/ 18 September 2020

Hollowing of skills and defunding of Stats SA works for a failing state

The survey
If local government is about “service delivery”, it is not a vehicle that offers people local power and enables them to take control of the areas in which they live. (David Harrison/M&G)

For the past 10 years, the government has reduced the Statistics South Africa budget by a cumulative R1.3-billion. These were part of broader budget cuts imposed by the treasury across government and were driven by flawed austerity policies that have proven unworkable elsewhere in the world. 

In 2010, Stats SA adopted a new strategic direction to increase the supply of official statistics for decision-making, planning, monitoring and measuring, a strategic direction that has now been undermined by the government.

The ongoing debate among economists on the latest gross domestic products (GDP) data is indicative of long-term deterioration of Stats SA as an institution. The debate should focus on the hollowing of skills and the defunding of the statistics bureau. Most importantly, we need an urgent and more substantive debate as a society on the repurposing of Stats SA in a country that needs a new set of redistributive policies that prioritise the transfer of ownership in order to deal with poverty, inequality and unemployment — informed by concrete evidence.

In his 2019 review, statistician-general Risenga Maluleke said that Stats SA has not been able to fill key management and other critical posts since October 2016. Continued budget cuts and failure to fill key positions put the quality of the statistical series at risk. Stats SA’s vacancy rate has increased to 17.2% compared to an acceptable vacancy rate of 10%. In critical programmes such as administration, population and social statistics, as well as statistical support and informatics, the vacancy rate is more than 20%. The vacancy rate is 23.4% for statisticians and other professionals such as methodologists and demographers and 22.7% for IT specialists and geography-related posts.

The questions about the quality of second-quarter GDP data were inescapable and Covid-19 has exposed the need to evaluate and reflect on Stats SA’s work more urgently. To maintain the quality of basic statistics and the trust of all users, Stats SA should not be forced to reprioritise and rationalise already limited resources. Stats SA is a critical institution that must be able to do everything it is mandated to do in terms of the Statistics Act No.6 of 1999. 

Everything envisaged by the legislation is central to all spheres of our lives and therefore cannot be compromised.

In 2019, Stats SA withdrew a report on gender-based violence from the list of planned studies. This means that any effort or attempt to deal with the scourge of killing of women by men, is not informed by credible data. This is not the only important study that Stats SA has either put on hold or has completely done away with.

Recently, former statistician-general Pali Lehohla reminded us that Stats SA has not run an income and expenditure survey (IES) in 10 years. The IES scheduled for 2015 did not happen because the government did not allocate resources. This year, the Living Conditions Survey (LCS) was postponed for similar reasons. 

It boggles the mind how as a society we are expected to understand the prices of goods and services, conditions of living and all other economic data important for decision-making if Stats SA does not conduct the surveys it is supposed to conduct. How do we work with any other form of data with confidence when there are important missing blocks?

Early this year, the South African Statistics Council made a passionate plea to the government to fund Stats SA adequately. The council went as far as threatening to withdraw its support for official statistics and resign if the government did not act swiftly. The plea fell on deaf ears because Finance Minister Tito Mboweni slashed the Stats SA budget by R200-million in his supplementary budget presented in July, four months after the council’s plea.

As AfricaCheck’s Kate Wilkinson pointed out, although the cuts were carried out in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, statistics are vital to saving lives: “… saving lives should also be viewed in terms of making the right policy decisions, informed by accurate numbers. Stats SA, and the data it produces, is invaluable to the country, its people and to attempts to solve numerous pressing challenges.” 

The global recognition of Stats SA as a centre of excellence for producing official statistics is the result of the hard work of Lehohla, the current statistician-general Maluleke and a dedicated team of professionals who work under difficult conditions with limited resources.

This makes me wonder whether the ruling party is deliberately sabotaging Stats SA? This could be for two reasons that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The first reason could be overwhelming incompetence. The second reason, more cynical, could be that for a failing state, a less capacitated Stats SA is necessary. In that way, as a society, we will never get to fully understand how far down has our society fallen.

A case in point is gender-based violence. If what we know without an official statistical study is terrifying, a certified report is likely to tell us much more. But because Stats SA does not have the resources to do this important work, we may never put an end to this scourge.

There is no telling what value the strategic direction adopted 10 years ago added, what was achieved or what was not.

Gumani Tshimomola, a doctoral student at Wits University focusing on the role of the treasury in South Africa’s political economy, is the Economic Freedom Fighter’s senior researcher in parliament

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.