Inside Statistics: We move haplessly on the basis of faith and passion in SA

JOHANNESBURG – On Thursday, December 9, 1982, SA Defence Force commandos crept across the border of the landlocked kingdom of Lesotho to flush out what they called terrorists just after midnight. 

By morning, 42 people were dead, including women and children.  

The raid was met with a chorus of international outrage. Even Pretoria’s closest allies condemned it and called for a dialogue to resolve the South African political impasse. 

This Monday, exactly 37 years later, Professor Ben Turok passed away with his revolutionary shoes on. He never retired. His parting shot was a letter penned in October on the eve of the medium-term budget policy statement. He implored MPs to reject austerity and raise key policy questions.  

Turok was a disciplinarian. He once lambasted me in 2016 after my office took too long to get back to him. When I finally called, he downloaded tons of disapproval and counsel.

He was on a warpath. He wanted data on income to measure inequality and wealth, because his informed position was wealth inequality would push the Gini coefficient beyond the 0.67 points by a significant margin. His was an urgent research that would not entertain niceties.

With all apologies I tendered he would not relent and instructed that I make a presentation on trends within a month to a session he convened. This set the tone for his research which ultimately revealed that adding wealth in the inequality measure, the Gini came well above 0.9 points.  

His call for MPs not to pass in October summarised the man who could bring theory and practice to political action. He would not leave this world without enriching us as beneficiary of his unique praxis.  

Sadly, Monday was the day South Africa plunged into darkness – we went to stage six load shedding and there is no end in sight.  

The Madiba Global Citizen Concert also tasted load shedding last year. At Melrose, where most guests were and business was eager to serve them, hell broke loose as load shedding decimated our ambitions.  

We had said load shedding was a thing of the past. How can we be believable? We have continuously set President Cyril Ramaphosa up for embarrassment and failure as we ask him to make announcements that are baseless and not researched.  

We do not have systems of planning and plans. We move haplessly on the basis of faith and passion. Load shedding has proven that enthusiasm is not enough. Turok’s letter reminds us, and I trust at long last we take note and advise Ramaphosa appropriately and not set him up for failure. Here are excerpts from the letter: 

“The medium-term budget statement by (Finance) Minister Tito Mboweni seems to have brought little clarity on what the  government is going to do to fix our economy. True, he rang the alarm bells about the national debt, but his solutions in terms of spending cuts do not convince. Especially as he does so in the name of austerity; an approach that has been severely criticised internationally, even by members of the IMF.”

“Wide ranging budget cuts will do much damage to the economy as they will reduce aggregate demand for goods and services, which is what the economy sorely needs. Our finances are indeed in a mess, but so is the real economy.” 

“The statistician-general (Risenga Maluleke) has revealed the manufacturing sector shed 30 000 jobs; construction 24 000; trade 21 000 and utilities 18 000. If we fix the debt problem and neglect the real economy, what will we achieve?”

“The point is that every businessman knows that if you want to expand your business you need capital, and that often means an overdraft from the bank. If that overdraft is used for luxury goods, you are sunk. It has to be used to expand the business in order to get a greater return from which you pay off the debt.”

“The government faces the same choice. If you use your debt to pay for bonuses, for luxury cars, for corruption, for Gupta TV stations, then you will go down, and this is what we have done for a long time.”

“We need a stimulus dedicated entirely to productive enterprise, including physical infrastructure, especially in the townships. This kind of spending will boost our productive sectors, this is where we can create jobs, and this will increase demand which will in turn stimulate productive effort.” It will also force us to take training much more seriously.

“Parliament will be debating the minister’s speech. We need to change the focus to the productive economy. That is where we need growth and that is what produces the finance to get us out of the financial mess. It is also what the masses are yearning for.”

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa.

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