A wonderful transition in SALDRU to be celebrated

Image: Murray Leibbrandt. Credit: National Research Foundation.

The move from June into July heralds an important leadership transition moment for SALDRU. But allow me to look backwards for some context to this moment. On 3 July, our Vice-Chancellor will host the first annual Francis Wilson Memorial Lecture in partnership with SALDRU and DataFirst. Nobel Laureate, Professor Sir Angus Deaton, will deliver a lecture titled “The politics of numbers: economists confront poverty and inequality”. I cannot imagine a more fitting tribute to Francis and to all of us who currently work within the SALDRU that Francis started in 1975. The focus of my narrative here is on this latter group, that have worked with me for the last twenty plus years during which I have had the joy and privilege of serving as SALDRU’s Director.

In SALDRU @30, Dudley Horner, SALDRU’s long-time Deputy Director and the authoritative chronicler of the Francis Wilson era, says the following about that earlier transition moment in the middle of 2001 when Francis gave up the Directorship of SALDRU in order to become the Founding Director of DataFirst:

“Saldru in its new guise would consist of the director (Murray Leibbrandt) from 1 September 2001, the deputy director (Dudley Horner) and the secretary/administrator (Brenda Adams) (p.20).”

SALDRU @30 was published in 2005 and is largely a detailed description of the Francis Wilson era.

SALDRU@50 looms ahead in 2025! Clearly much has happened since our rather humble start to this era. Our longevity is a wonderful tribute to the committed generations of Saldrupians who have taken on Francis’s mantle. This is a story of largescale, ambitious surveys and much careful research undertaken by a group of researchers who, through their research, have developed SALDRU into an international centre of excellence in the areas of poverty, inequality, and labour markets over the last two decades. This group exemplifies a SALDRU that continues to have a unique role and raison d’être nationally and, increasingly into our continent.

I am sure that you will all agree that this is a remarkable story. Even so, this is a very long span of time to be split over two directors. Contemporary SALDRU is in a strong state and is blessed with a strong and committed senior leadership group. This gives SALDRU a hard-earned possibility for virtuous and natural internal leadership transitions. Such opportunities cannot be taken for granted and, in my view, this one needed to be exercised. The senior leadership have honoured this and have engaged over the last few years with each other and with all in our Unit. This has been a full, honest discussion over succession and the size and shape of our SALDRU going forward. The advice of many of our national and international collaborators was sought, including through the University Research Committee’s five yearly research accreditation process of SALDRU in 2021. From the second half of 2022 this succession discussion became more formal, and oriented around me stepping aside as the Director in the middle of 2023.

In early 2023, the senior leadership invited Professor Reza Daniels to succeed me as the new Director of SALDRU. He has accepted this offer, and will move from being the Head of Department of the University of Cape Town’s School of Economics into this role, as of 1 January 2024. Professor Cally Ardington will serve as Interim Director of SALDRU from August 2023 to December 2023. SALDRU’s Deputy Director, Professor Vimal Ranchhod, remains in this role going forward, which provides a strong source of continuity. Clearly, SALDRU has forged a wonderfully optimal outcome from its careful succession process. Allow me to dwell on this leadership team a little.

In 2003, in the early days of my tenure as Director of SALDRU, I was on sabbatical leave at the University of Michigan. Each of these now eminent SALDRU researchers appears in my photographs from this time! Reza and Cally were there to participate in the some of the many courses in the design and analysis of survey data that the Institute for Social Research offers each US summer. Vimal was there as a PhD student. My photographs reflect notably younger versions of each of us, gently making the point that each one of this new leadership team has been part of the SALDRU family from very early on in my tenure as Director.

Indeed, in retrospect, this early training was preparation for their work at the heart of forging our contemporary SALDRU. Reza returned to the summer training a year later, at considerable personal financial cost, to complete the required summer courses needed for a formal diploma. Over subsequent years he went on to write a PhD on data quality and earnings data, leading to his 2022 book. He also served as a principal investigator for a number of waves of the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS), one of SALDRU’s flagship projects of this era. He then served as co-principal investigator of the NIDS-CRAM study, which was a remarkable national response from South Africa’s social science community to the COVID-19 pandemic and a great example of SALDRU’s contemporary contribution into this community. On completing his PhD at the University of Michigan, Vimal took up a post-doctoral fellowship in SALDRU as part of the NIDS team, also serving as a NIDS principal investigator over subsequent waves. Recently, he was asked to take responsibility for leading the labour theme within the NIDS-CRAM consortium, evincing his status as one of this country’s top labour economists. Post-2003, Cally became the hub of the SALDRU team that co-led the Cape Area Panel Study, arguably the flagship project of the first decade of this era. Alongside this, she wrote an award-winning PhD thesis and went on to forge a stellar academic career. Her influential work evaluating the impacts of social policies has placed her as one of South Africa’s highest regarded economists, with the ratings system of the National Research Foundation providing the evidence to back this statement.

Each one of this group has used their skills to mentor and train many younger researchers in the craft, commitment and responsibilities of doing SALDRU-type research. Those mentored and trained include several of the middle to senior researchers in contemporary SALDRU, perfectly illustrating the intergenerational process that has built SALDRU to the present.

There are other key members of the current SALDRU leadership group who have joined this team en route and who have contributed greatly through their research, their mentoring, and their policy engagement. Readers of this newsletter over the last few years will have witnessed some of their amazing work.

My “term” as Director of SALDRU spans the major part of my life as an academic and as a researcher. I could not have found a better home to do what I always felt I was meant to be doing. It has been an extraordinary privilege to do my research work with my research colleagues and close friends in SALDRU. This has been deeply fulfilling. Our work together in building SALDRU and in being SALDRU has been a tailor-made calling for me.

Earlier, I said that I was “stepping aside” as the Director of SALDRU at the end of July. I used this expression intentionally. The senior leadership could not have done better in honouring my request to seize this moment to effect optimal succession. Given this, it is with huge pride and peace in my heart that I formally step aside and entrust SALDRU to Reza, Cally, Vimal, the senior leadership and to all in this precious SALDRU family.

I will take a year’s sabbatical leave starting in August 2023. But having clearly stepped aside as the Director, and for as long as this enjoys the approval of those in SALDRU, I plan to “do a Francis” and remain within the SALDRU family, working under the new leadership. I have projects to run and lots of work to continue with the talented SALDRU team.

My narrative of the last 22 years has been very selective, hopefully providing enough context for all of us to fully celebrate the current leadership transition. But such broad brushstrokes omit many important details and contributions. SALDRU has flourished in partnership with an extraordinary group of international and national friends and funders. Myself and all in SALDRU know this and are so grateful for your resonance with our mission and the way that you have worked alongside us to effect it. I am sure that you know who you are and know your valuable part in this phase in SALDRU’s life.

It is wonderful for all of us to pause and be affirmed in the knowledge that we have built a SALDRU that Francis Wilson was so proud of; with “our hearts on fire and our heads on ice”. It is also wonderful to know that there’s still so much work to be done, with our talented new leadership in place to lead us forward.