Pali Lehohla
Pali Lehohla

‘Go and learn’ and make appropriate choices

By Pali Lehohla Time of article published Mar 5, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - Statistician-General Risenga Malu- leke released another unpleasant gross domestic product (GDP) print this week. 

It was a bitter pill: a second in as many years of his tenure.

In the first year, two quarters were negative and consecutive. In the second year, three quarters were negative and with whatever permutation, two were bound to be consecutive.

These happened to be the third and the fourth quarter, and thus resulted in a recession. Does this imply that Maluleke is a recession statistician-general? In which case his tenure of any number of years will be a recession for South Africa, if the first two years of his tenure are a predictor.

Or did he inherit a poisoned chalice from me, his predecessor?

I had a 17-year tenure with only one recession.

But to answer this question we turn to an intellectual who has displayed his mettle.

He was a member of the Statistics Council during my tenure. University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the type of intellectual who is not only universal, but is so in the context of universality of interconnectedness of matter, disciplines and subjects.

He moves from 4IR to physics, chemistry, language and gives practical expression to his broad knowledge by giving an example on how his grandmother manufactured baked clay pots and had a way of testing them for their quality. At the bottom of Marwala’s approach is the recognition that philosophy is the uniting theme and mathematics organises this for consistency, while statistical thinking enables society to know and understand uncertainty and be categorical about the extent to which they are uncertain.

The concept of confidence intervals in measurement is a statistical expression of uncertainty. Marwala’s terse advice was to note that Eskom is a complex system.

And obviously a complex system cannot be resolved by simple systems. Cybernetic laws prescribe that only complexity can resolve complexity.

Simplicity can only generate complications.

So Eskom, as a complex engineering and economic system, has laws that should be followed. Simplicity aimed at meeting the laws of accountancy and balance sheets will destroy rather than enhance this jewel of our nation.

Marwala tweeted a profound intellectual message on the GDP results on Tuesday.

“Those of us who studied calculus and economics understand this recession has been long coming. The derivative of the GDP as a function of time has been negative for the past 10 years. Go and learn.”

He exonerates Maluleke from being a recession ogre, and apportions the genesis of this to my era. In fact, only eight of the 10 years can be attributed to my tenure. Of course, statisticians only measure the effects of policy.

By saying “go and learn” - this is where Marwala ends with a profound statement, which poses the monumental challenge to policy of how to get out of the recession. He is basically saying our policies for the past 10 years were recession inducing.

The late Professor Ben Turok once raised a question on whether the policies captured in both the State of the Nation address and the Budget speech represent a change in the journey we traversed in the past 10 years.

In an open letter to parliamentarians a mere 30 days from his passing on, Turok objected to the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement and urged the House of Assembly not to endorse it.

We are facing a difficult time ahead. But only through learning, recognising the interconnectedness of disciplines and applying them to solve our economic challenges can we overcome our troubles.

Most worrisome is the fact that the real economy of mining, agriculture, manufacturing, water and electricity, as well as construction, has been in intensive care with very little notion of “go and learn”, as many have gallantly argued that South Africa is a services economy.

By saying so they agitated that these are the sectors to which we should pay significant attention. In fact, what sectors you pay attention to is a matter of choice and not the market, as these voices want us to believe.

Our challenge is that of “go and learn”, and make choices that are appropriate to our environment.

The growing level of unemployment, the violence and lawlessness that has become a daily experience at all levels of society, including Parliament, all summarise the depth of our crisis.

It is not surprising that “the derivative of the GDP as a function of time has been negative for the past 10 years”, as Marwala puts it.

He remains a refreshing African intellectual.

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

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