JOHANNESBURG – Statistician-General Risenga Maluleke does not stop spewing bad news.
He recently released a chain of imperilling numbers: unemployment up at 27.6 percent and the highest change in youth unemployment in the first quarter. An economy shrinking by the largest percentage in the first quarter at negative 3.2 percent quarter-on-quarter.
As people such as Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan say, South Africa is a noisy democracy.
In 2016, I joined a delegation to New York to woo investors and make South Africa work post-Nhlanhla Nene’s unceremonious axing as finance minister.
Gordhan was walking a tight rope trying to convince investors about the realities of our country.
He admitted to the nature of the problems, but he also raised hope.
It was a serious dance that risked him losing a leg as he plied his art on the serrated side of the saw, bare-footed.
The investors trusted the information from StatsSA as a symbol of what deep state means. But the institution is also no stranger to the noise of democracy.
In 2003, I was immersed in building up Stats SA and miscalculated the Consumer Price Index. At the time the undercount of Census 2001 was coming in at double digit, a major reform in statistics was taking place with inconsistencies popping up.
A major revolution in skills-building was shaping up, with audits of the worst the order of the day.
Attendant to the troubles of quality of statistics were allegations and aspersions of graft and impropriety thrown at my person, but these were the hallmarks of a noisy democracy.
I always drew comfort in a statement that then-minister of finance Trevor Manuel made - head under the bonnet, hands full of grease but the mind connecting with the galaxy of possibilities.
So 2003 to 2004 was a difficult period. Professor Malegapuru Makgoba then led with an article titled “Affirmative action gone wrong in Stats SA” and Zapiro would make the most of it in a cartoon depicting a train off the rails, with the driver statistician-general Pali Lehohla. The good professor added that if this were Transnet, Eskom or SAA, where would our democracy be?
But these challenges were all overcome.
The irony of Zapiro’s 2003 iconic illustration of a train off the rails was a prophesy - one of a real train off the rails, an airline gone bankrupt and a power station frozen like the titanic in a frosty iceberg.
What the deep state institution, Stats SA, has now done is to measure the effects of this scrapyard of institutions piling one on top of the other.
The noisy democracy is not ceasing, as the leaks around Public Protector Busi Mkhwebane’s findings point in the direction of our newly elected President Cyril Ramaphosa.
May these be fake news.
May it be that when the tight-lipped Mkhwebane opens her mouth, it would not be the rumours raised in the Sunday papers but integrity affirming and hope-raising findings. We are an exhausted country in dire need of building deep state.
Maluleke was there with me in the construction of a deep state, 28 years ago. He delivers reality numbers without fear or favour.
This is what South Africa needs - hope-anchored reality, so that while we have our heads under the bonnet and hands full of grease, our minds are connecting with the galaxy of possibilities that will deliver South Africa out of this morass.
Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of SA and former head of Statistics South Africa. Meet him on www.pie.org.za and @PaliLehohla