Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi
Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

SA at a crossroads

By Opinion Time of article published Dec 20, 2020

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By Pali Lehohla

South Africa is at a crossroads.

Proceed as though nothing has happened and endure an unsatisfactory pre-corona state.

Take a turn left and fall into a worst position. Take a turn to the right and undertake a crucifying journey towards social and economic redemption.

Cas Coovadia of Business Unity South Africa prefers to call it a T-Junction.

He thereby reduces the options to only a right or wrong turn. A reverse gear is not possible because we are slaves of time which marches only in one direction – forward. What this article is about is to take a slice on the recovery plan and immerse the critique on demographic determinism. I take a leaf out of China’s experience.

In 2013 I was part of a global team invited to China. Up for consideration was what were the economic implications on the population of China as evidenced from Census 2010.

Six decades before then, the question was what were the population implications on the economy of China as evidenced by the censuses of the fifties and sixties? By then the answer was an aggressive control of population growth. A one child policy was adopted. But this policy was also accompanied by an aggressive programme of investing in human resource development through education. Today China is the biggest economy in the world.

However, China also faced an existential threat if they did not address their rapidly ageing population, which was a direct result of the one-child policy.

The recommendations were to adopt a two-child policy. This went into the next five-year plan.

The crossroads or T-Junction dilemma that South Africa suffers is bound to be a matter of demographic determinism given the inevitability of preponderance of the black population albeit at low levels of growth, over whites who have long entered an irreversible demographic winter.

So, in another 70 years, whites will be so numerically few and aged that their ownership of anything will dissipate perforce of demography. By this fate blacks can pick as they may wish.

But is this the demographic determinism we have as a country deliberately settled for? The observation on the economic recovery plan suggests that we have continued on an autopilot demographic determinism of worst proportions.

The strategy of recruiting 300 000 assistants to teachers in response to the Covid-19 pandemic attests to this autopilot approach. It is like apartheid style “kits” (instant) police at the height of apartheid in crisis. A different strategy would be asking the question what should be the qualities of a person leading a six-year old starting school by 2024?

The answer would have been the 300 000 we are recruiting today will go to a different type of education college. They will spend three years there immersed in a steep change of how South Africa will approach teaching.

Such would be a four-decade renewal and replacement strategy of existing teacher stock aimed at an intervention driven demographic determinism.

Our strategy is to unleash the needed resources for investment in the most reckless manner. Perhaps aimed at mitigating unemployment.

Investing in education cannot be solved by “kits” educators, it requires a generational plan directed at how the current teacher stock is replenished by the new with the clear aim of what it would yield for human resources in South Africa.

Unleashing the hurriedly recruited assistants as teachers to the children of the poor represents a continuation of an autopilot approach to demographic determinism. It shall not cut it. It will leave the poor in the worst position.

Mr President please rethink this strategy. We should turn right and walk the excruciating journey to social and economic redemption.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa. Meet him at www.pie.org.za and @palilj01

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