By: Dr Tara Polzer Ngwato

In a time of crisis, all standards seem to change. What is the point of a trend if there is a sudden and unpredictable change in the pattern?

Events like the COVID-19 pandemic are known as Black Swans, meaning something that comes as a surprise, breaks with the expected ‘way things are’ and has a major effect on society, thereby disrupting the best-laid plans and predictions. How should we think about underlying trends in a country like South Africa when faced with such a Black Swan event? Do trends matter?

The Indlulamithi Scenarios are premised on the belief that trends matter a great deal. Unusually for a scenarios project, the Indlulamithi South African Scenarios 2030 project includes an annually updated Barometer which tracks the trajectory of 52 indicators, divided into indicators tracking the three key driving forces of the scenarios: social inequality, institutional capacity and leadership, and whether citizens are expressing resistance, resentment or reconciliation. How these indicators change each year allows us to interpret which of the three scenarios our reality seems to be moving toward.

The results of the 2020 Barometer are scheduled to be released on 21 June 2020 – Indlulamithi Day. But won’t all the indicators have gotten much worse, due to the COVID-19 crisis and the impacts on the economy? Will the Barometer still have anything useful to tell us about the country’s underlying fundamentals?

There are three ways in which underlying trends remain extremely important in times of crisis, which means we need to continue to monitor and debate them. Firstly, existing inequality and socio-economic vulnerability are exacerbated by a crisis – as has been repeatedly pointed out about COVID-19. Understanding the nature of our underlying inequality is therefore crucial for supporting the groups who are most vulnerable in a crisis. Before the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, the Barometer showed that most of the country’s socio-economic indicators, were already pointing towards the worst-case Gwara Gwara scenario in 2018-2019 and getting worse in 2019 and early 2020.

For example, three different unemployment measures were on a worsening trend already: overall unemployment went from 27.1% to 28.5% year on year, unemployment among people with advanced education from 12% to 13.6% and youth not in employment, education or training (NEET) from 31.5% to 32.5%.  Since unemployment is the most important predictor of poverty, this means an increase in overall deprivation. Most of the high-level health indicators were improving, however, including the under-5 mortality rate, the maternal mortality rate, and overall life expectancy. So, while our focus is understandably on the health care system, this crisis is also an opportunity to find the resources and creative ideas to reverse the trend of ineffective ‘business as usual’ policies around employment and poverty.

Secondly, the stability and legitimacy of institutions before a crisis is a strong predictor of their ability to function effectively during a crisis. In 2018-2019, three-quarters of the indicators for institutional capacity and leadership placed us in the I’Sbhujwa and Nayi le Walk scenarios suggesting a generally positive outlook, with the low-performing indicators in small business support, climate adaptation, and local government financial management capacity. Clear national government decision-making has been crucial in enabling South Africa to successfully ‘flatten the curve’ of COVID-19 infections so far. In terms of the outlook for post-COVID-19 reconstruction, the capacity to rebuild the small business sector will be crucial, so it is important to focus on how this crisis can support reforms in this already weak sector. In addition, the crucial element of citizen leadership capacity, meaning the ability and willingness of citizens to self-organise to support each other, and to take an active part in crisis management by self-enforcing the required behaviour change, has been amply demonstrated in the last few weeks.

Which brings us to the third relationship between underlying trends and crises – how the spirit of a country shapes people’s reactions to exceptional circumstances. The Indlulamithi Scenarios project overall asks ‘can social cohesion be achieved in South Africa’, and the third key driving force of the scenario narratives speaks about whether feelings of resentment, resistance or reconciliation predominate in the country.

In 2018-2019, Barometer findings pointed to concerns about corruption and the general trajectory of the country, and contestation about fundamental identity issues and traumas including land but found generally positive levels of trust in the country’s institutions and laws. Even as the impact of the virus and the lockdown response is impacting very differently on South Africa’s rich and poor, there have been unprecedented levels of solidarity from large corporates and individual citizens supporting those in need.

Despite high personal and institutional costs, there have been high levels of support for government’s policy decisions. This reaction should not be taken for granted, given South Africa’s history of divisions and suspicion, which could have hardened the enclave mentality that often accompanies structural inequality. It remains to be seen whether the signs of social cohesion and social compacting which are emerging through the crisis survive a lengthy infection control period and the economic ravages of the aftermath. As the future unfolds, the structure of the Indlulamithi Scenarios and the Barometer’s trend indicators allow us to keep our sights on the full range of forces that shape how the country is likely to emerge from under this Black Swan.


Dr Tara Polzer Ngwato is a Director at Social Surveys Africa, which produces the annually updated Indlulamithi Barometer.