Zizzamia`, Rocco Marco Antonio (2017). 'Economic vulnerability in South Africa: A mixed-methods investigation⁠' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


A basic condition of empowerment is the ability to exert agency over one’s economic fate and to be prepared to prevent descents into deprivation in the event of an economic shock. A large segment of the non-poor South African population is, despite being able to afford to meet basic needs in the present, unable to maintain this standard of living over time. Despite being “non-poor”, these people nevertheless fall short of meaningful social and economic empowerment. In addition, many of the poor move out of and back into poverty fairly frequently. These groups are very similar and swap places frequently. Together, they constitute 30 per cent of the total population (Schotte et al, forthcoming).


These groups are particularly interesting to the policy-minded researcher. Unlike the chronic poor, they have higher levels of human and social capital and are predominantly urban dwellers. Many of them live in households with a working member, but this work is typically highly precarious. As South Africa attempts to transition onto a more inclusive growth path, it’s relatively disadvantaged citizens will need to be included as creators of growth. Relative to the chronic poor, the transient/vulnerable classes are the best candidates to fulfil this role. Failure to achieve this inclusive growth will not only increase polarisation and perpetuate structural unemployment, but will also be politically costly for the ANC.


While in previous research I was able to identify and profile this group, the investigation into the economic precarity of this class was limited by the data at my disposal in three important ways:


  1. The longitudinal National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS, 2008-2014/15) allows limited insight into the labour market insertion of this group. It remains unclear how this group derives its income from the labour market, what kind of labour this involves, and in what circumstances job-seekers find and lose their jobs.

  2. We cannot learn about the livelihood strategies of this group from NIDS. We know little about how, and through what mechanisms, limited income accruing to particular people (wage earners/grant recipients) is distributed to those who do not bring in income – both within and outside the household. This would require understanding, for example, how distributional claims are made on the income of others and how these claims are negotiated, how these distributional networks leave those reliant on them vulnerable to economic shocks, and how these people attempt to protect themselves against risks.

  3. NIDS is a panel which follows individuals and not households and is thus poorly equipped to reveal much about the relationship between changes in household composition and poverty transitions. Because consumption is measured at the household level, observed poverty transitions are extremely sensitive to changes in household composition. This matter is complicated by the fact that changes in household composition can both constitute economic shocks (i.e. an increase in the number of dependents), but equally could serve to protect against other economic shocks (i.e. limiting household size to minimise distributive claims on limited resources, or bringing in wage earners or grant recipients). NIDS data is unable to shed light on these complex inter- and intra-household dynamics.


To further investigate these important and understudied issues, I will undertake fieldwork in Cape Town and Johannesburg over July, August and September 2017. This qualitative fieldwork will primarily take the form of life-history and semi-structured interviews with households who would fall into the vulnerable/transient poor. A mixed-methods approach to studying these three issues will allow me to triangulate qualitative data with NIDS panel data, as well as with the Cape Area Panel Study. This approach will allow me to understand, in more textured detail, the determinants of vulnerability amongst this group of people. This understanding, in turn, will enable an understanding of what strategies could be used to improve the economic stability of this class, and ultimately what policies can be designed to establish the preconditions for the social and market incorporation of this group. 


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