Pali Lehohla
Pali Lehohla

Disinformation in a crisis is a threat to SA’s democracy

By Pali Lehohla Time of article published Mar 18, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - The globe is engulfed in a tragedy of immense proportions.

South Africa, like all other countries, has risen to the challenge with major, bold steps that could point to the values of human solidarity, the nature and form of basic needs that should be part of the rubric of basic rights.

This pandemic teaches us this key lesson: the right to health, education, participation and defence from harm.

These form some of the spaces for solidarity and commonality.

As we in the time ahead emerge from this tragedy, it will be necessary to understand that for a different world to arise we need to identify these common factors. We need to ensure that the advances in productive forces through technology burdens and benefits are socialised.

This is in contradistinction to the current status where in South Africa health socialises the burdens and privatises the benefits. In good part the scale of the challenge is driven by this discontinuity in the life- cycle value chain. We need to question the forms of our institutions, the role politics play, the space for economic policy considerations, the right to participate and, above all, the central role of evidence in this landscape.

Fake information in a crisis is a threat to our democracy.

This was demonstrated recently by the mendacious allegations Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu made against me in a televised interview a few weeks ago.

In his interview, triggered by my response to the threat of the Statistics Council resignation as an oversight body to the Statistician-General of South Africa, Mthembu claimed that I caused the current crisis of budget limitations at Statistics SA.

One needs to look at the situation of institutions and where the matter of evidence lies in the past, the role of state institutions, and more importantly in the currency of the coronavirus.

Why is this mendacity corrosive to the remaking of the State, both from the ills of State capture and addressing the coronavirus?

It is impossible for Mthembu to show even a thread of evidence from any documentation or institution of the State to support his allegations in his authority as a minister. So he has usurped state power and manufactured the evidence for himself.

From a file on the matters Budget, the following institutions of the State participate in the public interest:

First there is the statistician-general, the Statistics Council and the minister who are independent authorities as prescribed in the Statistics Act, Act 6 of 1999.

Second there is the parliamentary portfolio committee that looks at programme and performance matters of the departments.

Third there is the National Treasury which upon approval of programmes by Parliament should deliver the Budget for programme execution.

Fourth there is the auditor-general who makes pronouncements on governance of institutions. Fifth there is an independent departmental audit committee to StatsSA, and sixth there is the parliamentary standing committee on public accounts (Scopa).

On the matter of the budget for StatsSA, all these institutions play a role. The record for requesting and approving the Budget has no shred of evidence regarding Mthembu’s claim.

All these institutions who work towards the Budget, supported the request for StatsSA’s budget, only the Treasury decided not only to approve the requested budget, but cut 11percent of the cost of its employees’ budget in the year within which that budget had already been approved, leaving StatsSA in limbo.

Three departments were cut severely: StatsSA, Health and the SANDF. Because of these budget cuts to StatsSA, two crucial surveys - the Income and Expenditure Survey and the Living Conditions Survey - could not be carried out. This leaves South Africa terribly exposed on two sets of information now exacerbated by the coronavirus.

The record, which shows support for StatsSA’s request, and I as the chief steward as the then statistician-general, is contrary to the claims of Mthembu. Perhaps for completeness he should go on the file of his predecessor, former minister Jeff Radebe and there he will find a copy of a high court interdict which I served on then finance minister Malusi Gigaba’s Medium-Term Budget Speech.

The basis for the interdict was to establish whose responsibility it would be for the over-expenditure on the commitments of StatsSA and the statistician-general, as a consequence of the Treasury’s budget cuts.

At the time, Radebe assured me that he would address the matter and only then, 15 days before my retirement, did I withdraw the interdict.

I went to this extent, because I was not prepared to hand down a poisoned chalice to my successor. It is sad that after a career of 34 years and 17 years of privilege bestowed on me to lead a team of capable people, Mthembu could not pause and doubt his self-manufactured evidence before he spewed lies about my role at StatsSA.

None of the documents in possession of the state say what Mthembu says. It is this context of creating information outside State institutions that is the greatest threat to our democracy, and the greatest threat at the time of a coronavirus pandemic.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general and former head of Statistics South Africa. Meet him at www.pie.org.za and @palilj01.

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