Changing socio-spatial inequalities

Changing Socio-Spatial Inequalities: population change and the lived experience of inequality in urban South Africa

This project was led by Prof Chris Lloyd at Queen’s University Belfast. The collaboration involves both SASPRI and the Human Sciences Research Council.

South Africa continues to be a deeply unequal society with markedly different standards of living across population groups (or race) and spatially. The current evidence base concerning inequality in South Africa is relatively small, and says little about the changing geographies of inequalities, the associated impacts which are felt on the ground as individuals’ ‘lived experience’ of inequality, and consequences for the urban social fabric of the country. In this project quantitative and qualitative methods are combined to examine the interplay between urban spatial transformation and social attitudes towards inequality, attachment to place, and social inclusion. The first stages of this work entailed profiling the populations of small areas, mapping change in populations over these areas, and measuring spatial inequalities between neighbourhoods. The next stages of the research involve new primary data collection through a series of focus groups and through a new module of questions in the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS). Finally, the quantitative measures of spatial inequality will be linked to the new quantitative data on attitudes to, and experiences of, inequalities in urban areas of South Africa.

The project is divided into four main themes:

  1. Mapping the changing geographies of inequality across South Africa (quantitative)
  2. Understanding where, when and how people experience inequality and how this affects their attachment to place and sense of inclusion (qualitative)
  3. Surveying people’s experiences of inequality and their attitudes to inequality (quantitative)
  4. Testing whether people’s attitudes to inequality are associated with their experiences of inequality using new/refined dependent and independent variables (quantitative).

The project built upon an earlier ESRC Pathfinder project which was undertaken by members of SASPRI: ‘The relationship between spatial inequality and attitudes to inequality in post-apartheid South Africa’. The final project report from the earlier ESRC Pathfinder project is available for download via this link



Theme 1 of the project focussed on the extraction and processing of data from the 1996, 2001 and 2011 Censuses of South Africa. Selected variables are providing the basis for a detailed analysis of population change over small areas between 1996 and 2011. Key variables include age, gender, race, employment, educational attainment, housing type, disability and health. The data are available at a variety of spatial levels from Statistics South Africa. Given that the small areas used to report counts in 1996, 2001 and 2011 differ, the second stage of analysis entails the transfer of counts from 1996, 2001 and 2011 geographies to a common output system. This is based on a combination of (i) standard GIS overlay procedures and (ii) use of spatial information on the changing distribution of population within South Africa, including classified Landsat remotely imagery. The data have been successfully translated to 250m x 250m grid cells for the whole of South Africa.

The second stage of the analysis focussed on profiling small areas of South Africa in 1996, 2001 and 2011. This entailed characterising areas by their demographic, social, economic and migration profiles, but also by their racial composition. The emerging findings from this stage of the work informed the selection of geographical areas targeted for qualitative fieldwork (see below). The South African Index of Multiple Deprivation (Noble and Wright 2013) provided an important starting point both in terms of identifying key facets of deprivation but also for developing measures of spatial inequality.  Spatial inequalities link to the notion of residential segregation and the team are developing a suite of measures of key dimensions of social, economic and racial segregation within small areas (see McLennan et al., 2015).

Since the conclusion of the main project, work under this theme is proceeding under the auspices of a QUB impact acceleration grant. Since the conclusion of the main project, work under this theme is proceeding under the auspices of a QUB impact acceleration grant.

As part of the original project, Indices of Multiple Deprivation comprising income poverty, education deprivation, employment deprivation, and living environment deprivation were constructed from census data for two time points: 2001 and 2011. Harmonised indicators and domains were constructed which allowed comparability between the two time points. It was also possible to construct the indices using constant 2011 Ward boundaries. Summaries of these indices were presented at local municipality, district municipality and provincial levels. Download the original report here.

It became clear that over the decade between 2001 and 2011, wards and their parent municipalities had changed at varying rates over time, with some wards/municipalities having become relatively less deprived on various domains and on the overall index, whilst others had become relatively more deprived.

This has important policy implications. Increasingly South Africa has become committed to evidence-based policy-making. By examining areas of relative improvement over time and interrogating the nature of that improvement, prima facie cases can be made to further explore the relationship between local interventions and their impact on poverty and multiple deprivation.

In order to develop further the original analysis, a further (and more recent) data point – 2016 was made possible by analysis of the Community Survey 2016 which was undertaken by Statistics South Africa. This is a large-scale survey representative down to local municipality level. The 2016 data were explored with a view to extending the timeline of the research. Though it was not possible to replicate the analysis for all four of the domains in the original harmonised indices, it was possible, at local municipality level, to replicate the Education Deprivation Domain, the Employment Deprivation Domain and the Living Environment Deprivation Domain. The Living Environment Deprivation Domain is particularly important because this represents service delivery – access to water, access to electricity, access to sanitation and living in informal dwellings. From other research we know this domain correlates very highly with income poverty. Moreover, local municipalities have responsibility to remedy the deprivations represented in this domain. The outputs from this further research will be of particular relevence to policy formulation at the municipality level and should provide information on best practice which could be replicated elsewhere in the country.


McLennan, D., Noble, M. and Wright, G. (2015) ‘Developing a spatial measure of exposure to socio-economic inequality in South Africa’, South African Geographical Journal 98: 254-274.

Noble, M. and Wright, G. (2013) ‘Using indicators of multiple deprivation to demonstrate the spatial legacy of Apartheid in South Africa’, Social Indicators Research, 11(1): 187–201.


The objective of Theme 2 was to undertake focus groups to explore factors and processes that shape people’s experience of inequality and whether such experiences shape people’s sense of attachment to place and sense of belonging and decisions about which places and spaces to inhabit and which places and spaces to avoid in the City of Cape Town broadly.

A total of 15 focus groups discussions have been undertaken with different groups from a range of communities across the City of Cape Town. The groups were conducted over a three-month period between late May and late August 2017 and were conducted in English, isiXhosa or Afrikaans, as appropriate.

The groups successfully captured a wide range of experiences of living in the City of Cape Town area.

The focus group recordings have been transcribed, and (when necessary) translated into English. The transcripts have been analysed by the research team, using the Nvivo software. Download the report here.


The aim in Theme 3 was to design a new module of questions on people’s lived experiences of inequality which was fielded in the 2017 round of the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS). These survey questions were designed to generate new insights into people’s attitudes to inequality, including the processes through which people experience inequality and the extent to which people’s experiences of inequality subsequently shapes their life choices.

A range of relevant inequality-related questions have already been included in different rounds of SASAS over the past decade. In particular, the 2009 round of SASAS contained the ISSP module on inequality. (The earlier ESRC/NRF Pathfinder project interrogated the 2009 round of SASAS to examine attitudes towards inequality and the government’s responsibility for redress and found a strong consensus across the population that inequality in South Africa was too high and that the government had a responsibility to reduce inequality by redistributing income from those with high incomes to those with low incomes.)

The initial part of Theme 3 involved reviewing the existing questions that have been asked in SASAS over the past decade and collating relevant evidence together from the separate survey rounds. This initial analysis of previous SASAS rounds helped to inform the design of the qualitative focus group work detailed in Theme 2. The emerging findings from the focus groups then helped to inform the process of reviewing and sharpening the 2017 SASAS questions. As such, there has been a two-way flow of information between Themes 2 and 3.

The 2017 round of SASAS went into the field in the latter part of 2017, and results became available in the second quarter of 2018 and analysis is underway.

SASAS is a nationally representative survey which enabled disaggregation of the results by broad population category and area type. Although SASAS did not permit detailed consideration of the specific case study area of Cape Town, it provides a valuable new source of evidence concerning attitudes to inequality across the country. Two Reports are available for download: Societal attitudes towards inequality and preferences for redress and How, where and when people experience inequality


The purpose of Theme 4 was to assess whether people’s attitudes to inequality are associated with their lived experiences of inequality. This objective will be pursued by using the SASAS data on respondents’ attitudes to inequality (i.e. output from Theme 3) in conjunction with the spatial inequality measures (i.e. output from Theme 1). Specifically, the area-level inequality (and deprivation) indicators generated in Theme 1 were linked to the individual-level SASAS respondent data using geographical identifiers in the SASAS dataset. This generated a dataset at individual survey respondent level, but with contextual information about the geographical areas in which the respondents live, including the level of deprivation and level of inequality.

A series of regression models were developed to test whether people’s attitudes to inequality are associated with their lived experiences of inequality.

This project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) under the ESRC-NRF Newton Call for Collaborative Research Urban Transformations in South Africa.