Even in the best democracies statisticians are not safe - Pali Lehohla

Statistics SA statistician general Pali Lehohla.
Statistics SA statistician general Pali Lehohla.

Pretoria – Statistician General Pali Lehohla said he does his job without fear or favour, but even in the best democracies statisticians are not always safe.

Lehohla was speaking at Statistics South Africa’s (StatsSA) briefing on the Poverty trends report for the years between 2006 and 2015, released on Tuesday.

According to the statistics, the number of people living in poverty increased from 53.2% (27.3 million people) in 2011 to 55.5% (30.4 million people) in 2015. Lehohla told Fin24 his nerves had become numb to these statistics because he had seen them so often.

When asked what solutions he could present to government based on the statistics, Lehohla explained the role of the statistics is to put a diagnosis in place which would create a platform for public discourse to make predictions and then prescribe solutions.

“You can find solutions when you have a plan and when you start the planning practice,” he said. However the problem is that the numbers are not used in the planning practice. “That’s the fundamental problem we have.”

Lehohla said that perhaps the numbers are not being used because StatsSA is not presenting the numbers in ways people can understand them. Lehohla believes that although StatsSA has, people might not have the capacity to digest the numbers and plan with them. “I do not think we have reached that, but we should not shy away from deficiencies in capacity.”

“Unless we look at numbers as policymakers, we are far from resolving the problems of South Africa," he said. South Africa is not engaging enough with the numbers, he told Fin24. “We cannot run a modern economy without engaging with the numbers. That is the purpose they are there.

“If you had to be a SG and dance on a flat surface of a sword, it is a very safe space. Perhaps the SG has to dance on the serrated side of the sword so that the numbers begin to be meaningful,” he said.

Lehohla explained that in countries, the chief statistician is most exposed to government programmes, having to constantly deliver news to government. In many countries the laws do not protect statisticians. “In South Africa it does … but it does not go far enough like with the Public Protector, the Chief Justice and the like,” he said.

“I do not feel unprotected in South Africa. I do deliver these numbers.”  But Lehohla said even in the best democracies statisticians are not safe.

National Development Plan

StatsSA also measured the progress of reaching the targets of the NDP. This includes reducing the proportion of the population living below the lower-bound poverty line from 29%, recorded in 2009, to zero by 2030; reducing income inequality from 0.7 reported in 2010 to 0.6 in 2030, reduce poverty induced hunger to 0% by 2030 and the share of income to the bottom 40% of income earners to rise from 6% to 10%.

In relation to these targets, those living below the lower-bound poverty line was at 40% in 2015; income inequality is currently at 0.68; the share of income of the bottom 40% was at 8.3% in 2015 and poverty-induced hunger is at 25.2%.

Lehohla said that the three challenges of the NDP, being  poverty, inequality and unemployment must be dealt with sustainably.

“We can only deal with poverty sustainably when people have the dignity of work,” he said. “Unemployment is rising, showing the dignity of work is not about to come.”

Unemployment has been a key driver of poverty, said Lehohla. Further, the drought and weak economic growth had drastically impacted the patterns of poverty in the country. “We need a much stronger system,” he said.

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