THE REAL NUMBERS: Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa
JOHANNESBURG - Two pieces of legislation are in the National Assembly for consideration. One is the Public Audit Amendment Bill, which Auditor- General Kimi Makwetu has alluded to as he thrusts his mighty office to work, making one adverse finding after another on the state of South Africa's public finances - sadly without consequence.

The scandal of corrupt practices has engulfed our audit services. Makwetu led the charge and cut trading ties with auditing firm KPMG.

When the Public Audit Amendment Bill is passed, Makwetu will mean business, if the decision he made on KPMG is anything to go by.

The other prospective task is the payment of service providers within 30 days. An ombudsman is being considered to resolve the delayed payment problems.

Roughly 100 000 suppliers, mostly small businesses, have not been paid almost R7billion.

Paradoxically, South Africa's engine of growth and employment is facing a precarious future, just when we need jobs the most.

Assume that on average each of these companies employ 10 employees. If they are not paid, a million or 6percent of South Africa's workforce goes unpaid.

Household consumption is bound to decline. Children will be thrown out of school, hospitals will turn patients away. Taxes cannot be collected. It could just be the beginning of a messy cycle of business impairment, economic implosion and further deepening of societal malady.

These institutions that have failed to pay suppliers are now hassling to get to the front of the begging queue for financial rescue from the very tax payers they betrayed.

So the problem may not be administrative inefficiencies in paying, but a gaping hole in the treasuries of these institutions. They each have several zeroes behind the figure they have not paid.

These many zeroes remind me of the mine shift boss who could not count nor read and write proficiently, but with excellent organisational skills notched the job for calling the register of miners.

And he did it with pomp and power unfazed by his limitation. You see, miners are identified by a number and are referred to by that number and not their name. The number is inscribed on the armband. So when it came to a miner with long numbers and repetitive digits, the shift boss would call out the number “five two maningi seven”. Maningi means many. So the number is five two and many sevens or many zeroes.

No clue

Our public space is headed by such bosses who have no clue or necessary care what this many sevens or zeroes actually mean.

Among institutions fingered with the maningi phenomena are Prasa, Water and Sanitation, Denel and Transnet. Those who look at numbers as maningi have very little knowledge about what the numbers mean, let alone the suffering they impinge on society.

Our country is not very far from what it suffered after the 2008 global financial crisis, yet then we pulled out of the morass and green shoots could be seen. But not for long as the maningi management and leadership came to rule the roost. The dip in the gross domestic product in the first quarter of 2018 is a sign of the times, especially when it occurs in the real economy.

The government deficit is at a record high and that South Africa ever flirted with a surplus looks like a far away fairy tale. Revenue collection has a record glaring gap.

While the governor of the Reserve Bank held rates steady, it might not be for long, especially as the rand has begun to weaken against a basket of currencies and the price of oil is rising.

A high inflation regime will soon kick in. When it does, given the levels of government debt, our maningi leaders and managers have brought South Africa to, we are in for a rather long haul of rebuilding. So let us get prepared.

The law for an ombudsman and that of the auditor-general are related intrinsically. This is because they deal with payments and consequence management, the absence of which has spewed malaise with impunity on society.

But then what is the role of the executive and administration if they have to be managed by the auditor-general and the ombuds? It is the same question that we should ask of why the judiciary should be drawn into managing party politics and Parliament?

The auditor-general is literally transformed into being the lead investigator, the prosecutor and the jury. Conflating this responsibilities will collapse whatever governance remains. Yet I can understand the auditor-general’s frustration with maningi leadership and management, and he has no option but to take over if South Africa is to be saved in the short term from itself.

As regards payment within 30 days - the statistician-general of South Africa, Risenga Maluleke, will tell you that his organisation Statistics SA pays 97percent of suppliers in less than 21 days. By responding to the imperative for social transformation and service delivery, StatsSA stepped out and did what was right. Many followed nationally, provincially and at municipalities, as they copied the free-for-all system that makes life for business enjoyable.

I wonder whether the ombudsman is the right way to go, or an audit amendment bill is the right way either, or exacting accountability directly from leadership and management is what has to be done.

Perhaps all these efforts are about an only one of two oxen that has fallen in a deep donga.

Thus, instead of fantasising on how the span could pull the plough - we first have to rescue the one ox out of the donga. And only then can we span it for ploughing. Yet we dare not forget the words of advice from Professor Stanley Sangweni to President Cyril Ramaphosa when he paid tribute to Dr Zola Skweyiya on the matter of the role of the executive in relation to administration. We ignore those - at our own peril.

Dr. Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa and former head of Statistics SA.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.