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The development of new knowledge, achievements and improvements

In several areas, researchers in the CoE-HUMAN have made novel contributions to the global, regional and local repository of knowledge, with important impacts on policy. Examples of these are briefly described below.

Early childhood development

Starting in 2012, Professor Richter led the First Diagnostic Review undertaken by the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME) in the Presidency on Early Childhood Development. This not only tested the evaluation methodology of the DPME, but led to drafting South Africa’s Integrated Early Childhood Development Policy, also led by Professor Richter, which was adopted by Cabinet in 2015. Subsequently, Professor Richter led The Lancet Series Advancing Early Childhood Development: From Science to Scale (2017), and she was a major contributor to the development of the Nurturing Care Framework, launched at the World Health Assembly (WHA) in May 2018. With colleagues, she created the first Early Childhood Development country profiles, allied to Countdown to 2030, also launched at the WHA in 2018.

Life course and inter-generational development

Starting in late 2014, the Centre has contributed to and supported research to capitalize on the relatively large number of longitudinal and repeat cross-sectional data sources, including population-based, cohort designs, panel surveys, and intervention follow-ups. These include the annual StatsSA General Household Surveys, the National Income Dynamics Survey (NIDS), the South African National HIV Prevalence, Behavioural Risk and Mass Media Household Survey (SABSSM), the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) and the Birth to Twenty Plus (Bt20+) study at Wits. Bt20+ is part of a global network of the five large long-running birth cohort studies in low- and middle-income countries that have contributed significantly to understanding the long-range impacts of exposures in early childhood on adult health and wellbeing (COHORTS – Consortium of Health Outcome Research in Transitioning Societies). Current research includes the origins of human health and productivity in early growth, personality characteristics and cognitive capacity, and the environmental circumstances that promote their full potential from infancy to adulthood, using the now unique 28-year Bt20+ cohort, started by a group including Professor Linda Richter in 1989.

Early child growth and growth failure

The Bt20+ study, which is supported by a Strategic Grant from the CoE and by other funders, together with the COHORTS network, has made a unique contribution to outlining and understanding trajectories of linear growth, weight and pubertal development across childhood and adolescence, as well as causes and consequences of early growth failure. For example, publications from the studies have shown that stunting is associated on average with the loss of one grade of schooling, and that young maternal age at first birth is associated with low child birthweight, stunting, and a child’s failure to complete secondary school. Recent analyses have shown that, contrary to findings from cross-sectional studies, longitudinal analyses do not support the existence of a relationship between stunting in childhood and obesity in adulthood.


Professors Linda Richter and Robert Morrell in 2006 established a research network on men and fatherhood in South Africa, which has grown vibrantly with support of the Centre. Professor Mzikazi Nduna at Wits established the Fatherhood Connections research group that has published 8 papers on denied, misattributed and acknowledged paternity in the last 4 years, and Dr Tawanda Makusha has led fatherhood research from the HSRC. These studies have highlighted the struggle men have to remain connected to families despite the distances entailed by migrant labour, cultural prohibitions to co-habitation, unemployment and the inability of men to establish their own homesteads, amongst others. In 2018, working with Sonke Gender Justice and other research and civil society organizations, the Centre is supporting the publication of the State of South Africa’s Fathers 2018.

Families in South Africa

The Centre has supported several groups working on families in South Africa. Families are intrinsic to human life and people everywhere organise themselves into intimate groups to rear children and care for vulnerable members. South Africa’s history has shaped families in very particular ways: the country is an outlier on the global landscape with respect to the diversity of family arrangements and household forms, low marriage rates and low rates of parental co-habitation with children. In 2018, the Centre is bringing this work together to 1) contribute to the review and evaluation of the White Paper on Families and the Draft Family Policy; 2) put together the South African Child Gauge, published annually by the Children’s Institute at UCT, on the topic of 'Children, Families and the State'; and 3) host a national CoE conference on 'Children, Families and the State', at which two books (Young Familes, edited by Nolwazi Mkhwanazi and Deevia Bhana, and Family Matters: Family Cohesion, Values and Strengthening in South Africa edited by Zitha Mokomane) and two monographs, the South African Child Gauge 2018 and the State of South African Fathers 2018, will be highlighted.


Starting in late 2016, the Centre is funding three innovative projects to advance significantly South Africa’s position in the social sciences and its contribution to policy.

  • The human development implications of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)

Through a grant to Dr Michael Gastrow at the HSRC, the Centre has supported research and other activities to develop this important area. The SKA is one of the largest investments in scientific infrastructure in the world that, together with the advances in digitisation that accompany it, will have profound implications for human development globally and in South Africa. To this end, the Centre also hosted a symposium at Science Forum South Africa 2017, which included Drs Phil Diamond (head of the SKA organization in London), Khotso Mokhele (ex NRF CEO who enabled large-scale astronomy investment in South Africa, together with a focus on human development), and Prof Brian Armstrong (Telkom Chair in Digital Business at Wits). Through the project, collaboration has also been established with Professor Cherryl Walker, South African Research Chair (SARChI) in the Sociology of Land, Environment and Sustainable Development at Stellenbosch University.

  • Neuroscience in South Africa

Very rapid developments in the neurosciences have largely bypassed South Africa, but for a nexus in Cape Town. To rectify this, and building on the initiative and innovation of three mid-career Wits academics (Drs Tanya Calvey, Anatomy; Sahba Besharati, Neuropsychology; and Phumlani Khoza, Mathematics), the Centre funded the Brain Matters symposia, as well as new proposals for funding. The new proposals are to upgrade the 3 tesla (3T) brain scanner based at the newly launched Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in Johannesburg to enable the rapid expansion of neuroimaging research, and includes a study on the parental brain as an extension of a collaboration with colleagues at Oxford University, who will also provide training and ongoing support.

  •  Balancing human capital development by focusing on educationally excluded young people

The Fees Must Fall campaign has resulted in a large government allocation to university education. This is intended to rectify past inequities and unlock the returns to the economy of post-secondary education. An unintended consequence of this focus on tertiary education is neglect of the personal, social and economic costs of incomplete secondary education, a problem that affects some 60 percent of each annual cohort of learners who enter primary school, but do not matriculate. Given the nature of the economy, its slow growth, and the still very small size of the technical and vocational education system, these young people are unlikely to sign formal employment contracts that guarantee them decent and secure work with liveable wages. The Centre is supporting a research project led by the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) to investigate the prospects and costs of educationally excluded young people, in collaboration with the HSRC, the SARChI Chair in the Economics of Social Policy (Professor Servaas van der Berg) at Stellenbosch University, and a professional economic services consultancy, DNA Economics.