INSIDE STATISTICS: Austerity measures now in sharp relief
JOHANNESBURG – When South Africa started digging graves it was clear that what was coming on the horizon was grave.
Statistics SA, the fact-finder of the nation, as former minister of finance Trevor Manuel referred to the institution, is today reduced to the blind that should lead the lame.
On Friday, Statistician-General, Risenga Maluleke, had to make impositioned choices of not running the Income and Expenditure Survey as well as the Living Conditions Survey.
By that fact the Treasury has taken off not only Maluleke’s multi-focal lenses, but has condemned him to terminal glaucoma at the time when the country, the governor of the Reserve Bank and the finance minister need granular, and not grainy, consumer price index and poverty measures.
When you can’t measure it you can’t manage it. To his credit, Maluleke produced multi-dimensional poverty figures, but these were based on a temporally faded lens of 2014/15 that he inherited from me. Malukeke needs the latest modern lenses of the Income and Expenditure Survey as well as the Living Conditions Survey, particularly now when the consequences of Covid-19 require precision tools to tackle poverty.
Professor Mike Sathekge, the precision nuclear medicine specialist at Steve Biko Academic Hospital, goes by the mantra of “see it and treat it”. That is how this hospital on cancer treatment ranks top in the world. It uses precision tools, not a jaded welding glass eye-protector as a lens.
Maluleke, instead, has to navigate the tumultuous challenges of: price measurement, inflation targeting instruments and repo rate determination, gross domestic growth adjustments for real growth and nominal growth, competitive advantage matrices, re-basing of the gross domestic product and wage determinations, to mention but a few, which the Income and Expenditure Survey statistics would have thrown light upon.
To add insult to injury, the poor will remain invisible as the storm of the coronavirus swallows them in South Africa. Their being is not to be measured because the Living Conditions Survey has disappeared from the radar.
What then will inform South African government policy to address the poor and the working poor, including the middle class, which Covid-19 will have thrown under the bus? Now it will be in their hands.
When some argued that the Budget is an austerity Budget, the Treasury director-general appealed to Parliament that they should desist from being influenced by politically motivated arguments.
Finance Minister Tito Mboweni chided the economists for involving themselves in economics and politics which he believes are not the preserve of economists. I suspect when I raise matters of statistics, you may be told that this is not a matter for a retired statistician-general and my valid concerns brushed off.
However, there are many indicators of silencing policy discourse when in fact it is needed the most.
We owe it to each other to set a path that serves South Africa’s best interests. These can be adjudicated by facts and not platitudes or which political persuasion drives you.
The challenges of the lack of funding of Stats SA is well documented. Now, no doubt the blame for the lack of funds will shift to the debilitation economic disruption of Covid-19 in due course. A word of advice. I have seen the effect of bad workmanship and decisions.
Stats SA may be forced into a replay of the 2003 Consumer Price debacle, which I had the sad and regrettable memory of causing, surviving and correcting. We cannot pay school fees twice for the same knowledge and experience. Einstein defined those who do so as lunatics. Investors also want certainty when thinking of funding in South Africa.
South Africa deserves better and the fact-finder of the nation built brick by brick cannot be dismembered by a misdirected missile of austerity parading as macroeconomic prudence.
Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa. Meet him at www.pie.org.za and @palilj01