Last week Funda Wande released the midline evaluation of their Limpopo Randomised Control Trial, evaluated by Prof Cally Ardington from UCT. In essence the intervention is 120 schools split into 3 arms of 40 schools each: a control arm, a Materials+training arm, and Materials+training+Teacher-Assistant arm (each teacher received a full-time Teacher Assistant). Although the graphic says “Materials only” – the report shows that actually there was also centralised teacher training (of 4 days per term – 2 for literacy and 2 for numeracy).
The intervention is both a literacy intervention (Funda Wande) and a numeracy intervention (Bala Wande) with the same learners, teachers and schools. The results are incredibly encouraging with a 0,5 standard deviation increase in both reading and mathematics after two years of intervention in the Materials+Training+TA arm. That means that this intervention represents the largest gains we’ve seen in foundational literacy and numeracy in South Africa to date. We can see the gains in terms of standard deviations. But in their presentation to the 2030 Reading Panel, Prof Ardington and Dr Makaluza show the changes in outcomes realtive to the DBE’s new language-specific and grade-specific reading benchmarks.
While the 39-page evaluation report is rich in detail, one of the areas that really stood out to me was the increase in workbook coverage in both the LTSM+Training arm and the LTSM+Training+TA arms:
This intervention shows that unemployed youth, when they are recruited properly (literacy and numeracy tests among other things), trained properly, and supported properly (they have TA mentors), they can have a big impact on reading outcomes in the classroom.
For those interested in what components of reading and mathematics were tested, and how large the impacts were across the treatment arms, these are also in the report and included below:
We have a lot of shit going on in South Africa at the moment. We have ministers coming and going. The power is coming and going. The political winds seem to be more like a series of squalls rather than anything predictable or helpful. And this is all before the 2024 election when everything will get even more uncertain. Yet even in these turbulent times, it is encouraging to note that there are schools and teachers and youth that can pull together and with the right support, training and materials can lead to large improvements in reading outcomes for the young children in their charge.
Congratulations to Dr Nwabisa Makaluza and the entire Limpopo Funda Wande team who ran and implemented this intervention, and to Prof Cally Ardington who has conducted an incredibly useful evaluation of the intervention.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” – MLKJ
On the 7th of February we held the second 2030 Reading Panel meeting. The Panel is comprised of 18 respected South Africans who meet annually to review progress towards the Presidential goal of “All South African children being able to read for meaning by age 10 by 2030”, and provides implementable systemic recommendations to government.
82% of SA Grade 4 kids can’t read, up from 78% pre-pandemic: Before the pandemic it was estimated that 78% of Grade 4 learners could read for meaning (PIRLS 2016), new research based on learning losses in the Western Cape suggests that this has risen to 82% as a result of COVID-19 school closures and rotational timetables.
It will take SA 86 years on our current trajectory to reach 95% of children reading for meaning, i.e. the year 2108.
Pandemic has erased a decade of progress, sending us back to 2011. In 2016 22% of Grade 4 children could read for meaning in SA according to PIRLS. Due to COVID-19 it is estimated that now only 18% can read for meaning, the same level as in 2011, erasing a decade of progress in reading outcomes.
50% of children in no-fee schools do not learn the letters of the alphabet by the end of Grade 1. New research from Limpopo, the Eastern Cape and the North West published in December 2022 shows that less than 50% of children in no-fee schools learn all the letters of the alphabet by the end of Grade 1.
There is currently no National Reading Plan and no national budget for reading. Although the Director General has made reference to a ‘National Reading Plan’ in parliament, no such document exists in the public domain or has been seen by stakeholders. There is also no national budget for improving home-language reading.
Western Cape & Gauteng are both spending more than R100-million over three years to improve reading, the only provinces to do so. The Western Cape is investing in a Reading for Meaning program for Grades 1-3 (2023-2025, R111mil) and Gauteng in their Grade R Program (2022-2024, R107-mil). These are the only provinces to allocate significant budgets to reading (although the Gauteng intervention is 80% donor funded).
Government has spent over R25-billion on PYEI, including Educator Assistants (EA), 10% of which are Reading Champions. As part of its COVID response the Presidency Youth Employment Initiative (PYEI) has employed over 850,000 youth on temporary contracts. It is estimated that 250,000 youth will be appointed in 2023 & approximately 30,000 will be Reading Champions. Although this is a welcome addition, there is currently no face-to-face training for these youth and the only requirement is that they must have passed matric.
Twice as many children learnt to read in Limpopo after a 2-year intervention with trained teacher assistant and new reading workbooks. A new evaluation of the ‘Funda Wande’ intervention in Limpopo (2021-2022) showed that twice as many children learnt to read in the intervention schools (34%) compared to children in comparable schools who did not receive the intervention (18%), the largest gains seen in SA to date. (Full Feb’23 evaluation report here).
The panel found that almost no progress had been made on the 2022 recommendations and therefore reiterated the four recommendations from 2022 and added two more:
Measuring what matters: implementing a universal standardized assessment of reading at the primary school level
Moving from slogans to budgets: allocating meaningful budgets to reading resources and reading interventions not only talking about them
Providing a minimum set of reading resources to all Foundation Phase classrooms (Grade R-3) as a matter of urgency.
A university audit of pre-service teacher education programs.
To publish a National Reading Plan and the budget for its implementation
To improve the implementation of the Presidential Youth Employment Initiative
There are lots of things that are wrong with South Africa at the moment. As I type this our parliament is in the process of deciding whether President Ramaphosa should be subject to an impeachment inquiry. But even when things are dark (literally), and the prospects for improvement are dim, South Africa still has a lot of things going for it. I’ll mention just one of them: a thriving community of scholars who give a shit about the country, who want to do impactful research, and who really care about improving the life chances of poor kids. Not many people know that before COVID hit, South Africa’s learning outcomes were improving quickly. That is to say they were both improving and terrible at the same time – they are not mutually exclusive. This week Oxford University Press published three volumes on (1) Early Grade Reading, (2) Early Grade Mathematics, and (3) Early Grade Reading and Mathematics Interventions. A few years ago a few of us were discussing progress in reading and mathematics outcomes and we all agreed that we know so much more today than we did in 2010. In some areas (TVET and housing, for example) we know almost nothing more in 2022 than we did in 2010. Things are bad and we don’t really know how to improve them at scale. In early grade reading and mathematics things are different. We have much more data now, we have a whole wave of new research and (excitingly) new researchers. We decided that we should write a book to try and document what we now know at the end of the first decade. We quickly realised that it wouldn’t fit into one volume, and so now we have three! Although I suppose I was the chief cat-herder across the volumes, the entire series was a collaborative effort. The folk at Oxford University Press (Megan, Marisa, Ashley and the copy-editors) were efficient, professional, flexible and passionate about the project. Our excellent editorial assistant (Jess Qvist) made sure that no ball remained dropped for too long. My co-editors Lilli, Stephen, Hamsa and Nicky were exactly what you want in academic colleagues – smart, funny, friendly, punctual, and always ready to call you on your bullshit. It’s such a nice way to close off the year to see the books in print, and also as Open Access ePDFs which are free to download. Of course nothing is ever the final word and research is an iterative process so we look forward to everyone’s comments and critiques and will most certainly have an in-person launch event in the new year!
“Collectively the three books bring together 77 authors from disciplines including economics, linguistics, literacy studies, mathematics education, teacher education, and policy studies. Although their domains and methods of analysis may differ, all authors grappled with the same underlying question: why is it that so few young children in South Africa acquire the building blocks of reading and mathematics in the first years of school? While international large-scale assessments have drawn increasing attention to learning outcomes at the primary school level, there is now a broad-based consensus that the roots of the problem lie even earlier than upper primary school. International assessments like PIRLS and TIMSS show that 60–80% of Grade 4 and 5 learners cannot read for meaning or calculate using the four operations, but emerging research documented in these volumes highlights that more than 50% of learners at the end of Grade 1 do not know all the letters of the alphabet, and cannot add and subtract single-digit numbers.
It is this challenge that animates the research across these three volumes, with an analytic focus on lessons learnt in the last decade (2010–2022). While learning outcomes in South Africa before the Covid-19 pandemic were improving quickly by international standards, the chapters included here present evidence for both optimism and alarm. Optimism because system-wide improvements do not happen accidentally or in a vacuum. Alarm because in 2022 it is still the case that the dignity and life-chances of millions of children in South Africa are foreclosed because they do not learn to read for meaning, or do mathematics with understanding in the first three years of school.
As a group of scholars committed to understanding and documenting the roots of both blockages and breakthroughs in reading and mathematics, it is our hope that you, the reader, find this new research interesting, helpful, generative, and challenging.”
If you’re keen to come and work with the RESEP team at Stellenbosch, we’re hiring a Project Administrator either on a 50% basis (R150-250k) or a 75% basis (R225-R375k) depending on qualifications and experience. We are trying to prioritise the diversity of the RESEP team and encourage all interested parties to apply. This position is mainly working on a large new project called the Teacher Demographic Dividend. Nearly half of all publicly employed teachers are aged 50+ and will therefore retire in the next 10-15 years. This will bring both challenges and opportunities.
RESEP is collegial and friendly and we enjoy working with each other. We are also big on creating opportunities for people to grow into new roles.
For more information for this position see below and apply HERE (deadline 5 Dec 2022).
Helpful 2022 report by Equal Education Law Center (EELC) on Underperforming Schools and outlining the existing provisions in the South African Schools Act (specifically 16A and 58B)
Gustafsson & Taylor (2022) RISE report on “The Politics of Improving Learning Outcomes in South Africa” and presentation here. The presentation’s visualisation of one of the key frameworks is nicer than the report’s version, although still quite messy. I like the breakdown between ‘Rationalist Steerers’, ‘Professionalists’ and ‘Empiricists’
A new-ish paper by Das, Singh & Chang (2022) “Test scores and educational opportunities: Panel evidence from five low- and middle-income countries” is a sobering reminder of the primacy of family wealth and socioeconomic status: “A striking implication is that in every country, children from low SES backgrounds who are in the 80th percentile of test scores at age 12 have similar years of completed schooling at age 22 as children from high SES backgrounds who were at the 20th percentile of test scores.”
IEA published a list of “Factsheets” for International Large Scale Assessments (ILSAs), for example TIMSS 2019.
RTI (2021) Higher Grounds: Practical Guidelines for Forging Learning Pathways in Upper Primary Education
It’s that time of the year again! I’ll be teaching my postgraduate Applied Economics of Education course at Stellenbosch University. The course is pitched at the Honors level and runs from the 18th of July to mid-October 2022. The lectures are in-person from 11:15-13:15 on Mondays and in-person STATA pracs on Wednesdays 14:00-16:00, although the lectures are also likely to be live-streamed via Zoom. The full syllabus can be found HERE. 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 (ideal) 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, as well as those that can attend in-person in Stellenbosch. Note also that all auditors have to do the readings and hand in the weekly reading reflections as your price of entry. The list of readings can be found in the course outline.
Applications to audit the course close on 13 July 2022.
On the 31st of January and the 1st of February 2022 former Deputy President Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka launched a new initiative – the 2030 Reading Panel. The Chair (Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka) asked me to be the Secretary of the Panel and to write a Background Report documenting some of the research and evidence we have on reading outcomes in South Africa as well as interventions for which we have rigorous evaluations showing gains in learning outcomes. The full 2022 Background Report is available on the Reading Panel website and I will blog some of the main findings in another post.
In addition to the 2022 Background Report there are 13 Advisory Notes by a range of people working in the space of early grade reading in South Africa:
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.
The Right to Read and Write
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  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.
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.”
LRB: Stefan Collini always writes in a lucid and witty way and Snakes & Ladders is no exception. It’s about meritocracy and what it means. I’m currently working through McCloksey’s “Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics” so I really liked his riposte about the ladder of social mobility:
“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.”
Tablet: The New National American Elite: America is now ruled by a single elite class rather than by local patrician smart sets competing with each other for money and power. I loved the register more than anything else!
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 HEREdoc. 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:
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.
*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.
(3) Early grade reading in South Africa: What do we know?
*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.
(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.”
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 the “Sixth 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.
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.
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 theeNSPIRED 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!
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 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 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”
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.”
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.
This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick on the 27th of May 2021.
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.
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.
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:
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%)
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.
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.