Dr Pali Lehohla. File Image: IOL
Dr Pali Lehohla. File Image: IOL

OPINION: Poverty, unemployment and inequality deserve rudeness

By Dr Pali Lehohla Time of article published Jul 3, 2019

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At its best, development communication should be a sum total of focused planning.

It should, therefore, represent the outputs, outcomes and impact of dreams. Development communication should be truthful in capturing dreams into forward-looking planning and plans.

Such translation should be characterised by first descriptive statistics.

This could be in stating the number of people who are poor and the number of those unemployed.

In the case of South Africa as of 2015 these were 31 million, or 55 percent, of the population and the unemployed - using the expanded definition - are above 9 million as of first quarter of 2019.

The descriptive statistics can also be embraced as indicators over time.

For instance, elaborating on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address (Sona), Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu reportedly said that over the next five years R840 billion will be deployed to the creation of 155 000 jobs. In target terms this will be 32 000 jobs created at a cost of R550 000 per job per year.

A political language for public mobilisation and action to address this scourge is then developed to characterise the descriptors. This could be, say, the Triple Challenge of Poverty, Unemployment and Inequality. Then an action-oriented statistical analysis of what we foresee as the future builds on and departs from the descriptive statistics.

For instance, the analysis will raise the following question: over time what has been the level of unemployment, poverty and inequality? What has been the level of investment aimed at addressing this? Have we seen, as a consequence of the investment ,positive movement in the employment targets?

Again, statistics will show that over the past 11 years, the absorption rate of labour declined from 45 to 42 percent, long-term unemployment rose from 57 to 68 percent, unemployment using the official definition rose from 23 to 27.7 percent and growth per capita for the past 60 years remained at 1 percent - worsening in the past 10 years.

As the people's representatives enter the Sona debate, theirs is to lay bare the veracity of our realities and question whether the dreams can be converted into a reality of a better future. The contestation, which arguably entertains with grandstanding turning the honourable house into what the then-deputy president Ramaphosa once compared to a “beer hall”, is part of the game.

But the development of the contestation should necessarily derive from numbers, the truthfulness of the planning process and the rigour of plans.

This is the platform upon which development communication builds.

The next step is to take the input from the Sona and propel it as an action programme.

Here the president should turn his Sona into even sharper throat-cutting questions. These have to be directed at his ministers and the bureaucracy. He should ask the brain trust of the nation whether indeed they are on the ready to deliver on his dreams.

A nod saying yes we are is nothing else but blind loyalty. The president should demand that his subordinates prove up front - using not only descriptive statistics, analytical statistics and development communication - that they will, but should, through diagnostics demonstrate that they have elevated their science to predictive analytics and the choices are the best: that by time x, quantum y will be delivered with budget * for impact v. This, unfortunately, is not possible when the falsehood of facts masquerade as truth.

The fact that 4 million were employed in 1994 and that this has risen to 16 million in 2019 cannot and does not represent progress, unless we ignore the fact that in this number of 4 million, excluded were those in homelands, generally, and women, particularly.

This is unless we ignore quality of measurement in public numbers that started in 1995.

Public numbers improved dramatically from 1996 and got better with, among others, the introduction of the quarterly labour force surveys in 2008.

In fact the key indicators that represent progress are unemployment rate, absorption rate and long-term unemployment and not absolute numbers.

Applying absolute numbers to our tragedy when actually proportions deliver a factual quality measure is mischievous.

I have witnessed this bad practice to propel ideological ends happening on many fronts.

Truth be told, all labour force indicators from the high-quality quarterly labour force show dismal failure and decline in the labour markets from 2008 to 2019. So in terms of development communication this represents spin par excellence and cannot be trust-building and public-mobilising.

I would have expected an informed house to argue strongly against this form of grand standing. I would have expected the honourable house to have said: “Go tell these to the future - our youth aged 15-34”.

So getting back to Mthembu’s translation of Ramaphosa’s characterisation of our reality, the question is what can we make of R84bn investment and 155000 jobs over five years.

Was this example a representation of the best available investment or is it the worst?

To absorb 3 million unemployed in South Africa over five years will require 20 times the amount of R840bn. If we need a R17 trillion for only a third of the problem, how will we mobilise it and where would we apply it? Will it be at a norm of a lower cost per job created?

What options do we have when 4IR demands well developed productive forces and not the lumpen proletariat? This is a resource we have in abundance and what salvage instruments will we deploy?

We need to question the road we are on and ask hard questions. Hats off to the president's economic adviser, Trudi Makhaya, who gives me a glimmer of hope that perhaps the questions asked on delivering the dream against our lived reality will be “rude”.

This is the only way in which our plans and planning, our development communication and the development of productive forces can and will uproot all manner of falsehoods and spin that pass for truth under our myopic politeness lens on our tragic reality.

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

Meet him on www.pie.org.za, @PaliLehohla.


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