The Politics of Numbers

2016-06-14 15:50

“Statistics is the salt of politics, therefore it needs to be protected and held aloft from political agendas”. These are the words that flowed from the mouth of Pali Lehohla, South Africa’s Staistician General and head of Statistics South Africa. In what was some of the coldest weather since I can remember, such a statement was ushered in a year where numbers have become undeniably salient. Promises and statements from candidates and incumbents alike amid the coming municipal elections, are drawn from percentages and figures to drive home the points of politicians. 2016 has become a year where numbers have become of greater concern for our governance structures and ultimately the country as a whole.

Recent reports by the Auditor General show substantial increases in misallocation/misspending of public funds reaching into the billions of Rands. The growing number of political assassinations in my own province of KwaZulu-Natal also draws concern, as infighting within the African National Congress sheds light on possible self-implosion. Our economy shows increasing contraction, as political scandals are mentioned by ratings agencies (Moody’s and Fitch) as areas of concern for investors and loan agencies. Pravin Gordhan and his team’s creativity may have veered into dubious presentations of our economic truth (who knows how else we might have escaped the jaws of junk status). From farm murders to unemployment, statistics tell the truth of where we are, socially and economically.

It then comes as no surprise that political officials desire to control and misinform the public when it comes to statistics and numbers. It may well be that misinformation was deployed to convince grading officials from dragging us to dreaded junk status. Statistics may well be the last domain of truth we have left following the media policy of state broadcasting houses like the SABC. This is something which incumbent government will seek to control in future, as numeric literacy becomes ubiquitous. It follows logic that politics is the artful form of deception, while statistics are the manifestation of truth. These entities become at odds when the former is pursuant toward self-interest, while the other tells the story as it is.

The assessment of statistical houses (Stats SA and the Auditor General) as autonomous houses for the publication of public data for the public good, looks dire. Recent leaks from the media hotbox about the ongoing war between the presidency and the ministry of finance suggest no state body, no matter how integral to national functioning, is off limits. This leads to the larger question about data custodianship and access. As technology allows for larger data collection and enmeshment, the custodianship and resulting policies (whether by governments or corporations) becomes of greater concern to individual and collective well-being. Security has been the main driver of data collection, with marketing purposes closely behind.

The paranoia of the US National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and money, accompanied by rapacious marketing by digital blue chip companies (Google, Facebook and the like) are not the only uses for big data. More and more scientifically verified studies beneficial for human behaviour and health are published everyday. Developing countries can align themselves to this train of research for their long term policies should their governments resolve themselves to long term planning and discipline for the greater good.

The story of South Africa is already being told relating to our social, political and economic trajectory, with the picture far from desirable. Who comes to control publication, dissemination and storage of data becomes an increasingly salient question as we enter the golden age of information. One can only hope the interpretation, and thus our ability to act upon our own story avoids being hijacked to self-interest and autocratic desire.

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