Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: Personal Reflections on the Fieldwork Process
Between October and November 2018 a few members of the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation (SLF) team spent about three and a half weeks in two township areas near Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape, conducting research on small businesses. The intention of the surveys was to gain an understanding of the range of small businesses in the communities, the conditions in which people are undertaking business and the challenges in running these small businesses. The following discussion took place between Albida McMillan (an SLF staff member, who was not in the field and wanted to know more about the experience) and Rory Liedeman, Anthony Muteti and Sarah Heneck (SLF team members who co-ordinated the fieldwork process). This discussion was a debrief and personal reflections from the team on the fieldwork process. We hope that by the end of this insights piece you will have a better understanding of what often happens behind the scenes before one is able to proceed with fieldwork of this nature and scale, as well as the grit and determination required to make it a success.
Albida: So Rory, tell me about what goes on behind the scenes when preparing to conduct survey and census work like the kind you have just completed for the VWBBBEE project in Uitenhage?
To be blatantly honest, I’m not sure if people fully comprehend the amount of thinking, planning and prep work required to do larger survey and census work like the kind we have been doing at SLF since 2010. It takes a lot of hard work and many sacrifices need to be made. The work often takes you away from home and your families for weeks at a time, and this can be tough. It’s never easy working in other provinces and strange places and it is particularly challenging to start the work in a township that you have never been to before.
So, in the two weeks leading up to the first leg of fieldwork in Uitenhage, we started as usual – taking copious amounts of notes in our work diaries in what was the first of many, many, many project planning sessions for the VW Trust project. Our team leader, Dr Andrew Charman, began by stating the enormity of the task at hand and followed this up by rattling off a mammoth to-do-list to be completed yesterday and with no time to spare. The message is clear, the show needs to hit the road fast and hard. Most of the people I work with don’t know this, because I have become a master at hiding it, but these are usually the times when, for a brief moment or two, I find myself in complete disarray. With my head spinning around 360 degrees, I try remain calm and find a way to focus. Perhaps it is normal, if normal is an actual thing, but I often exit that first meeting feeling slightly overwhelmed and wondering what the hell we are once again getting ourselves into. I usually end up with a weird sensation in my stomach and head, which adds to the panic and confused state. My ADD brain struggles to process, the computer needs rebooting. I step away, pour a strong cup of java, add three spoons of sugar and begin to get over myself. The green light switches on, all systems in place, I proceed to work methodically through the tasks allocated to me.
Logistics, logistics, logistics, my life is all about logistics!! ‘Rory, you know you are driving the van with the bikes up to PE right?’ This wasn’t really a question, it was more of a statement. I turned to Andrew, responded with a confident nod despite never having towed a trailer for even one second in the more than 20 years that I have been driving. The panic returns. Not only did I not know how to reverse a trailer, I suddenly realised that our trusted ‘phela’, the SLF squad car, needed some serious TLC. The engine light had been on ever since the vehicle returned from a national study on small grocery retailing and I also quickly realised that we were going nowhere slowly if we failed to fit a tow bar. So, I booked the car in at the usual place, a reputable motor dealership in Tokai, and they said that the car service would happen a week prior to departure so we had plenty of time to complete other preparations. We also paid upfront for the tow bar to be fitted and planned to deliver it for fitting in the same week as the car service. Our plan was watertight! Or at least that’s what we thought.
Skip ahead to the week before departure – our logistical plan was very much underway and in the advanced stages, all still appeared to be going well. The Zopp Box (our mobile stationary and equipment tool box) was assessed and topped up, new SLF branded clothing was sourced and purchased for our soon to be trained local fieldworkers, the team identification badges were designed and printed and we even had time to guillotine a few hundred project information pamphlets.We were on track for our departure date Tuesday 9 October.
However, no matter how well you plan, there are certain things that will always remain out of your control and having the correct car part at the right time is one such a case in point. The last-minute phone call I received from the vehicle service department almost sent me over the edge. We were now sitting with a newly serviced vehicle, but one which had an important engine part that required replacing. ‘Whatever can go wrong will go wrong’, isn’t that the saying? Murphy’s law would have it that the spare part we so desperately needed would cost next to nothing to replace, but would need to be requested from the company head office in Pretoria. The ETA for this was around three to five days to get the part to the Tokai workshop. At this point I could do nothing else but call upon the forces in the universe, and leave this problem in its care. I proceeded to focus on remaining tasks that I felt I still had a degree of control over. I opened our large green shed which houses, amongst other things, our fleet of amazing Dutch Manufactured OV Fiets (old-school) commuter postman-like bicycles. I began dusting them off and assessing the roadworthiness of each one. I remember telling myself, ‘Rory for this project you have one major role, you are in charge of logistics and fieldwork support’, and at that point I felt like I was failing at my job.
Albida: Oh no, what happened then?
Anthony came to join me. Anthony is a colleague, work friend and human being for whom I have an enormous amount of respect. A man who I have trusted to watch my back in some of the toughest neighbourhoods in South Africa. I started calling him Madala a few years ago and while it quite literally means ‘old timer’, it is often associated with a man of great respect in South African townships. Anthony’s timing and conversation was perfect, it was exactly what I needed at the time and we were meant to be working closer than before on this project. For this project, Anthony would lead in the field and would have the important role of managing the data collection process and fieldworker team, while I would support and mentor if and where required. As we proceeded to work on the bicycles he began reminiscing and relaying detailed stories of the times we had spent on the bicycles collecting data on small informal businesses in townships. ‘If only these wheels could talk Madala’, I said, Anthony laughed and said, ‘we have really seen the whole of South Africa together through this work’. We finished with our minor repairs and made a list of equipment we still needed to procure. Moments like this often go unnoticed in the background, but they are so important to acknowledge.
By the time it got to the end of Wednesday 10 October, we were already two full days behind schedule. My old friend Mr Panic surfaces again and this time he brings along his friend from Stressville. The next 48 hours were critical and werespent perspiring, eager with anticipation, and bags of equipment packed ready to go. We waited patiently for updates to come from the vehicle service department to announce that the part had arrived. At one point I found myself on the phone begging and pleading with the dispatching department to expedite the process, explaining that we would pay whatever it would take to get the spare part to Cape Town quicker. At this point, all hope seemed lost and we faced the very real possibility that we would only be leaving on Friday or Saturday and would thus have to conduct the fieldworker interviews and selection workshops over the weekend. We were quite literally staring at a calamitous start, which would set the project work plan back by almost one full week even before any real work had begun. It was also going to place the fieldwork team under an enormous amount of pressure in a strange place that we did not know very well. Eventually, after one final attempt to change our circumstances, which included a few non-violent threats, and a small hissy fit in the service manager’s office, the all-important part arrived. They managed to fit it to the vehicle in just under 10 minutes, and suddenly we were good to go. We were finally ready for our road trip.
Work road trips are always good; they are usually involve travelling to different and interesting places, and most often you receive a non-taxable cash allowance called per diems, to compensate for time spent on the project away from home. It can be used to pay for food, make calls to family, clean clothing, and if you eat cream crackers the entire trip you can make a small saving as well. We had cut it fine, right down to the wire, but we were able to leave with just enough time to make the almost 1000 kilometre journey to Uitenhage, in one piece, check into our accommodation, set up a small base to host our inception meeting, conduct the group job interviews, select and train 14 local fieldworkers, and all before the end of the week. By the time we were done the KwaNobuhleteam was ready to officially start surveying the first area by the weekend.
Albida: Wow, thank goodness you managed to get it all organized without losing too much time! Anthony perhaps you can tell me more about the project in Uitenhage, the fieldwork process and team that you managed, what were some of the key learnings/challenges that you took away after co-ordinating the fieldwork process?
Rory and I set out on our road trip in the early hours of October 11th– our destination was the town of Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape and the trip would take roughly 9 hours, but we needed to get there with some daylight to spare. Our goal was to arrive early enough to prepare for the workshops that needed to take place before we could even start the business mapping process. We were preparing to conduct a full census of all micro-enterprises in two townships of KwaNobuhle and Langa/Rosedale, as part of the VW BBBEE Trust Township Economy Development Project. This was going to be no small task, but at least we knew where we were going. Myself and Andrew had actually set the ball in motion a few weeks prior to this, having visited the two research sites, as well as the funders and two community-based programmes that they support, namely, the Love Life Centre (or Y-Centre) and the Ikwezi Lomso Educare.
I soon came to learn that people in the two communities had strong historical ties linking them together before Apartheid ripped them apart with the Group Areas Act of 1950. For me, there are a number of reasons why the Love Life Y-Centre was the best field base for our operations in KwaNobuhle. Firstly, they had agreed to safely store our bicycles on-site and generously offered to open their facilities for the purpose of the project. Secondly, the space they allocated was precisely what we needed to conduct our group interview and training workshop. The Y-Centre was also strategic in terms of information distribution; they have a radio station, a large, active Facebook page and following, and the premises doubles up as a safe and open meeting space for all kinds of people in the community. Finally, a number of fieldworker candidates had also been referred to us through the Y-Centre.
The first big task after arriving was to establish two professional field teams that could be utilised in each of the field sites. Selecting the best from the shortlisted group of 20 was not going be an easy task. Prior to leaving Cape Town, we had prepared a list of criteria and key attributes that we were looking for. On Friday 12 October we began the group interview and selection process, which was a mix of questions and activities, games and writing tasks which we would use to ascertain who would likely be a good fit for the job. The team we finally selected was a joy to work with; they were teachable, punctual, alert, cooperative and quite efficient in the way they worked. The group was a good mix of characters. We had political activists and gladiators, youth activists, a few small business owners (tavern owner and informal money lender), and even a semiE-professional soccer player. The team also had two university graduates, two private college diploma holders, and one university dropout. Out of the 14 finalists, only five resided in Rosedale/Langa, and the rest came from various locations within the general KwaNobuhle settlement. A few knew each other from before, having met at church or school.
KwaNobuhle was the first site we worked in. For two full weeks, the KwaNobuhle fieldworker team and SLF staff walked and or cycled tirelessly through each and every street, stopping at all visible business, and also finding hidden ones, to speak to either the owner, or someone in the vicinity (such as an employee or a family member) who could give us information on the business. The team was usually split in two; those who could not ride bicycles were in what was referred to as the Infantry battalion. The bicycle team was led by Rory and were called the Mechanised squad. When the KwaNobuhle fieldwork ended, it was sad to say goodbye to the fieldworkers. They had excelled in their efforts at something rather different and new, had shown great zeal for the work, and had added great value to the project.
The local fieldworker team for the Rosedale/Langa site was much smaller and limited to mostly Afrikaans and English speakers, which, if it remained that way, would have negatively affected the overall performance and capacity to work at maximum efficiency. Additional support was brought in – the SLF team was larger (it included three experienced SLF staff members and Sarah, the brand-new member of the team), and a select few fieldworkers from KwaNobuhle were also asked to join this second leg. This caused quite a lot of tension as the Rosedale/Langa team felt it was unfair that the KwaNobuhle team was getting a chance to work twice. Whatever was done for the KwaNobuhle fieldworkers, they felt the same should have been done for them. Although the matter was dealt with amicably, it was clear this was not an isolated thing. It is something deeply rooted in the historical context of segregation.
The work was certainly no walk in the park; it was unbearably hot on some days and we were riding bikes or walking for 8 hours every day without stopping for sit-down lunch breaks. The interview process itself is also often challenging, especially when people are sceptical of your reasons for asking questions. We sometimes had to convince people that we were not there to cause any harm and were not a government organization. We had explained to the fieldworkers during the training session that the work would not be for the faint hearted and we were pleasantly surprised that once the teams had been selected, none left nor complained much about how hard we were pushing them in those conditions. At this point we were pleased to know we had selected real ‘workhorses’ for the task.
Overall, I think both local teams were really good. During the data collection component, we recorded just one case of absenteeism, which is a positive testimony to the commitment and work ethic of a group so youthful and diverse. The enthusiasm with which they performed tasks was encouraging and their knowledge of local politics and social issues helped us accomplish our work without any major glitches. They worked hard and diligently and as a team we always felt safe and protected because we had people in the team who were part of the community.
Albida: Sounds like you chose the right group! As the rose amongst the thorns Sarah, what can you tell me about your experience on the project?
When I joined SLF in November I was thrown straight in the deep end of the VWBBBEE project, but in a good way. At the start of my second week working for SLF, I travelled with Andrew, Rory and Anthony to Uitenhage for my first major fieldwork expedition. The fieldwork involved interviews with the owners (or relatives of the owners if the owners were not available) of each and every micro-enterprise we came across in the township areas surrounding Uitenhage. On the first day we met the field research team that was to help us to complete the surveys and I had a very positive first impression of them, a feeling which stayed with me the whole time. I also really enjoyed getting to know the SLF team in this environment.
The days were hot and we walked around for many hours in the sun but surprisingly the time went by quite quickly (except for one or two blistering hot, exhausting days), because the people I was working with were great, I was experiencing something totally different to my normal life and I was getting insider insight into the workings of the informal economy, which is the field I am most passionate about. Although I was warned once or twice that certain areas were a bit dangerous, I did not once feel threatened or unsafe. The majority of the people we came across were friendly and relaxed and people were often interested in finding out about the work we were doing. Despite this, I still found it a bit intimidating to walk up to strangers and ask for an interview, as I haven’t had much experience with fieldwork.
A few interactions stood out for me. There was one middle aged lady with a house shop who had taken the very common snack selling (which usually consisted of one item, either bompies or chocolates, being sold from someone’s home) to the next level by selling 5 or 6 items, including fresh vegetables and toilet paper. She also had a flash machine from which she sold airtime and lottery tickets and was hoping to be able to sell electricity in the near future. She struck me as someone who was really trying to create a successful, albeit very small, business. Another inspiring interaction I had was with a group of four or five ladies who had registered themselves as an NPO that offers home-cooked meals to children from a few nearby creche’s and elderly people who are sick. They said that they were struggling to acquire enough funds to meet the demand, but they were not giving up. I also enjoyed trying bompiesfor the first time – a refreshing, icy treat made from water and juice concentrate. We ate so many of them over that time and they were so cheap. Some of the more negative conversations have also stayed with me; these mainly revolved around the lack of jobs and money in the areas, and the complete loss of faith in government to do anything about the situation.
Albida: Sounds like you had a great first fieldwork experience Sarah, these are the kinds of stories that often cannot make it into the reports that corporates want at the end. Gentlemen is there anything else that you would like to add? What was different about the sites in Uitenhage when compared to others SLF has survey and mapped in the past?
Well we can say that while they are both very different from each other, KwaNobuhle and Rosedale/Langa also had many things in common. The first of these, and most important for our immediate purposes, was the willingness of the respondents to engage with us and the ease with which people participated freely in the survey process. Community members were also not afraid to ask questions and most, but not all, appeared to speak rather openly about their businesses. The people were generally very friendly, but this applied mostly to local South Africans. A big difference between the sites was that in KwaNobuhle, even foreign spaza owners spoke freely, but that did not seem to be the case in Rosedale/Langa. In most cases, there seemed to be much scepticism and lack of trust amongst foreign spaza owners in Rosedale/Langa, something we have found to be true in other townships across South Africa as well. Despite this, even where interviews were not successful, there was no aggressive behaviour towards the team and at no stage were we ever chased away or shunned for doing the work. Surprisingly, most of the respondents had no issues with us taking photos, something that is not the case in many other research sites where we have worked.
We also agree strongly with Sarah’s sentiments around safety. Informal settlements, and the townships within which they exist, are often regarded as cradles of crime, especially in Gauteng and the Western Cape. However, in both KwaNobuhle and Rosedale/Langa, this was certainly not the case; the fieldwork teams did not encounter situations we would classify as being of a serious nature. From a safety and security perspective, whether we worked in the more developed, more urban parts of the township or in the informal settlements on the periphery, it simply felt the same. This by no means suggests that crime doesn’t exist in these areas, or that it is necessarily much lower than in other places, but there is a sense that things are different in the Uitenhage sites, especially in the informal settlements. There is something which sets them apart from other areas we have worked in. Unlike in other places, the shacks are not clustered into densely populated settlements and there are also spacious informal gravel stone streets making it safe to find one’s way and ensuring that one is clearly visible all the time. We think this makes it harder for thugs to take advantage, especially in broad daylight. In KwaNobuhle the team witnessed first-hand what happens to thieves if they get caught stealing from others in public. The willingness of the community to assist and their level of trust and support of complete strangers (i.e. our team) working amongst them, was refreshing and welcomed by our team. It offered an additional sense of security. We even had a number of people whose businesses were not surveyed, calling or sending messages to request for an interview; they continue to do this a month after we exited the field. This was an amazing response from the community.
If we compared these sites to other township economies, we would report that they had much less street vibrancy than one would usually find in other places. Fast food, fruit and veggie’s, sweets, cigarettes and street braaing all usually define township and street life, Kasi Style, but this just did not appear to be the case in KwaNobuhle or Rosedale/Langa. Informal businesses are mostly located in the houses and not on the streets where there is more footfall. The spaza shops are clearly the one-stop-shop mini-supermarkets where everything is sold, from cigarettes to meat, and even fruit and vegetables. Tomatoes and onions are normally the domain of street traders’ but this is not so in Uitenhage townships. The willingness of the corporate world to recognise the importance of the spaza shops as a site for congregation and therefore as an opportunity for good advertising space, was also truly amazing. Corporate giants like Telkom and Coca Cola have put signage at almost every spaza shop in KwaNobuhle and Rosedale/ Langa. This was something we have not seen much of in other townships.
While it was common to see burst water pipes in KwaNobuhle, Rosedale/Langa had burst sewage pipes. In both townships, most residents take a particular interest in making sure they maintain their yards, but as in many other places, high levels of illegal dumping certainly happen on the periphery of both settlements. There is nowhere else, in our experience, where homebased agricultural and gardening services thrive as a small business except in these two communities.
Albida: Sarah perhaps you can give me a final word on the current status of the project, where are we right now, what’s happened since the completion of the fieldwork
Upon completion of the fieldwork, while we all felt a sense of relief going home, we were also well aware that the work was far from over. In the weeks that followed we spent hours going through the data from each and every interview. We needed to make sure that the data was ‘clean’ and in a state that could be analysed– this involved making sure that the categories were uniform and that every interview was matched to a correct Garmin waypoint and survey number. This process initially sounded like it would be simple, but as we began to work through it we realized how often there was a disconnect between the census data, and the Garmin data. We spent days trying to get it to align! I learnt so much about Microsoft Excel in those few days – thank you Rory for being so patient with me and my incessant questions! It was impossible to be present at each interview, because there were multiple fieldworkers doing interviews at the same time, in different areas, so it was interesting to read through the comments in the dataset that had been recorded during the interviews, to get a sense of the businesses we hadn’t personally seen.
My first work related ‘disaster’ occurred during this process when I attempted to transfer photographs from the Garmin devices onto the computer, but instead of transferring the actual photographs I just made shortcuts to the photographs which were rendered useless when I deleted the files from the Garmin. Thank goodness once again for Rory, and data recovery programmes! After about a week back at the office we were able to get our contributions to Andrew, who put together a report which he presented for the VWBBBEE Trust on Friday December 7th, 2018. That marked the end of Phase one of the project and we will begin Phase two in early 2019. The next step in process involves developing potential strategies which can positively contribute to the informal economy in the surveyed areas. Everything I’ve experienced in my last month and a half at SLF has been a positive learning experience and I am really grateful for the opportunity to work here for a few months, to have seen a place that I would likely never have had another reason to visit in my lifetime and to have learnt about the way the informal economy functions there.