Pali Lehohla, who stepped down as the statistician-general last month, harbours fears for the Stats SA office's future. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/ANA
Johannesburg - If it was up to former statistician-general Pali Lehohla, politicians would have their wings clipped because “they float around in different directions” with no clearly defined and co-ordinated plans.

Keeping them grounded would make them understand the value of planning because there’s little evidence that they plan.

That’s why they ignore revealing statistics, which is the reason South Africa is failing to pull itself out of its social and economic quagmire.

“I don’t think they (politicians) take statistics seriously, and it’s fundamentally because of ignorance. It’s a lack of capacity to understand and to digest the numbers,” says Lehohla, who stepped down last month after 17 years at the helm of Statistics SA.

He finds it inexplicable that despite his successive reports raising alarm over the country’s economic outlook, joblessness and poverty, the government has failed to formulate clear intervention strategies.

“South Africa doesn’t have a plan, and to try to put it differently is to lie. What you need is a system of planning that says this is how you’re going to achieve these goals and outcomes that you expect.

“I want to see a document that says we are going to create so many jobs in these sectors, and the demand for the labour in those sectors will be X. I want a document like that. There’s none; it’s a project here, project there.” He’s blunt about what is holding back South Africa, and what can be done.

“If you have too many locusts with hind legs in the state and they hop around without pulling together, the solution is to cut their hind legs.”

Too often, the government has blamed the economic woes on the global markets but Lehohla says some of these problems have been self-inflicted.

“The problems we are encountering are not necessarily because of the tough economic situation in the world.

“When people who invest here don’t have confidence (in the economy), they don’t (invest). It doesn’t matter what you say.”

There’s bitterness in Lehohla’s voice as he explains that the only time when those in power show interest in statistics is when they think information can be used for political expediency.

“When there are political environments such as an election, people tend to think that your numbers are coming to influence how the election outcome should be. They would be questioning the timing, although that was planned a long time ago.”

Lehohla recalls an incident when some overtures were made to “hold back” the release of stats.

He would not say who the request came from, but admits to having been invited to Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters in Joburg.

“I said, ‘no, that’s not allowed. We don’t run the stats like that. You don’t determine when I release the numbers, I determine. And I am doing that under the law you created and you put me into that space to execute. I’m not relenting on that.’

“There’s a strong temptation that when times are tough, and there’s public opinion you want to postpone and do all sorts of things, including the perceptual process of cover-up, manipulating, especially when there’s a contestation politically.”

Lehohla admits that he has concerns for the future of Stats SA. “I have seen mature democracies doing things to statistician offices. Ours is not so mature so you can’t say a statistician is immune from this overreach. It’s just a matter of time for that to be engulfed in this kind of situation.”

He would like to see the office accorded administrative autonomy to retain its credibility.

“We release so many reports, meaning every day the state is under scrutiny. The office has professional independence, but when you don’t have administrative independence, you have a serious problem.”

If he had his way, he would amend legislation to “elevate the status of the statistician-general” to ensure compliance with the stats. What’s next for the man who has enhanced the profile of the Stats SA.

“I want to bask a bit in the sun in Lesotho. I’ve pointed out that the numbers are not being used, so it’s more important for me to plant a crop of young people who are conscious of the significance of this evidence in the decision-making. I think that’s the space I’ll be playing.”

Saturday Star