How ordinary South Africans are shaping national policy
Thousands of South Africans have helped policymakers in government and the private sector stay informed during the COVID-19 pandemic by answering questions about their everyday lives for the NIDS-CRAM survey. Here’s why their contribution matters.
On Thursday 18 February 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed parliament. During his address, he spoke about how new data – drawn from the third wave of the NIDS-CRAM survey – shows that employment across South Africa has almost recovered to pre-pandemic levels but that more South Africans than ever before are going hungry.
President Ramaphosa may have been addressing members of parliament, but his words would have been seen and heard by many different kinds of South Africans across the country.
When he explained that NIDS-CRAM is a nationally representative study borne out of a collaboration of several South African universities, his words may well have been heard by a grandmother listening to her radio in Makhanda.
Later, a businesswoman in Durban may have watched a news report in which the President explained the important role that such data plays in keeping government up-to-date about the everyday realities of South African citizens.
The day after the speech a teacher in Polokwane may have read a quote by the President in a newspaper, in which he said: “Research like this has helped to inform our response to the pandemic from the beginning, and it will continue to inform our choices as we guide our economy towards recovery.”
What few of these people may have realised, however, is that the research the President described was made possible by the contribution of ordinary South Africans just like themselves.
Joining a national conversation
Ayanda Reddy [not her real name] is one such South African. Ayanda is a semi-retired professional who lives in one of South Africa’s largest cities. During 2020 she agreed to become a respondent for the NIDS-CRAM survey after previously participating in the longstanding NIDS (the National Income Dynamics Study). NIDS-CRAM was borne out of NIDS when it became clear that there was a great need to gain insight into how the pandemic was affecting South African households. In Reddy’ case this has meant that she has made herself available to answer a set of questions, asked by a professional surveyor, over the phone.
“So far I have answered two rounds of survey questions,” she explains.
“It is not always easy to find the time to complete the survey but you can say when you are available to speak to the surveyors and in fact it only takes about 20 minutes or so to go through the questions.”
According to Reddy the questions cover everything from what kind of dwelling she lives in, to her health, attitude towards COVID-19 and whether or not she is employed.
“The questions are not difficult to answer, they are all just about my day to day life but I have found that some of them are repetitive. For example, at the beginning of the survey I explained that I live alone but then later on when it came to the section on food they asked how many people eat meals at my house. The surveyor did explain however that they have to ask the same questions of everybody so they can compare our answers properly.”
Why did Reddy decide to become a respondent?
“I thought it was important to speak up if I had the chance. It is very important that the people who make decisions about things on a national level, things that affect all of us in our personal lives, like whether schools are open or who gets a social grant, make these decisions based on as much reliable and up-to-date information as possible. Ordinary people like myself don’t have the chance to speak to decision makers in person but through surveys like NIDS-CRAM I feel I am joining an important national conversation.”
Reddy also liked that additional questions had been added to the second survey she completed.
“There were more questions about mental health and I felt that the researchers had heard what people like myself had said the first time around and added relevant questions. As someone who lives by myself the threat of being socially isolated during lockdown was a very real danger for me and I liked that this kind of information was being recorded and would show how things change over time.”
This is one of the strengths of a longitudinal study such as NIDS-CRAM. Respondents in such a study are contacted numerous times, sometimes over a period of months or even years, which means the data that researcher’s gather can be used to create a very accurate picture of people’s lived realities.
Amplifying ordinary voices
So how exactly do the answers provided by people such as Reddy end up as the kind of data that the President of South Africa tells parliament about?
Associate Professor Reza Daniels works at the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU), based at the University of Cape Town. He is the SALDRU Principal Investigator for the NIDS-CRAM project.
“So far we have completed three waves, or broad sets of data, as part of the NIDS-CRAM project,” he explains.
Daniels explains that this data is collected roughly every three months when respondents are asked a prescribed set of questions. Some of these questions remain the same so that NIDS-CRAM can capture the ways that a respondent’s life has changed over time, other questions change from one survey to the next.
To illustrate how this works Daniels gives the example of employment: “A respondent can be employed in Wave 1, but lose their job in Wave 2, then regain a job in Wave 3. By collating and analysing this information from thousands of respondents we can then show the impact of national lockdowns on the labour market by showing that the percentage of people employed (including furloughed workers) has changed from 57% before lockdown (February 2020), to 48% in Stage 5 of lockdown (April 2020), to 48% in Stage 3 of lockdown (June 2020), and was 55% in Stage 1 of lockdown in October last year.”
On the other hand, new events happen that need to be understood. Daniels points to the fact that vaccines have recently started entering South Africa as a case in point.
“In the upcoming Wave 5 of NIDS-CRAM we will now add a new question about vaccine use by our sample of respondents. This will help researchers estimate how many people are receiving the vaccine, and help inform government about their progress on this important matter.”
This is also why the attrition of respondents, when people choose to drop out of the study, presents a challenge to researchers.
Prospective NIDS-CRAM respondents are selected to participate in the survey in such a way that the sample is representative of the demographics of South Africa as a whole, in terms of age, race and gender. If respondents drop out, this representativeness is compromised.
Telling an accurate story
According to Reddy this is not a danger in her case.
“I do plan to continue being a part of NIDS-CRAM and perhaps in the future of other related surveys because I like to feel like I am making my voice heard. Even though I am just one of many I know that the information I provide is helping to paint a picture of what South Africa is like and in a country like ours where there is so much inequality it’s really important that people in government have a clear picture of what is going on.”
Daniels agrees. “Participation in the survey is important because it helps researchers explain what is happening to the people of South Africa to government and the broader community. If respondents stop participating, our ability to accurately capture and communicate these findings are compromised.”
NIDS-CRAM takes the utmost care to ensure that all respondents remain anonymous so in reality Daniels and Reddy will never knowingly cross paths. All the same if Daniels could say one thing to Reddy and the other respondents who have participated in NIDS-CRAM it would be this:
“Your participation in our survey is the most important factor in telling an accurate story about what is happening in South Africa today.”