The South African statisticians advancing access to civil justice


In March 2020, the United Nations Statistical Commission approved a new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) indicator to measure access to civil justice around the world. This is an important advance in our understanding of justice needs and a key step on the way to providing more people-centered justice.

The SDG indicator was inspired, in part, by the methods and experiences of Statistics South Africa in measuring legal problems and disputes. Starting in 2018, Stats SA began including a rotating civil justice module in its Governance, Public Safety and Justice Survey, which polls 30,000 South African households. This initiative was done before the development of the new SDG 16 “add on modules” survey which seeks to collect data on 16.3.3.

Statistics South Africa, the national statistics office in South Africa, recently expanded its decades-old annual victimization survey to encompass other dimensions of governance, including access to justice. In the latest of our Justice Champions of Change interviews to focus on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, Peter Chapman asked Solly Molayi, Statistician and Director in the Social Statistics Chief Directorate, about the institution’s pioneering work.

Peter: South Africa has a long history of using victimization surveys. What are they used for?

Solly: Our first victimization survey was conducted in 1998. Victimization surveys are a general survey of the population to find out how many people have been victim of a crime in a given year, whether or not they report their victimization to the authorities. We use the surveys to produce annual victims of crime reports, which provide an overview of the level and trends of crime experienced by households and individuals in South Africa, thereby helping shape the country’s responses to crime and injustice.

Peter: One year I was in South Africa when the annual findings were released, and I remember the findings were front-page news. Why is there such a demand for and interest in Stats SA’s data?

Solly: The media is one of our key partners. We release the survey findings at a press conference, and we work with journalists to explain what the survey is about and break it down into understandable language. We have built a strong relationship with the media over time, and I think that is the main reason every time we publish findings from a survey it attracts media attention.

Peter: Over the last three or four years, Stats SA has led an effort to expand the annual victimization survey to look at broader governance themes including disputes and access to civil justice. How did your team develop this idea of a broader survey, and how did you build the strategy to change the survey?

Solly: We realized that when you looked at South Africa’s key commitments, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the African Union’s Agenda 63 initiative, our National Development Plan 2030, and the strategy of the government itself, we needed a better understanding of the effectiveness of governance. As you already mentioned, we were conducting an annual victimization survey, but because of financial constraints, we weren’t able to have a standalone survey that could measure broader issues around governance and justice.

We established a governance statistics unit within our social statistics division, which I manage, so that we could re-engineer the survey. We identified a cluster of key justice stakeholders in the national, provincial and local governments, in academia, in institutions that are helping with governance and protecting our Constitution, and in relevant international agencies like the Open Society Foundation and World Justice Project. And we consulted with them to help us understand how to measure these issues and frame the questions to come up with data that gives us a better sense of South Africans’ governance and civil justice needs and experiences.

The aim was to broaden the victimization survey to become a governance, public safety and justice survey. The new survey would essentially take place over three years, looking at some topics every year and others on a three-year cycle. We produced a concept document explaining how the governance, public safety and justice survey would work, and it’s now an established part of our work program.

Photo: Statistics South Africa

Peter: Was anyone resistant to the idea that the victimization survey needed to be changed to incorporate more topics?

Solly: Previously, victimization surveys were conducted annually and provided details on the incidence and impact of crime and violence, and some people were concerned that if we brought in other topics we would lose this detail. But it was a balancing act, where we had to come up with a rotation plan and try to convince our stakeholders that other important data gaps needed to be filled. And we are still tracking part of the crime and violence data on an annual basis, so we’ve kept that as a focus of our annual survey.

Peter: Let’s dig into the governance, public safety and justice survey a little more. One of the sections of the survey instrument and subsequent report is on individual experience with disputes. Can you describe what the survey does to understand people’s disputes and problems?

Solly: The aim of this part of the survey — which is to be included every three years — is to give an understanding of the most common disputes and to investigate the experience of South Africans when they face a dispute or legal problem. It also aims to identify the resources they use in attempting to resolve a dispute. As well as helping improve government policies, this data will allow South Africa to respond to the new civil justice indicator under SDG 16.3.

Photo: Statistics South Africa

Peter: What did you find in the 2018 GPSJ survey, which was the first time you asked about resolving disputes in the survey?

Solly: There were several key findings. We found that around 12% of the population of South Africa 16 years and older — about 4.8 million people — had experienced one or more disputes during the previous two years. Problems with disruptions of supply of utility — for example, water or electricity — were the most common form of legal problem. Corruption, bribery and nepotism by government officials were the second most common.

We also found that when you disaggregate the data by gender, the disputes that women experience are quite different from those experienced by men. For example, women experience problems of gender-based violence, unfair utility billing, or difficulty in paying personal loans. But these problems are not generally experienced by men.

If you look at where people go to resolve their disputes and legal problems, 29% turn to family and friends. Only 8% go to court. And 53% of respondents said their dispute hadn’t yet been resolved, with only 22% saying it had been resolved.

When we asked respondents why they didn’t seek professional help, more than a quarter indicated that it would be a waste of time or that they don’t know where to go to resolve a dispute. We shared this data with the legal aid agency.

Finally, we found that disputes and legal problems have negative impacts on people’s health and finances. Almost 60% of the people we surveyed experience stress, ill health or injuries due to disputes, and nearly a quarter experience financial loss. Almost 43% indicated that they had to borrow money to resolve the dispute. These are significant impacts.

Peter: And when you went to the legal aid agency with that statistic that 25% of people thought seeking legal help would be a waste of time or didn’t know where to engage, what conversations emerged from those findings?

Solly: They said this would help them reshape their strategy and encourage them to seek partnerships with civil society organizations to reach more of these people. Because the legal aid agency’s resources by themselves wouldn’t be sufficient to reach such large numbers of people. So they recognized a need to build new partnerships to reach these groups that are not accessing assistance.

Photo: Statistics South Africa

Peter: Fascinating, Solly. Shifting to today, how is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting your work?

Solly: It has challenged us to adopt new flexible data collection methods and processes and to diversify data collection modes to ensure continuity of our survey program. Using Face-to-face methods as the only mode of data collection for surveys became undesirable and impractical due to the series of national lockdowns which curtailed movement combined with the complexity of conducting face-to-face interviews using health protocols and personal protective equipment.

We are reviewing our data collection processes and are likely to begin to use a mixed-mode data collection, combining face-to-face interviews with telephone or web-based interviews.

We are hoping to cover disputes and civil justice again in the 2021 round of the GPSJ survey, which will allow us to compare pre- and post-pandemic responses on legal problems and disputes. But we’ll have to see to what extent we can carry out the full survey, given the emergency measures the country is facing.

Peter: What other justice data plans do you have moving forward?

Solly: Our goal is to develop a justice data strategy. We want to bring together sources of justice data that aren’t collected by us but by other government bodies and by non-governmental organizations. We need to bring in the national department of health, for example, and to identify new data suppliers and new data so that we can get a picture of the full range of people’s justice problems and how these problems are interconnected. We want to build a justice data ecosystem, which provides comprehensive information on access to justice in South Africa.

And this is where plans for new access to justice index will be important. We learned about the potential of justice indexes from colleagues in Indonesia and Colombia, and we’re hoping to introduce it in 2021.

Peter: What role do you think a justice index could play in South Africa?

Solly: I think it will give us a sense of where we are as a country, and it’ll present justice data in ways that everyone can rally behind. It will be a tool to measure progress in realizing the country’s commitments on access to justice. Because it’s not only based on our survey, it’s also based on administrative data sources. So the index will unite us in the country to come up with better policies and better programs to deliver access to justice for all.

Solly Molayi (Photo: Statistics South Africa)

Peter: What advice would you have for people in other countries who are thinking about ways to start collecting access to justice data in their national statistical strategy?

Solly: Firstly, consultation is very important, both internally and externally. It’s important that you get support internally, so that you will be able to operationalize the concept itself. And externally, you need to consult with and learn from stakeholders that already have done this type of work.

Secondly, our rotation plan is enabling us to gather in-depth data on a range of topics, including disputes and civil justice. When you develop your questionnaire you will have to cut some of the content if you’re to balance the needs for different data, but you also need a plan for when to bring that content back into the survey during a subsequent round. Our rotation plan lets us focus on a range of important topics over the three-year survey cycle.

And thirdly, you need to make sure that you partner with the correct stakeholders. In some countries, you may not necessarily have capacity internally even to do analysis. But when you’ve done the survey you can release the data into the public domain for others to analyze. Our colleagues from the academic world are mining the data from the GPSJS. The GPSJS datasets are available on Stats SA data repository to allow users to analyze and download. The datasets are also available on the DataFirst data portal, that provides online access to survey data and data at unit record level.

This allows us to receive constant feedback on data gaps and at the same time identifying new emerging themes.

Peter: Can you describe how Stats SA’s open data policy works?

Solly: When we are done with the survey — because, remember, we are using public funds here — our responsibility is to make sure that we inform government, other organizations and the public that the data is available. After we release the data through the media, everybody will have access to it within a week or two weeks on our website. And we release both the data and the metadata, so that users can understand the type of data we have collected and some of its limitations. We also make ourselves available to assist those who don’t have the means to further analyze the data. For example, if a small NGO wants more information on crime or legal problems in a particular region, we send them that data.

Peter: Thank you so much Solly for taking the time to speak with me and for all the work you have done to strengthen access to justice measurement in South Africa.

Champions of Change is an initiative started by the Pathfinders to highlight advocates who have made an impact in their communities and have helped to create peaceful, just and inclusive societies (SDG16+). It provides an opportunity to feature individuals, businesses, and organizations doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities.

To read more justice Champions of Change interviews, visit: https://www.justice.sdg16.plus/champions-of-change