Sona 2024: reported successes of government lacked statistical validity

President Cyril Ramaphosa at the State of the Nation address at the Cape Town City Hall. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane / Independent Newspapers

President Cyril Ramaphosa at the State of the Nation address at the Cape Town City Hall. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane / Independent Newspapers

Published Feb 12, 2024


I have argued and advocated for a period of time that the State of the Nation Address (Sona) is about impact and not inputs. The President is the ultimate mirror of the state of the nation.

Thus, the Sona needs to reflect how impact measures have either undermined or accelerated the pace of the nation towards a better life.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Sona last week needed to stand on the firmer ground of official statistics rather than in- my-shelf-type numbers that are hauled out for election purposes.

To better understand this, I need to relate how one tries to capture a mole.

Dogs like to dig for moles. But hardly have they been able to come out with a mole. A molehill often serves as a decoy of where the mole actually is. The world we live in is as complex as the array of molehills. Should you think that under a molehill there is a mole, think again.

Believe you me even when you see molehill soil moving, never ever underestimate the speed at which the moving molehill could stand still, and no amount of digging will get you to where the mole is, even with the assistance of a sniffer dog.

The underground streets and lighting are designed with sophistry for animal life that spends time in the dark and depend on an invisible signal system to elude the enemy.

In a nutshell, input measures are rabbit holes or a minefield for civil servants and politicians as they prop up an array of molehills in the breadth and width of a territory.

Importance of auditing

The South African Auditor General for a number of years has been in these rabbit holes and counting false and decoy mole hills. That is the task of the Auditor General.

When she declares a disclaimer on a department, it is when she has identified a multiplicity of molehills without seeing and catching one single mole because their streets and geography of accountability remains opaque.

As the ultimate mirror of impact, the President should not put his head through the molehill. It is not only dark there, but there is also no electricity to facilitate lighting. It is a space defined as what has become of South Africa.

In this land where we started measuring sources of energy for different applications - such as for heating, cooking and lighting - we have seen a steady increase in access to energy sources such as electricity.

Truth be told and ironically only Mkhanyakude, which means light from afar, was the only settlement in the country that had the least access to electricity by 2011.

Importance of statistics

By 2022, the report of the Statistician-General applying the same approach in earlier censuses returned a higher number of households with access to electricity as a source of energy.

What the Statistician-General said, bearing in mind a sustained and seismic shift in energy availability when he released the results, was this “access to electricity as an energy source does not imply availability of electricity as an energy source”.

This cautionary remark to the nation by the Statistician-General was made because the trend on access has been disrupted by continued blackouts.

Never did we anticipate as South African bean counters that we could have electric connections accompanied by such monumental blackouts. It was an assumption that once there was an electricity connection to a household then there would be a flow of electricity to that household. The presence of one and only one molehill does not represent one and only one mole.

There are as many molehills as there are rabbit holes. These are inputs and they serve many purposes. One of which is deception.

Reporting on the molehills and rabbit holes as the ultimate, misses the count on the number of moles and rabbits. Yet the election campaign trail is an exercise in counting molehills and rabbit holes instead of counting the moles and rabbits.

Reporting on impact is key: How many rabbits or moles have we counted and how many do we need to catch to fight protein requirements is the outcome and impact question. To this end the number of people employed could be an impact figure for the measurement of effectiveness of education.

Such an impact indicator as defined here, can be derived conclusively only and only from the Quarterly Labour Force Survey. The Youth Employment Service (YES) appeared in the Sona as one of the highlights of success.

By success I would assume is meant impact. However, in my book as the former Statistician-General and measurer of outcomes and impacts, mindful of the results chain from inputs to impact, the facts from the authoritative Quarterly Labour Survey disputes the YES figure both as an outcome or impact measure.

The facts are that amongst the young people 15-34 there are 1.4 million less of them employed today as of the third quarter of 2023 compared to 2008. This trend of reduction in the number of the youth 15-34 employed began in 2018. Their absolute share declined precipitously.

The problem is that when each institution starts preparing and reporting on itself the national statistics system gets damaged.

It is improper for the president to be made to pronounce numbers because those who cause him to do so will start attacking the professionally produced numbers of the Statistician General. This practice destroys the very fibre of democracy.

The referred to 1.7 million job opportunities have not ever come out in the Quarterly Labour Force Survey, which is a definitive impact level measure of employment.

Let us desist for the sake of our democracy from deploying the in-my-shelf-type of numbers. They will never survive, not only the wrath and veracity of Statistics South Africa numbers, but they do not match the lived experiences of the average 15-34 citizens of South Africa.

This is my prayer as the former Statistician-General, who was at the helm of design of methods, and who abides by the quality of distinction that StatsSA and the Statistician General of South Africa acquitted themselves on the production of these high-quality numbers of the nation.

South Africa has consistently and proudly been served by the institution of the Statistician General as a legal and administrative entity of the Republic of South Africa.

Dr Pali Lehohla is a Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, a Research Associate at Oxford University, a board member of Institute for Economic Justice at Wits and a distinguished Alumni of the University of Ghana. He is the former Statistician-General of South Africa.