I flew into Pretoria, South Africa, in March 2020 – just when COVID-19 was becoming a fully-fledged international crisis.
Working under the umbrella of the CatChain project, I aimed to access and use the confidential firm-level dataset managed by the National Treasury of South Africa (NT). This is a relatively new dataset and, in partnership with our sister institute UNU-WIDER, the NT has welcomed researchers from all around the world to do research using these South African data.
My PhD project is about the impact of Global Value Chains (GVCs) on firms in developing countries, and this was a great opportunity to partner with Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) and work with local GVC researchers.
Sadly, though, my stay in South Africa was extremely short. I arrived on 13 March 2020 and went straight to the NT datalab to start working on the data. I was able to do that for just five full days. By the second week, tensions were running very high in South Africa and the NT decided to revoke my access because I had just arrived from the Netherlands – which at the time was still a pandemic hotspot. Despite that, I was able to obtain initial results, which have already proven very useful. Moreover, I made important connections with local researchers, who enriched my knowledge about the NT dataset and the South African economy.
Another highlight of this short period was meeting and working with researchers at the TUT and its local network. But that too was sadly cut short by COVID-19. Around that time, the EU was starting to block the entry of non-residents in Europe and, during the week of 23 March 2020, the South African government declared a very strict national lockdown. These conditions finally made my stay in South Africa impossible and I had to leave the country that very same Monday, 23 March. This was not without problems: my flight was twice cancelled and I was very nearly stranded in Pretoria without a short-term perspective of return.
Nevertheless, I was able to have fruitful discussions with the team at TUT led by Prof Mammo Muchie (pictured left above, with me on the right). We first exchanged impressions about GVCs in our countries of expertise – South Africa, Ethiopia and several other African countries in his case, Brazil in mine. We then created a network, which connected me directly with the community studying GVCs in Africa and kept me up-to-date on all related events and publications. They also provided me with great support and information to navigate the growing uncertainty caused by COVID-19 in South Africa so, against all odds, I was able to have a productive stay in the country.
After returning to Maastricht, my work continued as I analysed the data extracted from the local dataset. It was interesting to already observe many similarities and some surprising differences between the results for South African and Brazilian firms. Nevertheless, there is still work to be done and I hope to return as soon as possible to conclude my research and reconnect with the local CatChain network that has helped me so much.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
Rawpexels; Tshwane University of Technology