The Mandela Initiative in a nutshell

Mandela Initiative newsletter (Issue 1, Nov 2016)


Four years ago, the conference “Strategies to Overcome Poverty and Inequality in South Africa” was hosted by the University of Cape Town (UCT). This was no ordinary conference confined to the ivory towers of academia: it linked, in a meaningful way, academic experts with government officials, non-profit organisations and church leaders. Importantly, it did not end with a conference report. Instead, the five-day event heralded the beginning of a process to connect minds and practices aimed at shifting the country’s poverty and inequality challenges. This is its story to date.

The initiative was originally known as “Towards Carnegie3” – this title played on the history of the Carnegie inquiries of the 1930s and 1980s which took stock of South Africa’s poverty challenges. It is, however, unique in its inclusivity of multi-sectoral role-players, and with equality at its core. The initiative emerged at the request of the National Planning Commission – then headed by Finance Minister Trevor Manuel – who encouraged UCT’s Poverty and Inequality Planning Group (later incorporated in the Poverty and Inequality Initiative – PII) to take the lead by linking the academic capabilities located in the country’s universities with civil society, the corporate sector, and government. The PII is a vice-chancellor strategy to mobilise the university’s poverty and inequality work to address South Africa’s development challenges.

The mission was clear: start thinking creatively about effective action to realise the poverty and inequality reduction goals of the National Development Plan, the county’s blueprint for development by 2030.


closing shot fw and guests


Partnerships and collaboration

Since then, much groundwork has been done, often quietly and without fanfare, and largely with the assistance of staff from UCT’s PII and the MI’s national coordinator, Francis Wilson, an emeritus professor at UCT. A major development has been the Nelson Mandela Foundation joining as a strategic partner in 2015, which prompted a name change to the “Mandela Initiative”. CEO Sello Hatang explains that the Mandela brand and the Foundation’s platforms enable maximum reach of and “buy-in” from citizens across the country: “Thus, the Foundation serves as an interlocutor between various groups and individuals as both a convenor and facilitator.”


The mission was clear: start thinking creatively about effective action to reduce poverty and inequality

Convening critical role-players and change agents from different sectors, and facilitating dialogue, research and collective thinking, is what the MI is all about. Wilson emphasises the integrated approach that fans out with a network of universities, and not just UCT where it is based administratively. The empirical evidence located in these institutions are enriched by the involvement of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who, says Wilson, “are usually not considered as serious producers of knowledge … but they have first-hand experience”.


The MI also engages with other sectors of society, including the private sector and others who are involved in the economy, to access the “indigenous and grassroots knowledge” located in these groupings, says Hatang. And, while it is non-party political, it has serious buy-in, both in money and time, from government at all three levels. A key partner in this regard is the Programme to Support Pro-Poor Policy Development in the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency.


The three pillars

The work of the MI has emerged organically since 2012, says Wilson. “It has been feeling its way. And it’s moving towards an inclusive national debate on our poverty and inequality issues.”

Today, however, there are three distinct streams that contribute to the MI approach:

  • Eight research programmes on key themes central to breaking the persistent cycle of poverty and inequality in South Africa, led by recipients of the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) of the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation (DST-NRF);

  • A Think Tank of committed, high-profile academics, government officials and civil society leaders to give strategic guidance to the collective work of the Think Tank, and who each lead poverty and inequality initiatives in their own sectors; and

  • A series of themed action dialogues that aim to feed expert knowledge – from academics and practitioners – into strategies and productive projects that can shift poverty and inequality.


An interlinked approach

The organic nature of the MI approach results in much “cross-fertilisation” across the three pillars. For example, while the research programmes are still in the field, the DST-NRF South African Research Chairs are also Think Tank members; so their expertise contributes to the strategic guidance from that body, while they at times also lead or participate in the action dialogues. Members of the Think Tank, through engagement at bi-annual meetings, take back burning issues to their own sectors and institutions for further dialogue and action, or bring knowledge about poverty and inequality initiatives to the Think Tank, which in turn informs who to engage in action dialogues. This “interlinked” approach is useful, says Think Tank member and DST-NRF South African Research Chair Servaas van der Berg, a professor in economics at Stellenbosch University, even though the linkages are not formal.

The sharing of lessons, promoting knowledge about best practices, and highlighting the remaining challenges are critical

The presence of senior government policy-makers on the Think Tank results in what DST-NRF South African Research Chair Haroon Bhorat, head of UCT’s Development Policy Research Unit and also a Think Tank member, calls “dynamic conversations” that illuminate government’s need for specific evidence. For Kefiloe Masiteng, deputy-director of Population and Social Statistics at Statistics South Africa, participation in the Think Tank also enables the country’s national statistics service to contribute to the discourse on poverty.

By involving non-profit organisations, both government and the academics also get to learn about the “day-to-day lives of poor people, the unemployed, the destitute”, says Bhorat.


A social pact for long-term solutions

For Thank Tank member Adam Habib, vice chancellor of Wits University, the MI approach is what a social pact is really meant to be, namely “bringing academics, NGOs, foundations, activists and the broader public into a conversation”. As such, in the words of his Think Tank colleague, Wilmot James, member of parliament and the Shadow Minister of Health, the MI provides “a forum to help understand the context, frame questions and define solutions to solving national interest problems like poverty”.

Ultimately, the MI is an “all-hands-on-deck” approach, explains Murray Leibbrandt, the UCT Pro-Vice Chancellor for Poverty and Inequality.


Towards the next phase

Sixteen action dialogues and related workshops have been facilitated since the process began, with plans falling into place for more in 2017. The initiative is now moving towards a more concerted communication phase to link all of the work. Masiteng believes the sharing of lessons, of promoting knowledge about best practices, and highlighting the remaining challenges need to form a critical part of the communication.

The MI website will play an important role in this regard, with plans to feature promising innovations to reduce poverty and inequality in the coming months. This will help to realise the MI’s vision of creating an online repository for such work.

In 2017, says Wilson, all streams of research work will be brought together: the research programmes, the action dialogues, and evidence collated by the REDI3X3 project, a collaboration between UCT and National Treasury. The aim is to identify key areas that can shift poverty and inequality at a national level, and particularly to impact on government policy.


Water to replace tyres stock image


“It’s about taking the lessons of particularly good initiatives and asking: ‘How are we making these happen at a national level?’” While not all such innovations would be appropriate to scale up nationally, “some successful innovation models could be ‘multiplied’ in different areas where it would be appropriate by getting practitioners to introduce the same type of innovation there’.

“You have got to ask that question all the time: ‘How do the lessons of brilliant innovations already in place in South Africa become the national experience?’ And it varies, which shows there are no silver bullets to fixing poverty and inequality.”


This article was written by Charmaine Smith, with much-appreciated contributions from:
Think Tank members: Haroon Bhorat, Adam Habib, Sello Hatang, Wilmot James, Murray Leibbrandt, Kelfiloe Masiteng, Francis Wilson, Servaas van der Berg
Fact-checking and peer review: Haajirah Esau and Francis Wilson