THE REAL NUMBERS: Pali Lehohla is the Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa
JOHANNESBURG - So the saying goes by John Tukey, an American statistician - “Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise.”

Albert Einstein said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask.” Note Einstein does not just say I will spend 55 minutes. Instead he says I will spend the first 55 minutes. So order and sequencing is a determinant of scientific discovery.

These truisms are very relevant to our fluid and very volatile state of heightened dizziness from perennial nightmares of scandal, corruption and diarrhoeal confessions as the wall of secrecy, fear and manipulation bursts open.

The house of cards, smoke and mirrors are collapsing at a speed not imagined before. For this moment of greater hope to arise, we must thank civil society, the public protector, the judiciary, the clergy and the opposition parties in Parliament who worked tirelessly to bring to the attention of South Africans the malaise that was afflicting our every effort to development.

In reviewing how well or otherwise we have attended to the National Development Plan (NDP) and its predecessor the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), we should hold dear to the observations of Einstein and Tukey.

In the trap

Otherwise we shall fall in the trap of being too short-term in our perspectives and rush to easy answers and end with more of the same. Needless to mention that jackals in sheepskin thrive in moments of grave fluidity. Why is this moment crucial?

A few days before the most important moment in our democracy every five years - the ANC elective conference - the president of the Republic announced that higher education will be free.

This attracted criticism. Many questions were asked, with the first being: Where will the money come from? This question would certainly draw an answer which on many tongues would be: “There is no money to fund free education.” It would be the right answer, but unfortunately one to the wrong question.

As we now know from the Gupta e-mail leaks and the reports from asset forfeiture unit of the national prosecution authority (NPA), shortage of money has never been the cause of our problems.

They are primarily gunning for recovering in the region of R50billion of misappropriated funds.

NGOs on the basis of documented evidence suggest the amounts far exceed what we have come to know. The R50bn is almost two years of funding the deficit in higher education.

In the light of this scale of mismanagement and misappropriation, on what moral authority or economic logic, would anyone ask the question of where the money should come from?

Indeed this question of where will the money come from is incomprehensible when the evidence from StatsSA and lately in a report from National Income Dynamics Survey (Nids) shows clearly that our development agenda has been one of recreating intergenerational poverty precisely because our collective eye is not focused on education.

Einstein and Tukey would have taken time to read and critique the RDP and spent arduous amount of time on the NDP, especially the diagnostic report.

They would have gone to inspect the scenarios as designed and reported upon over the years up to the last cabinet lekgotla of June 2008.

They would turn to the arsenal of statistical evidence that StatsSA produces. They would pause and ask the difficult question namely: If you have identified education as the most crucial investment, especially the basis for knowledge creation, why have you not invested in it?

Obviously all those attributed to have coined it, such as Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain and the Chinese philosophers would have defined us as insane: repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.

On a number of fronts the government has achieved a lot. However, on the theme of education significant progress of our democracy has been made only and only on attendance and retention. Not so on progression nor on expected outcomes of education, which is achieving self-actualisation.

Unemployment remains very high. There are no signs even on the nearest nor on the remotest of horizons that there will be progress on progression.

First, all Independent Examination Board (IEB) schools, where people pay fees that are in excess of R50000 per annum, have demonstrated that 88percent qualify for university entry and 98percent have passed.

Will then the answer to our problems of education be let us turn the entire public system into an IEB? Completely not. This cannot be the answer. Anyway the question is the wrong one.

Better results

There are public schools such as Mbilwi Secondary School where the fees are far less than 1percent of what the IEB charges. At R650 per annum Mbilwi, buried in rural Venda, has consistently produced results that are better than those of the IEB.

Second, the IEB has only 11000 students, which is a mere 1.5percent of the almost 700000 matriculants who sit for exams annually - the IEB schools cannot change the fortunes of South Africa. They serve as incubation centres, which are unfortunately not scalable.

Mbilwi on the other hand is an incubation centre - a veritable start-up, so to say that is so scalable, why we have not followed up to scale it just boggles the mind.

Third, because of the demise of township schools, Model C schools in suburbs have turned into centres of education for those who have the means to escape township schools and they leave the burden of underperformance where the majority of the South African population reside.

Under such circumstances findings by StatsSA and Nids of reproduction of intergenerational poverty - a trap from which South Africa cannot escape - are very instructive and should keep each one of us awake, especially as the political and economic circumstances become more fluid.

Our current state reminds me of the era of Gorbachev with his perestroika, which was a political movement for reformation within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and glasnost, which meant openness.

As South Africa we are possibly in that state of real discovering reformation and openness and we should acknowledge that parliamentary democracy with its trappings can be a fuss and capricious in the absence of active civil society, effective opposition, judiciary, public protector, auditor-general, media and systems of statistics as led by StatsSA, which usher summative evidence on the effects of development and democracy or lack thereof.

Let us also not forget that a lot indeed depends on the integrity of those who lead and head these institutions.

The NPA has hardly dressed the notion of independence and without fear or favour in glory as their justices adjudged them - obviously the jury is still out as they appealed the judgment.

Whatever many speculate as the motive for the president to announce that tertiary education will be free in his sunset period of 18 months, he raised the right question and announced the right decision.

Many answered this question not with an answer, but unfortunately with the wrong question of - where the money will come from?

It did not take long, fortunately, to know where the money has been going to - thus relegating this wrong question to the dustbin of illogical argument.

As we wish the president of the ANC and the deputy president of the country courage in the enormous task ahead of us, society should exact mutual accountability ceaselessly and fearlessly from his office. We need to listen to Tukey and Einstein.

Dr Pali Lehohla is former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Independent Group.