THE REAL NUMBERS: Pali Lehohla is the Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa
JOHANNESBURG - Where significant and sustained positive change has occurred in the lives of society, evidence so suggests, is in societies that have planned and followed through with science in implementing their plans - Germany, China, South Korea and the Scandinavian countries show ample evidence of this.

There is also evidence that shows that short-term busts and booms are a feature of countries that do not have science-based planning - in this lot are South Africa, Argentina, Greece, Ghana, Zambia and Nigeria, to mention but a few.

This article is about the framework for state-wide directed science-based planning. The key questions are: First, what the pillars of science in statecraft are? Second, what societies do or not do with such pillars? And finally, what consequences are observed or likely when the state chooses to apply or ignore such science-based pillars in statecraft? The main purpose is to establish what lessons are relevant for South Africa. I would suggest that statistics is central to all state science. After all, the term statistics is a translation of Greek which means facts about the state.

Also read: Concern and support for higher education funding plans

The state is a contested concept and being. It gives rise to political formations of all kinds and interests as its lifeblood.

This consists of policy formulation - a central feature of public discourse - as society lives through its current, reflects on its past and contemplates as well as imagines its futures. For any policy to be successful and sustainable it must meet five significant features. It must be socially desirable, technically feasible, financially implementable, politically acceptable as well as scientifical and consistently informed.

It does not mean, though, that policies cannot be successfully implemented in the absence of one or the other of these critical ingredients. However, the relative success and ease of implementation depends on how social, political, technical, financial and science-based capital are unified and mobilised behind the objective.

There could be many a case in point to illustrate what is at stake in policy discourse, implementation and assessment.

I have chosen to discuss the current case in point in South Africa - the troubling issue of the Heher Commission Report on #FeesMustFall, because of its currency and significance in our currently maligned state of politics and economy.

The vexed issue of education is not new in South Africa.

Contestation

Its conflictual contestation reached a particularly important stage when on September 25, 1953, the then minister of education, Dr Verwoerd, who later became the prime minister of South Africa, asked the question: “What is the use of teaching a Bantu child mathematics, when it can’t use it in practice.”

Twenty-three years later, in 1976, student movements in what now has gone down in our history as June 16, mobilised politically to fight this obnoxious monster that was relentlessly preying on black society generally, but black Africans and coloureds in particular.

The Indians reacted differently and do provide a historical pathway that is very unique of how they pursued the Overton Window of political possibilities in adversity. Time series shows the progression ratios of Indians versus that of African blacks and coloureds since that historical announcement by Verwoerd.

The Indians took on an upward path, turning to education as the only tool that would see their children and children’s children succeed in life.

What Indians did as a community in 1953 is similar to what South Koreans did at the end of World War 2 after the Japanese lost their grip on their underdevelopment. Exactly 40 years later since the Soweto uprisings against Bantu Education, the #FeesMustFall movement exploded into public space. So intense was the movement that the President established the Heher Commission. The report of this commission has been a subject of speculation, including alleged leaks since it was handed over to the president in August.

A misplaced discourse of the commission is one which asks the question whether education can be free or not. Surely education cannot be free - someone has to pay for it. The second question, which is equally misplaced, is one whether students should pay or not? Students logically cannot pay, because they do not earn an income.

The question cannot be directed at them at all. This framing is fundamentally flawed and avoids asking the South African society and its adults on their views on the role of education in society.

The facts about the state of higher education and its outcomes in South Africa is well known. Suffice to restate that the system is constipated, under-performing and wasteful to run and fails the futures of black Africans and coloureds, while the outcomes for whites and Indians are showing significant dividends.

Secondly, those who graduate, irrespective of race, to a large extent have very low levels of unemployment.

Successive quarterly labour force surveys by StatsSA show that graduate unemployment is at 5percent. This suggests that the economy of South Africa has an immense appetite for graduates.

Third, the proportion of coloureds and blacks in the general population is 90percent, and thus irrespective of the excellent performance of Indians and whites in higher education, it will not dent the dire straits of the problems South Africa finds itself in today, and obviously in the future.

Going back to the determinants of successful policy design and implementation as relates to education and specifically #FeesMustFall, I observe that the student movement was significant as a unifier of a new elite with a critical mass across all races that would lead South Africa of our future.

By itself this movement should have generated hope in that it represented the only significant space where there are a million students of all races pursuing the same objective. The question then is how does this movement and the way it evolved weigh up against the five conditions for policy success, namely social desirability, political acceptability, financial affordability, technical feasibility and scientific muster from evidence.

Hijacked

First, the social desirability condition for mobilisation was hijacked by political parties without mobilising for the outcomes students desired - instead it was for local government elections of 2016, which were premised on delivery of water, electricity and other things and not education at all yet politics planted themselves into this movement.

In fact in a survey run by StatsSA in the middle of the #FeesMustFall South Africans ranked education as priority 15.

Second, the condition for political acceptability transformed into the politically unacceptable as displayed at the session addressing the crisis chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke.

Partisan politics took the wind out of the sails of the movement.

Third, a technical assessment shows that the high school throughput has capacity for university enrolment of 500000, yet there are a million students at university.By itself this shows the technical implausibility of the performance of the system.

Fourth, those who are counting the rands and cents argue that the system is not financially affordable.

Fifth, the arguments put before the public thus far have very little historical science, evidence and analysis in them and will fall apart if they have to be argued against the future.

The analysis teeters on the unashamed comfort of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

So the only conclusion one comes to as regards this policy conundrum over education in South Africa is regrettably that South Africa is unlikely to succeed on all five conditions for policy implementation and has no feasible solution to a crucial lever of societal progress.

This by itself is a nerve-numbing condition pointing to a severe malnourishment and myopic short termism in our systems of planning. Education was a high school student problem in 1976 and 40 years later in 2016 it is a problem for tertiary students and not a problem of society.

In fact by our own admission as society we confirmed that education is priority 15 anyway. Our first priority is water.

Our collective wake-up call as South Africa is if education is expensive we should fix our eyes on what our collective seven-decade ignorance - from whence Verwoerd bequeathed us this legacy - has thus far delivered and weigh the results as we ponder the next seven decades.

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

- BUSINESS REPORT