Now that funerals and weddings accommodate very few people, with public transport constrained and soccer stadia stand empty for a while, how are we going to harvest the public’s view?, says Dr Pali Lehohla, the former Statistician General.  Phote: Thobile Mathonsi
Now that funerals and weddings accommodate very few people, with public transport constrained and soccer stadia stand empty for a while, how are we going to harvest the public’s view?, says Dr Pali Lehohla, the former Statistician General. Phote: Thobile Mathonsi

OPINION: Government policy must heed public voices

By Pali Lehohla Time of article published May 7, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - On Tuesday was a data collection day.  

Around every corner was a coronavirus discussion.

The queues at the bank were abuzz with views about the political economy of the disease and its impact on social organisation.

The discussions focused the whys, and why not’s, of government action. Since the lifting of lockdown from level 5 to level four the conversations have been about safety in communities, the statistics of infections and those of deaths.

At the end of the 30 minutes in the queue, I recalled the words of my friend and former director general of Gauteng, Mogopodi Mokoena, on the matter of media.  

He said although he read all newspapers, especially the Sunday papers, in this respect he preferred to read the tabloids like the Sun and Sunday World because this is where the people’s opinions, values, beliefs and fears were expressed.  Their analysis brought richness to understanding what policies attempted to address, he said.  
Standing in that queue a lot of views were expressed.

One very vocal personargued that South Africa was better off in the management of the coronavirus because the numbers of deaths over a period of a month have been very low and to date the country's death figure was up to 138 compared to other countries where the numbers are vastly larger.

However, he was quick to caution that the real remedy to compliance was when deaths increased rapidly per day and in specific locations.  However, others argued that by then it would will be too late because “it will be dying time and I gonna leave you” then.

The debate in the queue made me ponder how far society has come to rely on science as an everyday matter of fact.

When the Americans landed the Apollo on the moon, the discussion in my village was about the advancement of science while the conservative part of it was about how citizens 
were flying closer to heaven to challenge God and they feared for droughts and the like.

I recall some murmurs about witchcraft as well.  But science won the day as the question of how mighty, friendly and helpful the Americans were.  

Then in Lesotho,  school feeding schemes were exclusively sponsored by the American Food Aid.  So the friendliness and helpfulness of America came into homes through the school system.

However, the assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani of Iran by American authorities using drones, shocked the world.  But also accompanying this shock was the use of  drone technology.  Many people were astonished and marvelled at the future of wars and how they would be waged.  

Today the complex of politics, society, science, personal health and the ever ubiquitous information technology have jaded our sense of wonder of the use of technology at these historic events.

We have come a long way.

As people stood in that bank queue this week they voiced their serious concerns about their lives, the future of their children and community.  

The most controversial debate was about the opening of schools.  

This related to why the responsibility of being orderly should rest on teachers when parents in their own environments have left children to swell the streets and failing to mete, the advice and discipline they expect teachers to drive.  

On the question of medication, the Madagascar discovery of a cure dominated the discussion and the plant referred to and its medicinal properties in dealing with flu was what all of us knew.  The questions thrown around cautiously was why is South Africa not looking into this Madagascar discovery.  

Also under discussion was the economics of smoking as one of the smokers was contemplating quitting after realising how much money he had spent on cigarettes.  

The queue provided a tiny sample what the public's views are.

Now that funerals and weddings accommodate very few people, with public transport constrained and soccer stadia stand empty for a while, how are we going to harvest the public’s view? Did it ever matter anyway as we went on with government policy design?  This might be the moment to pause and seek different tools for public policy design.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician General and the former head of Statistics South Africa.  Meet him on www.pie.org.za and @Palilj01

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