Another reason to make friends
The promise and pitfalls of social mobility in South Africa since 1994
Meet Tsholofelo. She is 18 years old and has just completed high school in Mahikeng, North West. Her parents never had the chance to study beyond grade 8, but unlike many of her friends’ parents, they are fortunate to have jobs at a local factory and retailer.
Tsholofelo did well in school, so well that she could attend university. Although her parents cannot afford to send her, a government grant will allow her to study for free. But things will not be easy. She knows no one with a degree. She has no idea of which university or what degree to choose. Because her friend knows someone who studied law at UJ, that is where she decides to go and what she chooses to study. But life in Joburg is not cheap, and just like almost all of her peers, she will struggle to cope with the academic and social pressures of student life. Most of her first-year friends will never graduate.
Fast forward five years. Tsholofelo would make it against the odds. Her parents will attend her graduation ceremony, ululating as she walks across the stage. They have great expectations of her future: a job, an income, a husband, a family, a safety net.
Sadly, the euphoria of graduation would soon sink to frustration and then misery. Tsholofelo cannot find a job. She moves back to Mahikeng, back to her old room. She finds a part-time job as an assistant in the same shopping centre where her mother works. The bright future that she and her parents had envisioned for her – the one she had worked hard for her entire life – seems but a distant memory.
Tsholofelo is a fictional person, but her story echoes the lives of millions of South African youth. Born after 1994, children of the Rainbow Nation, Tsholofelo and her generation were to be the ones that finally lifted the economic yoke of apartheid. And there was indeed much to be optimistic about. Across all measures, the first thirteen years of democracy undoubtedly brought a better life for all. Inflation came down, government debt fell, and, notably, economic growth accelerated. By 2007, it was above 5%. The bigger the cake, the more government could redistribute. Social transfers increased not only in absolute numbers but also as a share of a larger budget. It was not just money in pockets; households like that of Tsholofelo suddenly had access to government-provided running water, sanitation, and electricity. This had direct benefits: a multidimensional poverty index calculated between 1993 and 2010 fell from 37% to 8%.
Make no mistake, this was no easy task. The South Africa the new ANC government inherited was not in the best of shape. A decade of high inflation, negative growth and spiraling government debt had made for an unstable macroeconomic environment. The new government had to balance macroeconomic frugality with pressures to increase and redistribute spending. Some tailwinds helped: a growing global economy open to new investments abroad and rising commodity prices that boosted one of South Africa’s primary export industries. But there were also headwinds: a 1997 Asian financial crisis that rocketed interest rates above 20% and an HIV/Aids pandemic that caused immense harm as the government dallied on scientifically proven cures. It is very likely that many in Tsholofelo’s community would have suffered the consequences of this stasis.
Then came a political shift. Gone were the market-friendly approaches of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. Jacob Zuma, the new president, favoured state-led development: the term developmental state gained wide popularity. The size and salaries of the public workforce increased rapidly. The budget turned negative. And growth slowed and then halted. State development ultimately became state capture.
Had Tsholofelo’s parents worked for the government, her life would have been much different. Aside, of course, from increasing power outages that, euphuistically, was called load shedding. And the deteriorating road and rail infrastructure, water treatments, and increasing criminal activity.
Yet Zuma’s willingness to push through free university education did make a meaningful difference for those able to get into university but without the means to support themselves. Tsholofelo’s was one of the lucky few to benefit from this. Only four out of every 100 Grade 1 students who began the journey with her 18 years ago would go on to study at university.
Covid-19 made things much worse, of course. Again, Tsholofelo is fortunate: she found a job. Many of her generation have not. South Africa officially has the highest unemployment rate in the world. It is simply impossible to escape poverty without the ability to enter the formal labour market.
There is thus no debating the fact that South Africa’s economy must grow, just like it did in the 2000s, for poverty to fall and for living standards to improve. But social mobility requires more than just a growing economy. In fact, as fascinating new research now shows, there is much households and government can do to encourage upward mobility even when the economy is not providing much support.
Ray Chetty is a wunderkid. Born in New Delhi and now a professor of economics at Harvard, Chetty is a recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal and a MacArthur Fellow. He is almost certainly a future Nobel Prize winner in Economics. Chetty studies economic opportunity in the United States. Utilising massive datasets, he has shown how important it is to grow up in the ‘right’ neighbourhood, how your kindergarten teacher can affect your lifetime earnings, and how the American dream is fading: most kids born in the US today are likely to end up poorer than their parents.
As these questions suggest, it is social mobility that Chetty is most interested in: what allows a high-potential but poor American child – much like Tsholofelo in South Africa – to climb the social ladder and join the elite? More specifically: what hurdles prevent their upward mobility? And what can be done about it?
Chetty and his team of collaborators have identified many determinants. I find the effects of a good kindergarten teacher most fascinating. But his latest research, published in Nature in August 2022, is even more impressive. He identifies social capital – the strength of an individual’s social network and community – as a strong predictor of upward social mobility. How does he do it? He and his team use data on 21 billion friendships from Facebook. They investigate three types of social capital: 1) a measure of connectedness between people of different income groups (like rich and poor people), 2) a measure of social cohesion (how cliquey a community is) and 3) a measure of civic engagement (the rate of volunteering, for example).
Which one of these measures predicts upward social mobility best? In their first paper, they show that, above all else, it is connectedness that matters. Poor people that have a larger ratio of their friends that are rich are more likely to move up. This is even more important than other things that we traditionally think of as important: segregation, for example, or the average mathematics score.
In a second paper, also published in Nature, Chetty and his team investigate this measure of connectedness further. They find that half of it consists of a lack of exposure: poor people simply do not interact with rich people, and therefore cannot become friends. The other half, they find, is explained by what they call a friending bias: the preference to associate with people of your own socioeconomic status, even if you are exposed to other people. Think of kids in schools that sit together with friends from their own socioeconomic background.
It is important to understand which of these effects are important because that helps us inform policy. If lack of exposure dominates and friending bias is low, then the obvious policy conclusion is simply to encourage more exposure, perhaps in schools or sports teams. But if the friending bias is high (meaning people are exposed to one another but do not interact and connect), then interaction should be encouraged.
Researchers in South Africa do not have access to the rich data that Chetty and his collaborators have. We cannot (yet) tell whether social capital is as important to Tsholofelo and her generation as it is to kids in America. We also do not know whether it is exposure or friendship bias that frustrate social mobility in South Africa. But even in the fictional story of Tsholofelo, the lack of networks (of social capital) should be obvious: she did not know what to study or where to study because she knew no one with a university degree. Had she had friends that could give her good advice or perhaps put her in touch with a likely employer, her chances of upward social mobility would have been much better.
The optimism of the first decade of South Africa’s democracy has disappeared. In its place is a generation that is aggrieved and angry at the slow progress of the last fifteen years. Yes, we need the economy to return to positive economic growth. That is obvious though not easy. But we can do more. Building social capital, as Chetty’s research shows, can be important in building bridges that allow for upward social mobility. How we promote such interaction requires much more research, but perhaps it is as simple as making new Facebook friends or joining a soccer team from a different neighbourhood.
Tsholofelo means ‘hope’ in Tswana. Though there is much to be pessimistic about at present, research on social mobility may offer some hope of finding innovative solutions to one of the most vexing questions of our time: how to build a more equitable, prosperous society? Without it, there can be no promise of a better future at the end of the rainbow.
An edited version of this post was first published by Old Mutual’s Mindspace Magazine. Photo by Jessica Alves on Unsplash.