Pali Lehohla
Pali Lehohla

OPINION: Ferial Haffajee does not often get it wrong

By Dr Pali Lehohla Time of article published Aug 26, 2019

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JOHANNESBURG -  In a media opinion she wrote on  August 8, according to her Statistician-General Risenga Maluleke got the unemployment figures wrong, which if she had been correct would have made politicians happy..  

They would probably be led to the gates of the Bastille to demand that Maluleke be crucified if Haffajee’s wrong assumptions were left unattended. 

It is when times are tough that conjecture and false prophets emerge with opium to delude our minds of our material conditions.

Fortunately our politicians have schooled themselves legislatively well on these matters. My mission is to disabuse the lead agents pontificating the new religion of anecdotes that serve as antidotes pacifying our minds to this very existential danger to our body polity – unemployment. 
Some background is necessary to help society understand how the Statistician-General successively designed labour markets measurement and set this on near perfect platform 11 years ago.  

In 2003, I informed the then Minister Trevor Manuel that I was ready to release the 2001 Census results. He was deflated when I pointed out that I wouldn't be releasing labour market information because Statistics SA did not have the money to process that information.

Furthermore,  a census is not a tool for coming up with employment and unemployment figures.  It can only confirm trends and not levels.

He then asked on how can we could deliver these figures.

Well it took us another six weeks and the data was ready for release. It of course had inconsistencies of levels relative to the twice a yearly labour force survey.  This flux in numbers created conditions for an improvement programme that would bring about covering all the four seasons in what is now known as the quarterly labour force survey (QLFS) from a twice a year survey.

It was a thorough task that took three years to plan, pilot, parallel, launch and practice.  It is now a mature survey. No amount of anecdotal pontification can unseat this methodologically superior survey, which on a quarterly basis unleashes refreshing truths about South African society.  

Since its launch in 2008, professional measurement practitioners the world over have been full of praises for the South African labour market information.  Many Statistics Offices sought advice from the mighty Statstics SA and the International Labour Organisation has now poached four senior StatsSA employees.  This points out to the calibre of staff in the institution of 3500 committed civil servants.  Two local experts on economics statistics, Neva Makgetla and Hillary Joffe, eight years ago guardedly placed exceptional words for the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS.).  In this regard Joffe went on to say “Stats SA data good but not infallible” while Makgetla said “Stats SA labour force survey not far off the mark.” 

While Haffajee examines the characterization of the economy in down town Johannesburg and other African cities and captures the eyeball buzz, her assumption that the labour force is not measured is false.  

Let me again make the point that the design of the quarterly labour force survey accounts for these activities including piercing and probing the “I do not work” syndrome - a common notion when one is self-employed.  There is a methodological document including in presentations by the Statistician-General explicating how the labour market data are collected through the QLFS. 

Whileanecdote is useful for a good story, measurement science brings uncomfortable facts to run in the way of a good story.  Unemployment is a national crisis to be cured by science. 

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-Genral of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa.  Meet him on or @PaliLehohla


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