OPINION | Stats SA's poverty survey is Covid-19's latest victim - and we can't afford to lose it

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  • Stats SA has battled budget cuts for several years. 
  • The latest Covid-19 related budget cuts mean it will not be able to issue its income and expenditure surveys for 2020 and 2021, which cast an essential spotlight on poverty and income levels in the country. 
  • At a time when unreliable data is rife, Stats SA consistently delivers on its targets, despite its increasingly stretched resources.



Much has been said these past few months about 'essential' services. Some activities have to happen for the basics of life to proceed. This idea has been central to the conversation around the immediate goal of restricting the spread of the Covid-19 virus; but it is a useful guide to so much more.

It was recently announced that Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) – the country's official statistics authority, and a fount of critical information for anyone invested in the future – would need to cancel its planned income and expenditure surveys for 2020 and 2021.

This came on the heels of a cut in its funding of some R200 million in the Supplementary Budget, down from the original appropriation of R3.45 billion in February to R3.25 billion. And this in turn compounds a problem that has been years in the making.

In February this year, Professor David Everatt, chair of the Statistics Council (which advises the minister and the Statistician-General on any issue concerned with the production and use of official statistics) pointed out that Stats SA had for some five years been straining under an inadequate budget and a freeze of posts, with a vacancy rate of some 20%.

Stretched

Its staffers were having to take responsibility for ever larger volumes of work, stretching their working hours (and working weeks), and curtailing the possibilities of promotion. Unsurprisingly, this made it an increasingly tough environment in which to work, and a decreasingly attractive option for promising young statisticians.

"Stats SA," said Prof Everatt, "is being asset-stripped because it cannot offer any type of career prospects for any member of staff – because government refuses to change its approach to the budget and freeze on posts."

And, as Prof Everatt and others have noted, Stats SA has not reached this point because of venality and mismanagement. On the contrary, its functioning has been clean and efficient, exemplary in fact, by the standards of South African state entities.

And its work, even under these difficult conditions, has been excellent and professional. It holds its own in respect of its peers globally, and equally importantly, its work is regarded as credible across the board.

We at the Centre For Risk Analysis are fortunate to have developed a good relationship with Stats SA and its data is an indispensable input into our work. We can attest to the utility of its work to understanding the socio-economic dynamics of the country. Indeed, as South Africa grapples with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown, its inquiries into the state of business have been a dispassionate if sobering reminder of the scale of the challenges facing the country.

Beyond this, South Africa is – at least in theory – committed to evidence-based policy making. Policy must – again, in theory – be based on a thorough understanding of its problems and of possible solutions. It's hard to think of any agency of the state which is more crucial to this endeavour than Stats SA.

The probable loss of the income and expenditure survey is a blow to understanding the nature of our society. It remains to be seen how the 2021 census will fare. Informed planning for the future will be compromised if this first-hand, on-the-ground research is absent.

With Stats SA weakened and incapacitated, policy-making will inevitably be surrendered to ideology, to special interest contestation and to sentiment. True enough, a great deal of this exists at the moment, so a future in which the evidence base shrivels is a frightening one.

Bear in mind that as Stats SA is deprived of the means to fulfil its mandate, expensive fantasies about new airlines, a state-owned pharmaceutical company and so much more – all with enormous price tags and a decade of experience that fails to inspire confidence – are being placed on the table. Stats SA, by contrast needs a comparatively modest investment and has a track record of excellence to justify it. The incoherence of this is staggering.

Stats SA is an essential institution, providing the country with an essential service. South Africa cannot afford to lose or weaken it.

* Tamara Dimant is head of information, and Thuthukani Ndebele head of research, at the Centre for Risk Analysis (CRA)

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