More on think tanks in BRICS: South Africa

12 November 2014

Following the last post about the Indian think tanks I am sharing now some facts about South African organisations that work on economic issues. Just like the Indian post, this is also part of the study conducted last year about think tanks in BRICS. If you are interested in knowing more about it, please do not hesitate in contacting me. In this case we identified eight think tanks, some public, some independent and some are part of universities.

Origins and type

The mid-1980s, were a period of political mobilisation and excitement for the progressive anti-apartheid in South Africa. Several events like the creation of the non-racial trade union federation COSATU and the international sanction campaign that culminated in the US Comprehensive Anti Apartheid Act (1986), stimulated the establishment of new research networks. After apartheid, academics were eager to get involved in politics and in the shaping of South African policies. Most of them were progressive social scientists and economists, some newly returned to their country after studying abroad, others working from universities and linked up with non-academic networks. This was a period of growth for think tanks. According to Padayachee et al (2007) the development of academic-led think tanks focussing on economic analysis and policy issues was also heightened by some milestone international conferences in the second half of the 1980s. This post-apartheid period brought together academics, practitioners, leaders and other social leaders to discuss and debate South Africa’s future.

Core economic themes

Organisations that work on economic topics in South Africa are rarely focused solely on economic themes. Unlike Brazilian think tanks, which are generally more specialised in economic topics, in South Africa think tanks cover a wide range of topics, or they work in one topic in particular, this includes an economic analysis perspective. The most popular theme is agrarian, and use of resources, such as land, water, energy and food security, examples are Institute for poverty, land and agrarian studies (PLAAS), Free Market FoundationTrade and Industrial Policy Secretariat (TIPS). Others examine issues such as governance and social protection but from an economic perspective, like Economic Policy Research Institute (EPRI).


All the reviewed think tanks have a board or committee that works as an advisory group and makes the final decisions. Usually board members are external volunteers.

Regarding their structure, we could divide the organisations examined in three groups: large, medium and small. The large think tanks have around 40 to 60 staff members and their annual budgets are around USD 3 or 4 million. As a public think tank, the Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA) is included in this group, and generally public organisations have more resources and more staff. (AISA has been physically incorporated into the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). It functions as a strategic research programme, one of several research programmes within the HSRC. ) The other one is South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA)SAIIA is hosted within a university, and although it is an independent think tank and doesn’t receive funds from WITS, the legitimacy it gains from being part of an institution may be the reason it is able to maintain a larger budget and staff.

The second group consists of organisations with between 15 and 25 staff members and a budget around USD 1 million. These organisations (TIPSEPRI and PLAAS) get commissioned to work on projects by government and international agencies. They lack core funding which makes it difficult to own a research agenda, therefore they usually respond to projects, which is their main source of income. As an example of a slightly different case, TIPS started up with core funding from the Think Tank Initiative and now most of its income comes from government departments dealing with economic issues, including the Department of Trade and Industry and National Treasury; as well as donors who are looking to support policy development in those departments.

The third group includes small organisations with 4 to 6 staff members and a budget of around half a million US dollars. Instead of relying on government or international agencies, the Free Market Foundationgets their funds from companies and from individuals by implementing a membership system. They work mainly as consultants. Alternatively, Center for Development and Enterprise (CDE), which only has 7 permanent staff, generally subcontracts researchers when they need to, sometimes hiring 15 to 20 researchers. They also work by commission.

Large Medium Small
Staff 40-60 15-25 4-6
Budget 3 to 4 Million USD 1 Million USD 0.5 Million USD

Despite different funding models, most South African think tanks respond to ad-hoc projects, a situation intensified in the last few years when South Africa started being considered a middle-income country and international cooperation stopped allocating funds in the country. Organisations are in the process of adjusting to this new reality and exploring alternative sources of funding. This situation reflects Padayachee et al’s (2007) argument that strategic and political vision, as well as the organisational capacity of most civil society organisations has badly deteriorated. The capacity of government, and indeed the willingness to relate to the academic community and absorb its ideas in dynamic interaction has declined.

What do they do?

There is currently little space in South Africa for intellectuals, academics, or policy think tanks outside government to make contribution to the truly big questions of macroeconomic policy frameworks or development strategy. From the examples given by the surveyed think tanks on policy influence, it could be said that their main role is to provide a space for debate and to attempt to influence the policy process. They generally act as actors that unify certain demands and mobilise towards a goal. For example, TIPS represented the South African industrial sector enabling them to include some of their recommendations in the renewable energy final project. This implies that one way to make change happen is by weaving networks. Think tanks rarely act individually but they engage with the wider society, NGOs, private companies, unions, social leaders, etc. In most of the examples of policy influence given, it was mentioned that the work in networks was fundamental.

Think tanks fulfil their functions by producing research (often commissioned research); working as consultancies; providing advice; interacting with the media; participating in political networks; and participating in formal (and informal) political processes. Similar to organisations in other regions, among their main outputs they publish books, working papers, policy briefs and some kind of bulletin or newsletter with the main ideas of their recent research. They also carry out events, such as seminars, workshops, some of them are private, and others are open to the general public.

Influence and communications

Although there are many efforts to influence policy, it seems that the government rely mainly on the National Treasury and the South African Reserve Bank for input on economic policy. Technical economic advice from independent academic economists is no longer that important (as it was right after the apartheid), and “more radical alternative ideas and critiques that challenge existing policy appear to be eschewed, despite some talk from the top of the importance of  robust and critical intellectual debate in shaping policy” (Padayachee et al, 2007). The challenge for university-based and independent academic economists is to continue to play their traditional and vital role of critic on the side of the poor and vulnerable.

Some organisations like SAIIA with a long track (founded in 1934) have built a reputation and trust with government. Links with policy-makers have been built up over a long time; therefore, they are already positioned as a source of reliable advice. In the case of the Free Market Foundation, the Director has cultivated personal relationship with policy-makers. This is a common way to engage with decision-makers. Whenever an organisation does not have contact with the target policy-makers, they will look within their network for someone that can help them have that personal contact. This is very common not only in South Africa but in think tanks in other regions, which diminishes their capacity to build institutional strength; whenever a  key policy contact stands down, the organisations loses its legitimacy. +

What can be observed from the interviews is that the incorporation of actors other than policy-makers in planning and influencing processes is very common. This means there is a holistic perception of policy-making processes, where members of different sectors are important.

Talking about communications within South African think tanks is not easy because there is not a common way of approaching it. In some cases, like TIPS or PLASS, communication is central to the organisation but in many other organisations a communication team does not exist which leads to ad hoc strategies – usually by project – and no specialised staff. Usually the person running a project also runs the communications. This usually leads to weak strategies.

Who do they relate to?

Unlike Brazilian think tanks, the mapping of relationships in South African organisations shows a wider engagement with international agencies. This is explained by the fact that South Africa has been historically more dependent on external funds than Brazil for example. However, although in general it is hard to tell which relationships are based on collaboration and which on funding, in this case it is clear that the international partners are funders and that regional or national partners are collaborators. This confirms what was mentioned above, that organisations in South Africa tend to work in networks in order to achieve their goals. For example, SAIIA is a member of the important network mentioned, the BRICS Trade & Economic Research Network.