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Lies, damn lies and statistics to lies, damn lies and politics, says SA's former Statistician-General

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi

Published Oct 25, 2021


A culture of reporting on statistics outside the statistics produced by the Statistician-General and rules of its governance is now emerging in South Africa. Whilst this may be done provided the Statistician-General has issued a quality assessment approval on methods, South Africa will soon be on a slippery road.

Let me explain why and give a bit of background history.

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Mark Twain attributes the phrase lies, damn lies and statistics to the 19th century British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. With rising unemployment after rampant privatisation, which included the sale of social housing and state assets, amongst glaring consequences that Margaret Thatcher faced, was soaring unemployment.

The National Statistics Office (NSO) of the UK was always the suspect in the eyes of the politician and this included scrutiny of the numbers and forcing change in methods defining unemployment. In the period that followed, the NSO had to build its credibility that was left in tatters after Thatcherism.

The UK NSO decided to recruit from down under. Bill Mclennan, who amongst many other accolades is credited, had successfully recommended and implemented embargo rules to pre-sight from head of the exchequer and ministers.

After three years of tenure, Bill left to be head of Australia Bureau of Statistics. After five years of Bill’s departure, Len Cooke, former head of New Zealand Statistics Office was recruited to head the United Kingdom NSO. He held fort for five years. He started a process that saw far reaching reforms that subsequently led to the creation of a National Statistics Authority that reports directly to parliament. Why is this important?

The architecture of statistical production is based on a comprehensive system that accounts for all activities. For instance, it accounts for all children who are in school irrespective of which school they attend or attendance of all health facilities. So, whilst institutions may retain their own administrative records, the Statistician-General is the overall aggregator of national numbers and this law of universality of aggregation under one authority is the essence of national statistics.

From these the Statistician-General produces a time series to take into account any seasonal variation and or any outlier behaviour in the numbers, including as may be occasioned by Covid-19. Time series is the asset of all national statistics offices. Without time series data, nations flounder and can even perish. But numbers are very attractive. Many want to play a role in order to claim a “my number”. That is a recipe for destruction. However, while occasionally they do a good job at it, they can mess up without any accountability.

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For instance, the NIDS-CRAM Survey, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic served an honourable cause. But they also overplayed their hand and misled. In this regard I have noted at the beginning of the year that the NIDS-CRAM survey could have been the source of “the good news of employment returned narrative.”

In his State of The Nation Address (Sona) the President made reference to employment returning. The only source of such misleading information was the NIDS-CRAM Survey which had just been released before the Sona. The Quarterly Labour Force Survey of the Statistician-General who produces high quality statistics released numbers that just showed how false the NIDS-CRAM statistics was on the so called jobs are returning.

From the Desk of the President last Monday (October 18) we are again given a story that reads as follows, “Through the Presidential Employment Stimulus we have brought young people into the labour force in far greater numbers in an unprecedented manner in a short space of time. Some 84 percent of the participants in phase one were young people under the age of 35.”

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The Quarterly Labour Force Survey of the Statistician-General has no such evidence. In fact, the opposite is monotonically true since 2019. Not only has since 2008, the youth lost their relative share of employment, they lost the absolute number they had.

The problem is that when the President reports on the numbers relating to his mug of water, he should be mindful of the fact that the billycan has so many holes that his mug of water is simply insignificant in the scheme of labour markets. Comprehensive reporting on numbers is the task and province of the Statistician-General. The job losses attributed to the youth 15-34 from Quarter 3 (Q3) of 2008 to Q1 of 2019, a period of 11 years was 48 000.

From Q1 to Q4 of 2019 another 40 000 jobs amongst youth were lost. From Q4 of 2019 to Q3 of 2020, the bloodbath was in full swing and the youth lost 896 000 jobs, and this was followed by 65 000 jobs lost between Q3 of 2020 and Q1 of 2021. Finally, some 42 000 jobs emerged between Q1 and Q2 of 2021.

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In summary the youth lost a total of one million and forty nine thousand jobs. The story of job losses while related to unemployment, is not complete without looking at unemployment numbers specifically amongst the youth over the same time period. Over a period of 11 years from 2008 to 2019, two million more youths were out of a job.

Between Q1 and Q2 of 2019 an additional 190 000 youth were out of a job. An insignificant drop by 27 000 in unemployment occurred between Q4 of 2019 and Q3 of 2020. Between Q3 of 2020 and Q1 of 2021 a massive additional 219 000 youth were unemployed. This was followed by an additional 354000 that are unemployed from just Q1 and Q2 of 2021. The youth that are unemployed are at an all-time high of 7 104 000 in Q2 of 2021. With this evidence of mounting youth unemployment and miniscule impact of whatever government is doing can drive one, to one and only one conclusion from Benjamin Disraeli’s maxim of lies, damn lies and statistics to one that says lies, damn lies and politics.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa. Meet him at and @Palilj01.

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.


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