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There is an enemy out there

Friday, 11 April 2008
On Sunday I watched the Carte Blanche episode on international perceptions of South Africa as an investment destination.  I was quite taken aback by how positive international perspectives are.  But during the interview Derek Watts, on describing circumstances in South Africa, used the phrase “lowest/highest/worst in the world” no less than four times.  If the rankings he described were true I might sit up and take notice, but they are not. The sad thing is that we are inundated with such claims, the great majority of which are, at worst, a blatant attempt to distort the truth and deceive the public or, at best, reflect poor journalism and inadequate investigation.

In this newsletter I will give eleven examples of such reporting, the source, the research and my sense of the motive behind the report which I will categorise as:

intentional deception, selective distortion or just plain shoddy journalism.

(If you don't have time to read them all, choose those that are of interest to you!)

Let me start with Derek Watts and Carte Blanche.

Claim: Our capability to attract foreign skills is in fact the lowest in the world.

Research: How is this "fact" established?  Acknowledging that we have not come across any research in this area, we turned to the experience of removal companies and their ratio of inbound/outbound removals. Recently we contacted a number of eminent companies in this regard and they tell us that the ratio is 1.8:1. In other words they are bringing in almost two families in for every one family they are taking out. Unfortunately, it is difficult to establish the profile of these families, as this information is confidential. We also know that Britain is experiencing one of the worst brain drains in its history and that many people leaving are contemplating South Africa as a destination. 

Category: shoddy journalism.

The quality of our education is not only low, in many instances it is the lowest in the world… literacy rates of grade 4 pupils indicates South Africa is among the worst in the world.

We do not hold a candle for education or for the Department of Education but cursory research tells us that South Africa ranks +/- 150th in the world in respect of literacy (out of 230 countries) and that our literacy levels are on a par with countries like Brazil, Bolivia, Malaysia and Turkey.

Category: selective distortion.

A quarter of South Africa's population lives on grants - the highest in the world. And this massive spending without saving fuels inflation.

We would agree that the number of people living on grants is approximately 25% of the population and that this is among the “recorded” highest in the world. But this is a bold observation; approximately 70% of the grant recipients are children and the balance predominantly old age pensioners and people with disability. Supporting children in the interests of adequate nutrition, proper shelter, decent care, clothing and access to education as part of our war on poverty should not be denigrated as "fuelling inflation”.

Category: selective distortion.

All of the analysts in London we spoke to are convinced that we are under-selling ourselves.  They all agree South Africans overseas and here have reason to be much more upbeat about the country and the economy.
We agree with this, Derek Watts’ concluding comment, and asked ourselves why. The conclusion we come to is that these analysts probably have a better understanding of what the circumstances are in their investment destinations, are somewhat more objective, and have a longer-term view.

Those are some of the claims that Carte Blanche passed off as fact on Sunday (April 6).

Here are some additional conventional wisdoms that you may have come across:

In South Africa the rich have become richer and the poor poorer.

The source is various newspapers, the research is that of the South African Advertising Research Foundation (SAARF) who report via their All Media and Products Survey (AMPS) that while the incomes of the poor have risen slower than the incomes of the rich, they have risen.  The disparity has grown, but GDP per capita has risen by 20%, across the board over the last five years, and in particular the incomes of the poorest 10% of South Africans have grown by 70% over the past five years (Statistics South Africa). The gap has grown, but the poor are not poorer. On the contrary, their living circumstances have improved.

Category: selective distortion.

Our HIV/Aids infection rate is the highest in the world.

Most authoritative agencies agree that about 12.5% of the total population is HIV positive (about 22% of the adult population) i.e. 5.5 million people.  According to the 2008 CIA Factbook, Botswana (37.3%), Lesotho (28.9%), Swaziland (38.8%) and Zimbabwe (24.6%) have higher infection rates although the number of people who are infected is less than South Africa’s by virtue of population size. Likewise India and China have just overtaken South Africa’s number of HIV positive people, although obviously the percentage infection rate is much, much lower.

Category: shoddy journalism.

Our crime is the worst in the world.

Most newspapers and talkshow hosts will agree with this claim.  Firstly, crime is notoriously badly reported globally.  Secondly, only 180 out of 230 countries report crime at all.  Thirdly, countries categorise crime statistics differently to deliberately play down the seriousness of the problem e.g. “assault by a youth” may be “assault” in one country and “juvenile crime” in another.  Our violent crime at 40 murders per 100 000 of population is in the top five in the “reported” world, but in all other categories of crime SA does not stand out in the developing or developed world (Interpol and the Institute of Security Studies). 

Category: shoddy journalism.

Poverty has doubled in the past ten years.

The source is the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR).  At the end of the day, this was a sensationalist headline which did little to justify really good inside research. The SAIRR could just as easily have reported: "Poverty on the Decline”. With GDP per capita rising at 20%, with 12.5 million South Africans receiving social grants (up from two million 12 years ago), with SAARF showing that families living in Living Standard Measure (LSM) 1 and 2 (the poorest of the poor) have reduced by 30% over the past 12 years, this claim cannot be substantiated. 

If poverty is defined as “the lack of access to the necessities of life in the form of food, clothing and shelter in such a manner that one’s life becomes precarious” (Mandla Seleoane of the Tshwane University of Technology), then over the past 12 years 2.3 million homes have been built, 3.5 million homes delivered electricity,  and 15 million citizens have access to fresh water that didn’t before. This "delivery" has impacted the poorest 20% of our population.

Category: selective distortion.

South African schools are the most dangerous in the world.

The source (again) is the South African Institute of Race Relations. Their report is based on outside research compiled by “Progress on Reading and Literacy in Schools” covering 41 countries.  There were approximately 120 variables in the research, two of which had to do with school climate.  Children were asked: “Do you experience bullying, theft or injury less than once a month (South Africa 23%), more than twice a month (South Africa 4%) or somewhere in between (South Africa 73%).  Similarly in 23 other countries, 4% of children experienced bullying, theft or violence more than twice a month, and in 12 countries the percentage was higher e.g. France 5%, England 6%.  The Institute took the 23% figure and claimed that only 23% of our children feel safe in school. 

Category: intentional deception.

South Africa’s abortion rate amongst the highest in the world.

The Star reported this week that 50% of pregnancies end up in abortion.  Women activist groups agree the figure is 2 - 3%.

Category: shoddy journalism.

Our Social Welfare System supports 12.3 million people and will create unhealthy dependency.

The HSRC report "Giving and Solidarity” agrees that 12.3 million people are beneficiaries of our Social Grant System, but argues on the basis of extensive research that social grants are promoting considerable entrepreneurship; economic activity in poor, rural areas; and better circumstances for children, particularly at school.  The Financial Mail in an editorial argued the case of unhealthy dependency  - “this growth is staggering and worrisome… income grants can create dependency by encouraging citizens to rely on the state to care for them rather than trying to find employment, by dampening human endeavour, grants entrench poverty rather than making gradual inroads into it”. 70% of the recipients of our social grants system are children, the balance largely pensioners and people with disability, odd conclusion I think. 

Category: shoddy journalism.

The Education Programme of the Government is an abject failure.

Again, the source is the South African Institute of Race Relations using outside research, such as the Joint Education Trust (JET).  However, according to Dr Gillian Godsell (Business Day 6 April) in an address to the SAIRR, “aggregating the maths data, the literacy data and the matric pass rate, we lose awareness of the excellence out there.  And then we do something even worse.  We aggregate one set of data, and compare it with data that are not only disaggregated, but carefully selected…this is like comparing apples with camels…averages are unhelpful…putting the wrong information out there affects the choices people make and people exercising choices play an extraordinary important role in keeping excellent state schools excellent.”

While we would agree that 80% of South Africa's schools are dysfunctional, it does not necessarily mean they deliver poor results. In many instances it means that their physical facilities are severely lacking.  I would argue that the SAIRR reporting on the State of our State Schools is guilty of the above. 

Category: selective distortion.

Who is the Enemy?

We are passionate about a free, independent and robust media, and are happy to report that South Africa ranks 43rd out of 163 countries in respect of press freedom! We are equally passionate about the importance of accuracy, of truth and of qualitative investigative journalism.  So, at South Africa – The Good News we spend a considerable part of our time questioning some of the conventional wisdoms that result from loose reporting and talkshow hosts' "loose lips”. We also spend most working days researching positive developments in this country trying to unearth and understand the facts and the truth.  So, when we read the words “in the world” we immediately establish:

  1. How many countries participated in the survey?
  2. What is South Africa’s position, where was it in previous years?
  3. Where did we do “best” and where did we do “worst”?
  4. What was the quantitative and qualitative data contained in the survey?
When the media is guilty of “comparing apples with camels”, we point it out.  Our letters are mostly published but not always.  So when you read “worst/highest/lowest in the world” question it, drill down and establish the facts.  In our experience, this claim has never been substantiated, quite simply because we have never come across research that covers every country in the world.

There is an enemy out there, an awful cocktail of intentional deception, selective distortion and shoddy journalism.  Such reporting has the potential of damaging our nation’s healing, creating a sense of “otherness”, and polarising our fragile race relations – unnecessarily. 

So don’t believe everything you read, you may end up making the wrong choices. Take the enemy on – demand the truth!

By Steuart Pennington
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