact of language policy and practice on children’s learning: Evidence from Eastern and Southern Africa” (UNICEF, 2016)
  • “Pacific Early Age Readiness & Learning Program (PEARL): Every Child Ready, Every Child Learning”
  • Implementing and Evaluating Interventions to Improve School Readiness and Early Literacy Experience from the Pacific Early Age Readiness and Learning Program” (Vu et al. 2019)
  • The Smithsonian announced makes nearly 3-million images available online and free to use. Viva Creative Commons viva.
  • “Audacious Education Purposes: How governments transform the goals of their education system” (Reimers, 2020)
  • Sad Public Service Announcement: Less than 2% of South Africans have a post-grad qualification (Branson, 2020) 😦 Their research project (Siyaphambili) also has a great interactive website.
  • “Benchmarking early grade reading skills in Nguni languages” (Ardington et al, 2020) – important ‘plumbing’ work that needs to be done in the background as we move towards all children reading for meaning by age 10.
  • “Where Have All the Textbooks Gone? Toward Sustainable Provision of Teaching and Learning Materials in Sub-Saharan Africa” (Read, 2015). useful World Bank report on an understudied area.
  • SACMEQ has released SACMEQ IV reports for Botswana, Namibia, Mauritius and South Africa.
  • “NGOs and the effectiveness of interventions” (Usman et al 2021) – interesting new paper… “a local development NGO’s prior engagement with target communities increases the effectiveness of a technology-promotion intervention implemented by it by at least 30 percent. This “NGO effect” has implications for the generalizability and scalability of evidence from experimental research conducted with local implementation partners.” (via Justin Sandefur)

That’s all for now but hopefully I will be blogging more in the neat future…

x

Financial Mail Education Op-Ed on Budget 2021…

  • Nic Spaull & Adaiah Lilenstein

Let us start our foray into this year’s education budget by considering blessings and curses. Given the times that we are in there is one English ‘blessing’ that is especially apt: “May you live in interesting times.” It’s also claimed that this is actually a traditional Chinese curse, and that life is better during “uninteresting times” of peace and prosperity than in “interesting” ones which are usually times of trouble. However you spin it, we are in very interesting times.

In the 2021 budget, public sector wages make up R650-billion or a third of the total budget. Because there are more teachers (407,000) than any other kind of public servant, teacher salaries are the largest single line item in the entire budget and make up a third (R208-billion) of all public sector wages.  That’s 4,1% of GDP. For the second year teacher salaries in South Africa will decline in real terms. The 2021 budget showed that salaries in basic education increased by only 1.4% (from R205-billion to R208-billion), and given that inflation was about 3,3% in 2020, that’s a 1.9% decline in real terms. That sounds like a bad thing, but it’s worth putting this in historical perspective – both politically and economically.

Exactly one year ago, the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) threatened to “collapse the public service” and “part ways” with government if Treasury did not honor it’s 7% wage increase. Treasury explained that it could not fulfill other constitutional obligations if it honored that wage agreement, and argued for a public sector wage freeze (the one it then implemented). The courts agreed with Treasury, but the judgement is under appeal in the Constitutional Court (see p.32). As much as the 2021 Budget fuss has been about other issues like provisions for vaccines and higher sin taxes, the real story is the ongoing implementation of the public sector wage freeze.  Public sector wages are the left, right, and center of government spending, government debt, and government’s ruling alliance with COSATU.

In a research paper we released last year we found that between 2008 and 2019 teacher wages increased by an average of 9,2% per year while average inflation was only 6,3% per year.  The only way provinces have coped with higher salaries is to implement hiring freezes leaving schools without principals and heads of departments.

Perhaps this is all a bit abstract for some readers, so let’s talk about monthly salaries. What do teachers actually get paid in South Africa? The common perception is that teacher’s salaries are low. What does the data say? A paper published last year  using government payroll data shows that the average teacher in South Africa was paid about R42,700 a month (including benefits), and the total package for teachers 50 years and older was R47,874 per month or about R575,000 a year (see figure). This is not to say that teachers are overpaid, but rather to highlight that teacher salaries have increased dramatically over the last 10 years, and thus the halt in salary increases along with other wages in the public sector is apt.

Figure 1: Monthly teacher pay in South Africa according to 2019 government payroll data

(Source: Gustafsson & Maponya, 2020)

In our view, given the circumstances in South Africa – not only the need to fund vaccines and their rollout, but also to address chronic unemployment and hunger – it is fair and reasonable to implement a wage freeze. The unemployment rate for those aged 15-24 years is now 63% according to the latest StatsSA survey. While we do need more money to go into education, it is not in the form of further salary increases for teachers. Class sizes are set to expand, and pressure on non-personnel spending (like books) is also rising. We need to hire and train unemployed youth-with-matric as Teacher Assistants (R3,600 per month) and make sure all kids have books. These TA’s can be allocated to primary school teachers throughout the country with a special focus on early grade reading and mathematics, thus helping to manage large class sizes and employing 400,000 youth. It’s time to pivot from our old strategy of salary increases for the well-paid and prioritise those who are actually marginalised in society.

This article first appeared in the Financial Mail on the 25th of February 2021

More than two million jobs returned when lockdown eased in 2020 – but hunger persists (my DM op-ed on NIDS-CRAM W3)

What these results show is the reality that a jobs bounce-back for one part of the country can coexist with worsening deprivation in another part. We can have both more jobs and more hunger at the same time.

Today we released the latest results of our nationally representative survey – the National Income Dynamics Study Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) Wave 3. For once the results are very encouraging. 

In 2020 we reported that during the hard lockdown 2.8 million people had lost their jobs between February and April. We now find that by October 2.1 million people had found employment, taking employment much closer to their pre-pandemic levels. 

As I’ll explain below, this was not only a case of job-losers regaining their lost jobs.  In fact, research by Gabriel Espi, Vimal Ranchhod and Murray Leibbrandt show that only half of “job-losers” regained employment with the remainder made up from those who were previously unemployed. Among those that had no job in February pre-pandemic, a third were now employed by October 2020. This reveals a labour market in flux and also points to the resilience and dynamism of job seekers doing everything they can to find work in a “new normal”.  

What is unique about the NIDS-CRAM survey is the high frequency of data collection. From March 2020 we surveyed more than 7,000 people, phoning them every two to three months and asking them a range of questions about whether they were employed (or earned any income from anything) in February, April, June and October. 

What the Wave 3 data show is that in 2020 being in flux was the norm. Figure 1 below shows the percentages of people in 2020 that were “Never employed”, “Always employed”, and “Sometimes employed” (at least once across the four periods). It shows that across age categories and levels of education about 40% of respondents were neither stably employed nor stably unemployed, but rather that they had a job at least once, but not always. That is a remarkable finding.

Figure 1 and 2 also show that the probability of stable employment depends strongly on age and education, with youth in an especially precarious position. Only 10% of youth (18-24 years) were always employed in 2020 and at least half (53%) were never employed in 2020. Those with tertiary education were also far more protected against job loss or precarious employment. 

In their paper, Gabriel Espi and his co-authors also found that 2020 employment outcomes are strongly influenced by employment history over the past seven years. The stably employed historically tend to retain their jobs while the persistently unemployed remain unemployed. The transient employed tend to repeat their pattern of finding and losing jobs.

Our survey also asks respondents about their wellbeing and the wellbeing of those in their household. 

Of most concern is that we see rates of hunger, and especially child hunger, rising over time. Mental health is also deteriorating. The percentage of respondents experiencing hunger in the past week because they didn’t have enough money to buy food increased from 16% in July to 18% in November 2020. The increase was even larger for child hunger rising from 12% in July to 16% in November 2020, with the sharpest increase for households with black African children (from 13% to 19% weekly hunger). 

This should be of major concern. 

Similarly, the percentage of the population screening positive for depressive symptoms has now increased from 24% to 29% of the population, with the sharpest increases seen for those experiencing perpetual hunger, ie those reporting hunger “every day”.

What these results show is the reality that a jobs bounce-back for one part of the country can co-exist with worsening deprivation in another part. We can have both more jobs and more hunger at the same time. 

This is the reason the grant system and talk of a Basic Income Grant are so important. Even before the pandemic, South Africa had 10 million people who wanted work, but couldn’t find it. There is no conceivable world where all of these people get jobs. For some perspective, it took us a decade to create 2.4 million jobs (2009-2019). What we are seeing is that more economic growth and more social grants are the left-right combo South Africa needs to move forward. One without the other won’t work.

//

All 11 NIDS-CRAM Wave 3 Papers are available here: https://cramsurvey.org/reports/#wave-3

This article first appeared on the Daily Maverick on 17 Feb 2021 – see here.

Jobs bounce back, but hunger persists (my FM op-ed on NIDS-CRAM Wave 3)

More than 2-million South Africans found work between June and October 2020, according to the latest round of data from the Nids-Cram survey. But hunger — and child hunger in particular — persists

On Tuesday November 3 2020 answers began rolling in for SA’s third wave of the nationally representative National Income Dynamics Study Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Nids-Cram). The survey co-incided with major global shifts, with Americans voting in a new (sane) president, and the announcement of successful Covid-19 vaccines passing clinical trials. The wave 3 Nids-Cram results offer their own story of a turning point.

The data from our Nids-Cram survey reveals a remarkable bounce-back in employment between June and October. Last year we reported that 2.8-million people had lost their jobs between February and April, and while many furloughed workers had returned to work by June, those who had lost their jobs had not (see graph below).

We now see that with the rapid easing of the lockdown between June and October there was a strong recovery in employment, with about 2.1-million people gaining employment in a rapidly changing labour market.

These are not necessarily the same people who lost their jobs during the lockdown: only half of them have regained employment. But a third of those who were unemployed before the pandemic have now found work.

All this suggests a big bounce-back in jobs, taking us much closer to pre-pandemic levels of employment. This is really good news. But it also reflects some seismic shifts in the labour market.

This shift comes as a big relief, and we conducted a number of checks to be sure the changes are real. Eight economists at the University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University and Wits University, writing three papers looking specifically at employment, found the bounce-back to be robust even when factoring in different definitions of employment (hours worked rather than a count of the employed) and the sample used.

Earnings data also shows that people are earning at least the same as they were last February, and some wages may even have been higher in October.

Corroborating evidence also comes from Stats SA’s monthly sales data — the data used for GDP calculations. Nids-Cram researcher Ihsaan Bassier and his co-authors report that this data suggests that “important sectors of the SA economy — mining, manufacturing, wholesale and retail — were making October 2020 sales at or above their February 2020 levels … This suggests that certain sectors had substantially recovered by October, and is consistent with the employment recovery we see in wave 3 of Nids-Cram.”

The imminent release of Stats SA’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey for the fourth quarter of 2020 will help verify the extent of these changes, yet the results are very promising nonetheless. And for 2-million South Africans, at least, that matters a lot.

Worst child hunger in 10 years

The employment findings were not the only surprise to emerge from the Nids-Cram survey. When employment increases, our expectation is that hunger will fall and mental health will improve. However, that is not what we found.

Research by Servaas van der Berg, Leila Patel and Grace Bridgman reveals that between July and November the proportion of households experiencing hunger in the previous week due to insufficient food increased from 16% to 18%.

The most startling finding is that child hunger also worsened, and is now at its highest level in 10 years.

In our previous survey we found that one in eight (12%) households with children had children experiencing weekly hunger. Our new results show this has increased to one in six (16%), with the sharpest increase being for households with black African children (from 13% to 19% weekly child hunger).

This should be of major concern. Before the pandemic more than one in four (27%) of SA’s children were stunted, meaning their malnourishment was so severe that they had low “height-for-age”. 

Hunger also affects mental health and depression. Among those who had experienced hunger in the previous week, 40% screened positive for depressive symptoms, compared with 27% for those who had enough to eat.

In fact, another troubling finding from our results is that mental health seems to be deteriorating across the board. Work by Adeola Oyenubi and Uma Kollamparambil shows that, between July and November, the percentage of people screening positive for depressive symptoms rose from 24% to 29% of the population. They also find rapidly deteriorating mental health for those experiencing perpetual hunger. For those who reported they went hungry “every day”, 67% screened positive for depressive symptoms.

So, what are we to make of this? Why has hunger — and especially child hunger — become worse when more than 2-million jobs have returned? The short answer is that we don’t yet know. There are no smoking guns — only plausible explanations.

For one, child hunger may be related to disrupted free school meals. In pre-Covid times, 65% of households reported that a child had received a free school meal. In November, only 48% of respondents said their child had received a meal at school that week, despite all schools being “open”. But even that 48% figure is likely to be an overestimate, due to “rotational timetables”, which mean schools are operating at 50% capacity, with only half the classes attending on any given day. (Typically, children do not get meals on days they don’t attend school, something the basic education department has admitted in court documents.)

What about grants?

Another key piece of the puzzle is the social grants system and the removal of grant top-ups in November. Up until then, the R440 a month child support grant (CSG) was topped up by R500 per caregiver, and the old age pension of R1,860 a month was topped up by an additional R250.

These top-ups were last paid at the beginning of October.

The rollout of the CSG over the past decade is universally accredited with alleviating child hunger and helping to reduce poverty, which is why many believe the removal of the CSG top-up is one of the reasons for the rise in child hunger. While there is currently limited evidence for this, it remains a very plausible explanation.

What many South Africans don’t realise is that SA leads the world when it comes to the reach of its social grant system — and did so even before the Covid-19 pandemic. In their Nids-Cram paper, Bassier, Josh Budlender and Rocco Zizzamia show that in October more than 70% of adults in SA lived in households receiving a government grant.

We know from both Nids-Cram and other household surveys that about half (56%) of South Africans live in households that receive at least one CSG a month.

It’s worth comparing SA’s CSG scheme with two popular Latin American counterparts: Brazil’s Bolsa Familia programme (R500/child/month) and Mexico’s Progresa/Oportunidades programme (R800/child/month). In both cases the grant reaches only about 20% of the population, and both are conditional on behaviour (sending children to school, getting them vaccinated and so on).

In addition to the existing grant infrastructure in SA, the government added the R350 a month social relief of distress grant (SRDG) during the pandemic. The grant reaches about 40% of households and has brought 10% of previously excluded households into the social protection system.

In his 2021 state of the nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the SRDG would be extended for another three months, until the end of May 2021 — the second time it has been extended.

As I’ve noted before, the longer that door remains open, the harder it will be to shut. In my view, the R350 a month grant is here to stay. I suspect it will be rebranded — potentially as an “unemployment support grant” or “basic income grant” — and will join the others as a permanent feature of the social protection system. And so it should.

The widespread coverage of our grant system should be a point of national pride. The system is also progressively targeted. In October, about 90% of the poorest half of the population lived in a household that received a grant, compared with less than 40% for the wealthiest quarter.

The way forward

What is clear from the above is that the labour market alone will not solve SA’s problems. Even as SA moves towards pre-pandemic levels of employment, hunger persists and may deteriorate even further. And future lockdowns may mean that we lose many of the jobs we have only just regained. We don’t yet know.

For a moment, however, let’s assume we are en route to our pre-pandemic levels of employment. In the last quarter of 2019, Stats SA reports that about 16-million people were employed, but at least 10-million South Africans who wanted to work couldn’t find jobs. What happens to them, and to their dependants?

Some would argue that they simply need more and better education and training — the idea that if you “teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime”. Yet the evidence seems to suggest this is magical thinking. About a third of the unemployed, for example, have already passed matric.

In Give a Man a Fish, professor James Ferguson argues persuasively that we need to think differently about government grants and the reasons people are entitled to them: “Teaching a man to fish in these times, then, may be just a good way of creating an unemployed fisherman, or, at best, a marginal hanger-on in an already oversaturated competitive field. It is not obvious that being trained for a nonexistent job would benefit the man in any way, and it is certainly nonsense to suppose that he would, by virtue of that training, be fed for a lifetime … The ‘teach a man to fish’ slogan seems to come from a world where the labour of poor people was needed by the apparatuses of production and where the central problem was creating enough trained and willing workers to meet labour needs. That is not the world we live in today.”

This is not to say that employment and education are not critical, and part of the solution — they are. Or that we should divert attention away from public employment schemes and meaningful educational reform — we shouldn’t. The argument is simply that neither will create 10-million more jobs.

In that context, if we want people to have a modicum of basic dignity, we need to keep giving grants — not out of charity, but out of a recognition that everyone has a basic right to dignity and life.

As Russian thinker Peter Kropotkin argued more than 100 years ago: “We must recognise, and loudly proclaim, that everyone, whatever his grade in the old society, whether strong or weak, capable or incapable, has, before everything, the right to live, and that society is bound to share among all, without exception, the means of existence it has at its disposal.”

A little closer to home, the Freedom Charter goes a step further: “The people shall share in the country’s wealth.” In other words, purely by virtue of their personhood, all people deserve some minimum level of income to stave off the worst forms of deprivation. The demand for a basic income grant starts from the self-evident truth that all people deserve basic dignity and respect.

So where does the money come from? The solution lies in three parts, all of which speak to economic growth either directly or indirectly:

  • The government must get serious about corruption and prosecute corrupt officials irrespective of their political standing;
  • It must get serious about recruiting competent people into the public service and firing incompetent employees; and
  • It must reprioritise expenditure in favour of social services and away from vanity projects such as SAA. If these fail, then the only alternative is to raise taxes — an increasingly precarious option.

Dealing with corruption and an incapable state are the two most promising (and immediate) routes to increased economic growth, which is arguably the binding constraint to almost everything else. On state capacity, the problem is most easily seen right at the top.

Ramaphosa is the master of announcements and beginnings. To every problem there is a new solution; the graveyard of old solutions and half-implemented projects is vast and growing. Why is it that we are perpetually told about new government initiatives rather than the progress of old ones? The reason is simple: the state lacks the capacity to implement its own plans.

For too long, politics has trumped competence in the recruitment of bureaucrats — a failing related to cadre deployment rather than affirmative action.

There are thousands of highly competent black professionals working in the private sector who would be willing to work in the public service if it were open to bold reforms and competence-based recruitment. Yet the state is unable to implement the necessary changes to make the public sector a viable and attractive option for them. That would be too threatening to existing cadres, and so it never happens.

This is costly at any time, but is doubly so during a pandemic. As economist Mariana Mazzucato has argued in Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism: “In crises, government intervention is only effective if the state has the corresponding capability to act … Without this, they cannot even devise robust terms of reference for the companies they bring in.”

The reason the government needs to get serious about corruption and state capacity is that if it doesn’t, then neither the economy nor the tax base will grow. But there is another reason — government debt is no longer an option.

This time last year, the National Treasury made it abundantly clear that we were in the midst of a debt crisis and that within two years “interest payments will exceed health spending”. Nearly a seventh of all government expenditure (15%) went to paying off the interest on our national debt — and that was before the pandemic and before the stimulus spending.

In light of this one has to ask: why does the government own an airline? We are repeatedly told that SAA must be bailed out. Where does this R10bn come from? Cuts to provincial allocations that fund hospitals, HIV care, school infrastructure, textbooks and policing. These bailouts of state-owned enterprises are immoral, irrational and indefensible.

One other way to raise the funds we need is to phase out our current system of generous corporate welfare — something the Treasury is already strongly considering. For example, hidden on page 122 of Annexure B of the 2020 Budget Review we learn that “one dominant taxpayer claimed almost R10bn in each of the 2017 and 2018 tax years, raising concerns about the equity of the corporate tax system”.

That’s a pretty big rebate.

In the absence of restructuring expenditure and decreasing corporate welfare, one option is to raise taxes or introduce new ones, like a wealth tax. But here, too, we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. As it stands, 95% of personal income and company income tax is raised from the richest 5% of the population.

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It’s too early to know what the 2020 tax year will look like, or how much haemorrhaging there has been, but even the 2019/2020 data — released two months ago by the SA Revenue Service (Sars) — is instructive. It shows that of the R360bn raised in personal income tax in 2019, 98% (R351bn) came from the richest 2.7-million people. To be in that group, you needed to earn at least R200,000 a year.

This is not something peculiar to 2019. Similar figures for Sars’s reliance on the richest 3-million people are found in 2018 (97%), 2017 (96%) and 2016 (95%).

Given that there were about 60-million people in SA in 2019, we can say that more than 95% of personal income is raised from the richest 5% of the population.

And what about companies? For the past four years, 95% of company income tax (CIT) has come from the biggest 5% of companies. To be specific, Sars usually collects about R200bn in CIT a year, and though there are more than 800,000 companies in SA submitting returns, the biggest 37,000 (5%) account for 95% of CIT paid.

Thanks to Sars’s diligent breakdown, we can also see that over the past four years the biggest 400 companies accounted for half (55%) of all CIT.

What it means?

People who own large, profitable, tax-paying companies are earning more than R200,000 a year, so it’s safe to conclude that the people owning companies that pay company tax are the same people who are paying personal income tax (with the exception of foreign-owned companies paying taxes here). In that case, of the R1.35-trillion that the government raised in taxes in 2019, half (55%) came from the richest 5% of South Africans. The four sources of state revenue are personal income tax (39%), CIT (16%), VAT (25%) and “other” taxes, such as the fuel levy and customs duties (20%).

So what has this got to do with raising taxes? It means that the lion’s share of government revenue is precariously dependent on the richest 3-million South Africans. While much talk in SA focuses on emigration and tax avoidance, we shouldn’t forget that willingness to pay taxes is also a function of perceived legitimacy and what the taxes are used for.

If a defensible basic income grant were announced to stave off the worst forms of deprivation, taxes would need to go up to pay for it. Last year, former Goldman Sachs CEO Colin Coleman presented a well-thought-out plan to fund such a grant of R500 a month. Yet if the government moves in this direction without first getting tough on corruption, we will start seeing money going underground or overseas. More people will feel morally justified in hiding their income and wealth.

The latest Nids-Cram results are both encouraging and sobering — encouraging because they paint a picture of a resilient labour market and dynamic job-seekers; and sobering because they show that hunger can persist even as employment increases.

While this is the first solid evidence of SA turning the economic corner in the pandemic, it is also clear that the government needs to reintroduce top-ups to the CSG to stave off hunger and deprivation, especially for children. To fund this, and a basic income grant, it will need to tackle corruption, give up on vanity projects such as SAA, and reprioritise spending towards the poor.

The pandemic has given us an opportunity to reflect on the society we have created and to envision a different one, where all people have basic dignity and respect, and where we are led by competent, ethical public servants.

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This article was first published by the Financial Mail on the 17th of Feb 2021 and is available here.

All papers from the study and the data are freely available at  https://cramsurvey.org/

‘The Lost Decade’ – my FM article on NIDS-CRAM W2

How four months wiped out 10 years of jobs growth – and matched a decade of growth in SA’s social security net

Vladimir Lenin is famously quoted as saying that “There are decades where nothing happens and weeks where decades happen.

Looking back on the last few months it is clear now that a decade’s worth of change has happened in the space of just four months. In an ironically symmetrical fashion we seem to have lost a decade’s worth of jobs in less than half a year, and expanded the grant system by the equivalent of a decade over the same period. Between 2009 and 2019 the country managed to create 2,4-million jobs, while early indications are that in the last four months we may have lost as many as 2,8-million jobs. Over that same decade the number of grant recipients grew from 14-million to 18-million as more people were brought into the grant system. If the 4-million recipients of the new COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress Grant (SRD) of R350 per month keep their grants beyond October then we will have achieved a decade’s worth of expansion (an additional 4-million grant recipients) in the space of 4-months. 

As we think about the future, the key uncertainties are beginning to coalesce around three important questions, the answers to which will determine what South Africa looks like in the decade to come: (1) Who gets jobs? (2) Who gets grants? (3) What happens to growth?

If there is one thing that all South Africans agree on, it is that more jobs are a good thing. Across the political spectrum everyone realises that jobs are preferable to grants and typically come as a package deal with economic growth, which again most people think is a good thing. On the topic of  economic growth we already know the situation is dire; the Statistician General announced that the economy shrunk by 16% in the second quarter of 2020 compared to 2019 and if that trend continues for the next three quarters then the economy will have essentially shrunk by 51% (the annualised figure much touted in the media). Put differently, if this short-term drop in production and consumption is sustained for a full year, our GDP will be half of what it was pre-COVID. Such a decline is unprecedented outside of civil-wars and coups. But what about jobs? 

Three months ago we released the results of the first wave of our National Income Dynamics Study Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Nids-Cram). This is a nationally-representative telephonic survey of over 7000 South Africans asking them about their employment, income, hunger, grant receipt, and a host of demographic background questions. Using over 50 call-center agents and conducting 20-minute interviews with each participant we were able to collect vital information on how they were faring. Because they were sampled from an existing survey that was broadly nationally representative we can extrapolate our findings to the country at large. 

Wave 1 showed that about 2,8-million South Africans lost their jobs between February and April 2020 and a further 1,4-million were furloughed (that is, they did not work and earned no income, but thought they had a job to return to). We have now conducted our second wave of the survey by re-interviewing the same individuals two months later and asking them if any of these key outcomes have changed between April and June. We received 5,700 responses (81% response rate) which we can use to calculate the change in jobs from Level 5 lockdown (April) to Level 3 lockdown (June). We are also in the fortunate position of having the imminent release of StatsSA’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS Q2) which uses a much larger sample and will also estimate changes in the labour market from Q1 to Q2. 

It is difficult to describe the situation emerging from the data as anything other than a jobs bloodbath. Of those 2,8-million job losses between February and April, essentially none have returned by the end of June. The number of those not employed in April is the same as the number not employed in June. While that may change under Level 1 lockdown (and we will be able to track this in Wave 3) – the fact that we see practically no change whatsoever is extremely worrying. Some of the good news emerging from Wave 2 was that among the 1,4-million additional furloughed workers, 750,000 (54%) were re-employed and earning an income in June. Less positively 550,000 (39%) became unemployed and 100,000 (7%) are still furloughed, with the number of furloughed workers now the same as it was pre-COVID. The fact that only half of those who thought they had a job to return to actually did does not bode well for the ‘bounceback’ hypothesis where jobs that were lost return quickly.

Figure 1: Employment status in February, April and June 2020 (millions) – NIDS-CRAM Wave 1 and 2 (Source: Jain et al. 2020)

To put some of these numbers in perspective, earlier this year the Statistician General Risenga Maluleke reported that over the last decade the South African economy had created 2,4-million additional jobs (from 2009 to 2019). If the job losses we see in NIDS-CRAM are accurate and long-lasting then we will have lost the equivalent of 10 years’ worth of job growth in the space of four months. 

This paints the national picture overall and shows a 16% decline in net employment between February and June 2020. But as with everything in South Africa, the average is uniquely misleading. Ronak Jain and her co-authors show that employment losses for manual labourers were twice as high (-30%) as the national average, while those for the tertiary educated were half as much (-8%) as the national average. Between February and June 2020 the poor were ten times more likely to lose their jobs (-31%) compared to the rich (-3%). 

Figure 2 Percentage net loss in employment between February and June 2020 by sub group (Source: Jain et al., 2020, using NIDS-CRAM Wave 1 and 2 data)

So much of these results were predictable given the way that the lockdown happened and the way that the South African labour-market works. It is a misnomer to think that the distinction is only between the ‘employed’ and the ‘not employed’, as critical as that distinction might be. There is an important sub-category of the employed, who we might call the ‘precariat’ – those without formal contracts, without qualifications and without in-demand skills. To that list we should now also add ‘ability to work from home’ since that also seems to have been critical to retaining employment during lockdown. Vimal Ranchhod and Reza Daniels show that only 24% of South Africans said they were able to work from home ‘Sometimes’ or ‘Mostly’ in June, with job losses tracking ability to work from home quite closely. The highest rates of reported ability to work from home were seen among White respondents (79%), and those with post-matric qualifications (40%) with the lowest rates for Black Africans (16%), those with matric or less (15%) and those living in Farms and Traditional areas (11-19%). If one looks at June levels of employment for these groups it is highest for White respondents (79%) and those with post-matric qualifications (65%) and lowest for Black Africans (45%) and those living in Traditional areas (38%).

It would be incorrect to jump on ‘ability to work from home’ as if that were the deciding factor – it isn’t. Each of these iterations – race, qualifications, occupation, employment protection etc. – is simply singing the same song in a different key, a common story but from a different angle. That story is one of two South Africa’s – a center and a periphery. That has always been the case in South Africa, the scary thing is that this already small ‘center’ is now contracting and the already large periphery is now expanding. 

Let us now turn to the three questions that will dictate what South Africa looks like in the decade to come: (1) Who gets jobs? (2) Who gets grants? (3) What happens to growth?

Who gets jobs?

The first of these is about the labor market: In six months time will we see a ‘bounce-back’ to some previous level of employment, even if quite a bit lower? Or will there be a further intensification of the two-South Africa’s we have always had – a shrinking center and a widening periphery. If so that would amount to a fundamental restructuring of who has jobs and who doesn’t. Given the sheer scale of job-losses to date, and the fact that there is no evidence of any bounceback between April and June, it looks increasingly likely that we’re stuck with the second option. Businesses are choosing not to rehire those they retrenched. In this time of uncertainty it would seem business owners are both pessimistic about the country’s future and also unwilling or unable to absorb the costs of re-employing those they retrenched. A cynical view is that businesses are using this crisis as an opportunity to further pivot away from labour which they see as costly, risky and possibly unnecessary. If that is the case then COVID-19 and the lockdown will have not only revealed our inequalities like never before, but actually made them far worse, accelerating a disjuncture that has been long in the making.  

Who gets grants? 

The second question of who gets grants is about social welfare and the introduction of a new type of grant bringing previously uncovered individuals into the system, the COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant of R350 per month. This is available for those with no other income and no other grant. Although this was introduced as a temporary relief mechanism, there are currently serious discussions about extending this grant (and the top-ups to the other grants) beyond the end of October when they were originally meant to expire. One of the success stories of the COVID-19 period in our country is that the government has successfully created a new grant distribution system incorporating vulnerable and uncovered South Africans and doing so in a way that is both pro-poor and relatively effective. Between April and June we see rates of weekly hunger declining by 27% for both adults and children, almost certainly driven in part by the roll out of the new grants and the top-ups of the old ones.  

Given that millions of South Africans are currently left destitute without work and relying solely on these grants for their livelihoods, it is difficult to imagine a world where they are not extended at least until the end of the year if not later. Yet that introduces new complexities since what was introduced as temporary can very quickly become permanent. Put differently, the longer that door stays open, the harder it will be to shut. Treasury officials are acutely aware of this. 

In a weirdly similar fashion to the labor market, what we are seeing with grants is simply the rapid acceleration of the pre-COVID trend, which was the steady expansion of social welfare to cover more people over time. In their paper on social grants Tim Kohler and Haroon Bhorat show that the number of grant recipients in the country increased by about 4-million people between 2009 and 2019 (from 14-million to 18-million recipients). What took 10 years has now been re-accomplished in 4 months: the weighted results from Nids-Cram Wave 2 shows that by July/August 4,3-million additional people had received the COVID-19 SRD grant. (SASSA administrative data report an almost identical number of recipients; 4,4-million). 

The one key difference between the pre- and post-COVID trend is the inclusion of young unemployed men. Previously government grants were only allocated to those who could not work or somehow needed the State to act as a ‘provider’; the elderly (Old Age Pension, R1860/mo), women with children (Child Support Grant, R440/mo) and those with disabilities (Disability Grant, R1860/mo) together with a few others. Yet COVID-19 has pushed us into the realm long predicted as the end point of ‘grant-logic.’ That logic says that whether or not government’s can create jobs, they have a moral responsibility to prevent destitution at all costs. The right to some minimum amount of food or income is bound up in an understanding that all people have worth and their basic dignity must be protected, irrespective of the cost or the consequences. Grant-logic also recognises that deferring this responsibility to some future point when jobs can be found is both unacceptable and disingenuous. Johnny Steinberg made this point most eloquently in 2013 calling a spade a spade: 

“If we are honest with ourselves, we have long ago given up trying to employ everyone, or even to halve unemployment…South Africa started bleeding jobs in the mid-1970’s, along with much of the rest of the world. We have been bleeding jobs ever since…It hasn’t mattered who has been in power or whether our political system has been a racial dictatorship or a democracy, or whether our labor law has been rigid or flexible – we cannot employ everybody. We can’t even come close. To think that we can is to indulge in millenarian thinking, as if Jesus will come and remake the world, as if there is a thing called magic. Deep down, we know this. For while we talk about creating jobs, we have been doing something else – we have been handing out grants. Some say that it is a stopgap measure, just to tide us over until jobs are found. Others say that it is creating a culture of idleness from which there will be no return. But if we are honest, it is what we do now and what we will keep doing forever. It is a substitute for work and it holds the country together; it has saved millions from starvation and misery. If we accept that welfare is permanent, we must go the whole hog; we must start giving grants to the one category of poor people entirely excluded from them – young men.”   

That is exactly where we are today and now that the genie is out the bottle it will probably be political suicide to try and put it back inside. Every month that grants are paid to those who previously did not receive them (or, as we will see, any income whatsoever) further solidifies new relationships and expectations between those citizens and the State. Every month that someone does not go hungry because they receive R350 from the government, is another month they move towards being single-issue voters: ‘Kkeep the grants’. By its very eligibility criteria, the Covid-19 grant excludes anyone who receives any other kind of government grant. Thus, in almost all cases they are ‘first time grant recipients.’ It turns out that about 40% are probably also ‘first time income recipients’ in the sense that they are not only not employed, but have never been employed before. That is only possible to ascertain using a panel survey like Nids-Cram that has followed the same people over time. 

What our data shows is that of the 4,3-million Covid-19 grant recipients, about half (2,2-million) were not employed at any time in 2020, neither in June, April or even in February before the crisis. In fact about 40% of recipients (1,7-million) were not only not employed in 2020, but also not employed in 2017 when last they were surveyed in Nids-2017. For the first time, potentially in their lives, they have access to a very modest income source that is theirs. It is exceedingly unlikely they will give this up without a fight. The conceptual shift gaining ground every day, is not only that a new grant is here, but that a new grant should be here. The semantic shift from ‘Covid-relief’ to ‘Unemployment-relief’ might not sound like much, but it will become politically consequential as we approach elections.  

The ANC is fast approaching a double-bind: remove the grants and face the anger of your voter base, or keep the grants and find the money from new debt, new taxes or tackling corruption. Any of those options will anger an important ANC constituency: the ratings agencies, the tax-base or corrupt politicians. 

(3) What happens to growth? 

Economic growth is important for both of the two preceding questions – it heavily influences how many new jobs get created, as well as how much tax revenue is raised and can then be redistributed as grants. What we know so far is that the lockdown and the pandemic have been disastrous for economic growth. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) and the National Treasury all estimate that the economy will shrink by about 7,3% in 2020. This is the equivalent of having the 2009 recession four times in one year. (The SA economy shrunk by 1.8% in 2009 following the Financial Crisis, according to Treasury). The President seems to be aware of this and all indications are that we will not lockdown again in the coming months, irrespective of a second wave of infections and irrespective of the death-toll. The collateral damage is simply too large. Yes, people might not be dying of COVID-19, but they are losing practically everything else that they value.

We know that children have lost 40% of the academic year, and some estimates are that we will only get back to our pre-pandemic learning trend in 2031 depending on how much catch-up there is in the years to come. Mental health across the country has deteriorated significantly with twice as many people screening positive for depressive symptoms in June 2020 (24%) compared to 2017 (12%). Those that experienced hunger ‘Almost every day or every day’ were twice as likely (44%) to screen positive.

One of the unhelpful developments during the pandemic has been the false dichotomy between ‘saving lives’ and everything else. This often manifests as statements like “saving lives is more important than saving jobs’ or ‘saving lives is more important than saving the academic year.’ Discovery Health estimates that the lockdown might have saved 16,000 lives in 2020, yet at what cost? When are we allowed to have the conversation about whether the costs that were incurred were justified to save this number of lives? To even bring it up risks accusations of being callous and insensitive. 

Of course hindsight is 20:20 and no one knew whether the death toll would be ten times higher than it was. We didn’t know if HIV and TB would increase COVID-19 death rates or introduce some other complications. There were so many unknowns and policymakers were placed in the most difficult situations of their lives. Yet, now we do know and we have for some time. Is this not just water under the bridge? What good is it now to assess whether the lockdown was fit for purpose, accomplished its goal or was the right length? The answer is twofold: (1) Unless there is an adequate recognition of the devastation caused by the lockdown, it’s possible that it will again be seen as a viable policy tool to limit infections. It shouldn’t be. It is the ‘nuclear’ option and should be avoided at all costs. And (2) It’s a mistake to think that the lockdown is over – it is still with us in innumerable ways – both in bureaucratic operating procedures (like occupancy rates in stores and queues), and psychologically  as many people are still terrified of this virus. What most people don’t realise is that about 450,000 South Africans die every year of something (illness, old age, car accidents etc). About 14,000 people in South Africa die every year from road accidents. At the time of writing 16,000 people have tragically died of COVID-19 in South Africa with projections indicating it will be less than 20,000 for the whole year. A big part of that is that, for whatever reason, South Africa’s COVID-19 mortality rate is much lower than in Europe or America, even if excess deaths are allocated to COVID-19. This is not to trivialize the coronavirus or the deaths that it has caused. It is only meant to place these deaths in perspective with the aim of having an evidence-based plan on the best policy responses to the social and economic crises that are now on our doorstep. 

So where to from here? Firstly, the lockdown was meant to buy time to prepare the healthcare system, not to prevent infections or deaths. Given the extraordinary collateral damage it should be ended immediately – in all its forms – and not reinstated in the future. Secondly, the grant top-ups and the new COVID-19 grant should be extended for a further six months to prevent hunger and destitution and maintain political stability. In all likelihood this will make them a permanent feature of South African society, and that will not be a bad thing. With millions of job losses and a fragile economy with no indication of a bounceback, more than ever South Africa needs the glue that holds it together. That glue is the grant system and while it may seem costly it seems less so when one considers the alternatives. It is also the right thing to do. 

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Nic Spaull is the Principal Investigator of NIDS-CRAM and all NIDS-CRAM papers are all available for download at: https://cramsurvey.org/reports/ and the Wave 1 and 2 data are available from DataFirst.

This article originally appeared in the Financial Mail on 30 September 2020.

NIDS-CRAM Wave 2 launch: 30 Sept 12:00 (register!)

Tomorrow (30 September, 12:00-14:00) we will be launching the results of the National Income Dynamics Study Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) Wave 2. Wave 1 showed that 2,8-million South Africans lost their jobs between February and April – have they returned? It also showed that 1-in-5 experienced weekly hunger – has hunger declined as a result of the roll-out of the new COVID-19 grant and the other grant top-ups? REGISTER for the webinar where we will be discussing these issues and releasing the 15 papers that have been written on the Wave 2 results.

Judgement Date with Dennis Davis

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Earlier this week Judge Dennis Davis and I spoke about COVID-19, school closures, the National School Nutrition Programme, child hunger, NIDS-CRAM, job losses, gender discrimination and the Basic Income Grant. The full interview is available here.

New research on COVID-19 infections among teachers in Gauteng

There are three new pieces of writing worth highlighting on COVID-19 and schools:

(1) Today the DBE launched a report “Patterns in the COVID-19 cases among learners and staff in Gauteng schools Analysis of school-level data to 8 July” (PDF) written by Prof Martin Gustafsson in collaboration with Albert Chanee (DDG in GDE). Executive Summary below. It shows teachers have a 0.8% risk which is the same as the 0.8% risk for the general public in Gauteng.

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(2) Martin’s Daily Maverick op-ed “Figuring out what the WHO is really saying about schools and the pandemic.” ‘A careful reading of the World Health Organisation’s policy documents shows that it does not stipulate when schools should reopen’.

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(3) The new strongly worded position statement by the SA Paediatric Association’s on public school closures.

“The paediatric community, as represented by the Paediatrician Management Group (PMG) and the South African Paediatric Association (SAPA), is disappointed with the recent cabinet decision to close all public schools again. Following on the original SAPA position statement, supported by PMG, we believe this recent decision is not based on best available scientific evidence and it is not in the best interest of children in South Africa.”

SU Applied Ecos of Education 2020

 

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Next week I am starting my Applied Economics of Education course for graduate students in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University. Given all the drama with the opening/closing of schools I am really looking forward to engaging with students about some of the bigger issues in South African education. I will be teaching the first part of the course (lecture schedule above) and, as always, I am open to accepting auditors from other departments within the university, students from other universities and people from NGOs / civil society. Although there is no cost to auditing you will be required to submit the weekly reading reflections if you want to stay in the course. If you would like to audit the course all the information on how to apply is included in the course outline. 

“Six reasons why schools must be open if we are to fight Covid-19” (My DM Op-ed)

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Nationwide lockdowns and school closures have incredibly high costs for families and children. Limiting Covid-19 infections must be a top priority, but it cannot come ‘at any cost’.

These are six main reasons why schools must remain open while implementing rigorous safety protocols and physical distancing:

  1. Schools provide essential meals to hungry children

When schools were open and operational, they provided a nutritious meal to 9 million children every day. Child hunger has more than doubled since the start of lockdown with 1-in-7 people reporting that a child went hungry in their household in the past week. The courts have ordered the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga to reinstate school feeding for all 9 million children immediately. Realistically, schools cannot provide meals to 9 million children if they are closed. While children do not get severely ill from Covid-19, they are at risk of suffering from stunting and malnutrition.

2. You cannot reopen the economy without reopening schools

There are 4.5 million essential workers in South Africa and 650,000 healthcare workers who are on the frontline of dealing with the pandemic. If schools are closed, what happens to their children while they are at work? We compromise the healthcare system if schools are closed. Furthermore, we have already lost 3 million jobs during 2020, plunging more than 1 million people into food poverty. Parents cannot go back to work if schools are closed.

3. There is no evidence that schools lead to above-average Covid-19 infections among teachers or pupils

It is true that some teachers have been infected with Covid-19, but it is also true that many teachers were infected even before schools reopened. Teachers are more likely to get infected in their community than at school. An analysis of 709 Gauteng schools shows that Covid-19 infection rates are no higher among teachers than similar people in the Gauteng population. Put differently, just because teachers get infected does not mean they got it at school. Further evidence comes from hospital admission data from the Western Cape during its Covid-19 surge and provides reassuring evidence. Opening schools had little impact on children getting infected with Covid-19 or getting admitted to hospitals.

4. Medical experts and advisors are saying that children returning to school is what is in the best interests of the child

The South African Paediatric Association, the Ministerial Advisory Committee and the South African Human Rights Commission have all stated clearly that they believe that children returning to school is in the best interests of children. The costs of being locked up at home (potentially alone), are far greater than the small risks they face at school. Children do not get severely ill from Covid-19. Those under the age of 20 make up less than 1% of total Covid-19 deaths in SA.

5. The World Health Organisation’s recommendation must be contextualised to South Africa

When the WHO is making recommendations, it is doing so for 195 countries. But there is no one size fits all approach. What makes sense for Germany might not make sense for Malawi. What makes sense in South Korea does not make sense in South Africa. They do not have 1 million stunted children, widespread HIV and TB, school feeding schemes etc. South Africa’s own epidemiologists are advising that schools must stay open if we are to fight the pandemic.

6. School closures will increase inequality

Only 20% of households have a computer and 10% have an internet connection. Closing schools will increase inequality between rich and poor for the next 10 years. Elderly teachers with serious comorbidities should be replaced in schools. Schools that do not have adequate masks and sanitisers should remain closed until they do, but closing all schools will hurt the poor much more than temporarily closing the 10-20% of schools that are not yet ready to open.

***

Teacher unions are undermining our pandemic response. All other government officials as well as those in the private sector have gone back to work and implemented physical distancing, wearing masks etc. But somehow teachers are different? The evidence is showing that teachers are not at higher risk than others and yet they are being paid whether they work or not. By refusing to work, they are risking the lives of children and undermining other parts of society that rely on schools at this critical time. By forcing parents to choose between going to work and taking care of their children at home, they are weakening our ability to fight the pandemic.

The question is not: “When is it safe to reopen schools?” The question is: “Does the cost of closing schools outweigh the benefits?” We should not implement a nationwide lockdown again and we should not implement nationwide school closures either. The costs to children and their families are simply too great, and importantly, fighting the pandemic needs all hands on deck and schools need to be open for that to happen. Limiting Covid-19 infections must be a top priority, but it cannot come “at any cost”.

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This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick on the 22nd of July.