In his State of the Nation address of 2006, a then-confident President Thabo Mbeki would quote the prophet Isaiah. Photo: EPA

JOHANNESBURG – In his State of the Nation address of 2006, a then-confident President Thabo Mbeki would quote the prophet Isaiah: “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” (NIV)

The late stalwart of struggle, Walter Sisulu, in all his messages emphasised the responsibility for giving hope. And with greatness of vision they would be imprisoned with a conviction that freedom in their lifetime was imminent and non-negotiable. 

Such freedom they secured for South Africa and inspired the world on the role the human spirit and being human will drive. From about 1996 to 2008 South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an average exceeding 3 percent. 

In this period and, in particular, for two consecutive quarters in 2006, South Africa grew by at least 6 percent, unemployment dropped from almost 29 percent in 2001 to 22 percent in 2008 and a Budget surplus was even realised.  

Debt-to-GDP ratio was halved from the apartheid-era high of 55 percent to 27.5 percent. In this period, the genesis of the National Development Plan (NDP) was conceived through the notion of a capable state and the macro organisation of the state was a central piece of this.  

A survey conducted by Statistics SA in 2007 showed progressive realisation of rights.

South Africans were less thirsty in 2007 than they were in 2001. Almost 88 percent of South Africans had access to potable water compared to 2001. Then the figure was 84 percent.  In fact, more of them said they had water in their houses and the figure was 47 percent in 2007 compared to 32 percent in 1996.

The children, the future in which investment was continuously made, showed that more of them were in school in 2007 than they were in 1996. Some 91 percent of the six-year-olds were in school compared to 70 percent in 2001 and 49 percent in 1996.  

More South Africans accessed electricity as by 2007 the number had risen to 80 percent from 57.6 percent in 1996. Absolute and proportionately the numbers of deaths by 2006 had plateaued and a steady decline ensued.

This was a befitting moment of reflection on the message of hope that Tata Sisulu so committed to and Mbeki decided to latch on to the prophet Isaiah to embed his message.

In his maiden Budget speech, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni also took refuge in the prophet Isaiah, from exactly the same verse, but under very different circumstances. 

The debt-to-GDP ratio is where we were at ending apartheid, where unemployment was at 27.1 percent according to the 4th quarter labour force survey, GDP growth was misfiring at around 1.1 percent year-on-year in the third quarter and we are in the midst of the largest number of commissions on malfeasance.  

Was Mboweni then invoking Sisulu’s message of hope? We certainly need to be inspired by that undying spirit that even in the darkest shadow we should never despair. Nor should our towering circumstances overwhelm us surrender to cynicism so advises Antonio Gramsci, the Marxist Italian philosopher. 

What is important is to face the facts, be logical in working for common good. While there is ample evidence of intentionality for common good, there is a litany of paucity of facts and logic in our edifice and these attributes significantly undermine Sisulu’s message of hope and Gramsci’s injunction against cynicism. So let me hop into Hans Rosling’s Factfulness discourse.

If we take the current crisis in energy, education and unemployment, including the nerve-racking evidence on corruption, I find the discourse lacking in the logic that facts would ventilate. 

In the process common good is lost in the noise of emotions. Let me start with energy. There is no counter argument to the established fact that nuclear, coal, wind, solar, gas, biogas, and thermal are technically feasible.

There is also no counter-argument that independent power producer (IPPs) come at a cost two and half times that of coal and nuclear – the latter two being hitherto the primary sources of energy in South Africa. A logical discussion would focus on what facts and not emotions inform the energy discourse. 

The prescription that society should be burdened with high costs of IPPs and Eskom forced to be a conduit for leeching blood are devoid of analysis and prediction – in short devoid of facts, logic and common good.  

Have all possible industrialisation paths been investigated and where are the facts leading to choices? It looks like we have not learnt from the e-toll debacle in Gauteng where there is a five-year stand-off against their payment. Let us take free tertiary education and university education in particular. Here the facts are and have always been that on average there are more than one child per family or household at university.  

Then for the missing middle who are now seen as the driver of the crisis at university, which child of the two or three should not be at university as the assumption has been that the missing middle can afford. 

Second, in a society where 60 percent of fathers say they are married against 30 percent of the mothers, surely the missing middle policy is terribly misplaced and can only demean children and mothers.  

Derived from our parenting and marriage statistics, the compulsion for an abridged certificate for minors travelling with parents paid scant attention to how this opens South African women and children to abuse. 

Unfortunately the debate only paid attention to tourism dollars and lost the narrative on gender-based violence. 

I could illustrate a lot more where facts and logic count for little in our desire for common good. The disease is from description to prescription – no analysis, no diagnosis and no prediction.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa. The views expressed here are his own.