Evidence-based policy research

Mandela Initiative newsletter (Issue 1, Nov 2016)


One of the key outcomes of the 2012 conference that launched the work of the Mandela Initiative (MI) – then called “Towards Carnegie3” – was to identify a set of thematic areas central to breaking the cycle of poverty and inequality in South Africa. This process was informed firstly by the over 300 papers from 19 of the country’s universities, and evidence from practice, presented at the conference. The final research themes and further research questions were carefully crafted with the help of some of the leading academics in poverty and inequality in the country, as this article explains.


Building on academic excellence

The initial shortlist of themes that emerged from the conference included the role of law; unemployment; using the land; urban and environmental challenges; health; government policy; job creators and community mobilisation. These areas were subsequently further distilled in light of the work that took place after the conference. They also resonate with some of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and are:

  • Education

  • Health

  • Social cohesion

  • Rural and urban renewal

  • Labour issues


The next task was to bring on board academics to lead further research in these thematic areas with the particular aim to inform and impact on policy. Several leading academics whose work relates to poverty and inequality and who are recipients of the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) of the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation (DST-NRF) were approached to get involved.

The end result was that nine of these DST-NRF South African Research Chairs signed up to take the empirical evidence-base forward. What makes the research approach unique is that it includes the participation of government policy-makers throughout the research process to ensure their input and buy-in – resulting in consideration and uptake of the findings at the end of the process.


A knowledge base for collective strategy

Think Tank member and vice chancellor of Wits University, Adam Habib, says there is great value in bringing into a conversation those DST-NRF South African Research Chairs whose work has relevance for addressing inequality: “It creates the research, and the ideas required.” Hence, as Lungisile Ntsebeza, DST-NRF South African Research Chair in Land Reform and Democracy in South Africa points out, he is “as a thought leader ideally positioned” to put the pertinent issue of land reform and democracy at the core of the MI agenda of addressing inequality and poverty in national dialogue. The same could be said for the other DST-NRF South African Research Chairs’ contributions to their respective themes. “This undoubtedly impacts significantly on policy”, says Ntsebeza.


What makes the approach unique is the participation of government policy-makers throughout the research process

Haroon Bhorat, the DST-NRF South African Research Chair in Economic Growth, Poverty and Inequality: Exploring Interactions for South Africa, explains that these research chairs’ “knowledge base” and participation in the Think Tank (which guides the MI strategically) “gives form and shape to the actual content that is discussed”. Ntsebeza further points out that the MI benefits directly from the “symbiotic mutually-beneficial relationship” between the DST-NRF South African Research Chairs and their academic units “in building research networks and resources” to work towards collective goals. On the other hand, according to the DST-NRF South African Research Chair in the Economics of Social Policy, Servaas Van der Berg, the additional research funding accessed through the initiative has helped to proceed with pending research in his field.


Education and social cohesion

Van der Berg’s contribution to the MI particularly relates to utilising the available data sources on education better to get a more comprehensive understanding of the relationship between education and poverty. Such insight is important, he explains, because quality education determines people’s position in the labour market. “What we want to understand is what’s going on in the schooling system – who makes it in spite of going to weak schools in the bottom three quintiles, and why?” More than 60% of South Africa’s children attend schools in these quintiles.

Dori Posel until recently held the DST-NRF South African Research Chair in Economic Development, and one aspect of her research for the MI will also enable insight into educational outcomes by using a new methodology to analyse survey data which have not been much explored to date. South Africa has been one of only a handful of countries that conducted two nationally representative time-use surveys (the latest in 2010) amongst about 39 000 respondents who kept “time-use diaries”. Posel’s study will have a distinct gender dynamic by looking at the division of labour between men and women, and between boys and girls, in the household.


Health Feature Child Health 3

Posel, who now holds the Helen Suzman Chair in Political Economy at Wits University, also plans to explore whether “patterns in the time-use behaviour of children are consistent with large race differences in educational outcomes, and therefore future inequality among children. The time use data remain an under-explored resource to better understand household dynamics in South Africa”. The other part of her research (which falls within the social cohesion theme) is also focusing on an overlooked dynamic: the role and nature of family formation in contributing to inequality, in particular by investigating the role of marriage in reproducing inequality.


Rural and urban renewal

Three research programmes are located in the rural and urban renewal theme. The first explores the spatial underpinnings of poverty and inequality by focusing on different dimensions of informalisation in townships and inner city areas in metropolitan cities. This work is headed by Edgar Pieterse, the DST-NRF South African Research Chair in Urban Policy, and Philip Harrison, DST-NRF South African Research Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning. The first phase of this body of research, undertaken by Harrison’s team at Wits University, provided an illuminating insight into the lives and experiences of people living and working in a basement in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. The next phase is building on this work through collaboration with Pieterse and his team at UCT.

Ben Cousins, DST-NRF South African Research Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies leads the second project within this theme. He says the fundamental research question of this work is to investigate how realistic the National Development Plan is with its target of creating one million new jobs in agriculture by 2030. The research focuses on a partial selection of commodities produced in South Africa – citrus, fresh produce from irrigation schemes, deciduous fruit, fisheries, and forestry. “Of particular value is exploring employment in communal areas – where about a third of the population lives – and in land reform projects.” The General Household Survey estimates 2.6 million households engage in agriculture; thus Cousins believes the potential of job creation in informal agriculture should be considered.


With land reform a burning issue, Ntsebeza and his team are hopeful that a model of successful land reform will emerge through their study – the third in the rural and urban theme. Ntsebeza’s work focuses on the Delindlala Communal Property Association (CPA), a group of villagers from Luphaphasi in the Eastern Cape, which took ownership of a 2009-hectare farm under the Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development Programme in 2001.

He explains that the use of a collaborative community-based research approach enables studying the CPA in depth by chronicling its evolution since inception, identifying factors that led to its successes, and searching for ways to overcome its remaining challenges to assist them to reach their goal to eradicate poverty by reaching self-sustainability largely through diary, beef and sheep farming. Such an emerging model of successful land reform, he says, “can have tangible influence on national policy and implementation”.


Labour issues

Bhorat also reflects with excitement on the possibilities of the MI research evidence to “feed into policy and community engagements”. Building on his existing body of work, the specific undertaking for the MI was to investigate two interlinked labour market issues: the economic consequences of sectoral minimum wage laws and the extent of minimum wage violation; and the size, shape and consequence of strike activity in the South African economy.

While work on the latter is still underway, Bhorat explains about the former: “The premise is that, in developing countries, the impact on employment from a minimum wage is muted – lower – than in developed countries, maybe because the minimum wage is violated. The data show this is actually happening – 50% of South Africa’s workers are paid below the minimum wage. We have done the research on measuring that, but this research now adds to that by saying, ‘if you are violating the minimum wage, as a firm, are you more or less likely to violate other parts of the law in labour market sectors’? So it starts with an understanding of what is going on.” This part of the study will also probe an area that is, surprisingly, overlooked in the literature: the impact of minimum wage legislation on household poverty levels.

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The health theme study is about the nature of redistribution associated with financing and delivering health services over the past decade, and how the health system can help improve income redistribution, with a particular emphasis on how government spending on such services can contribute to redistribution. Led by Diane McIntyre, DST-NRF South African Research Chair in Health and Wealth in South Africa, it explores the practical institutional arrangements needed to reduce inequality through in-kind services.


Read more about the research themes and topics


This article was written by Charmaine Smith, with much-appreciated contributions from:
Think Tank members: Haroon Bhorat, Adam Habib, Kelfiloe Masiteng, Lungisile Ntsebeza, Dorit Posel, Servaas van der Berg
Fact-checking and peer review: Haajirah Esau and Francis Wilson