What’s more important, getting the facts right or getting the stats defined?


By Steuart Pennington

I was interested to see that Minister Dlamini-Zuma is reported as saying “credible statistics are necessary to ensure a better life for all South Africans” when tabling her budget vote for Stats SA “because policymakers and implementers use the data produced to inform decisions, without good statistics the policy development, planning and decision-making process is a blind one. We cannot learn from our mistakes and the public cannot hold us accountable. Statistics allow us to understand and learn from the past.”

I agree, but in the absence of definitions we still won’t know what we are talking about.

For example, Government constantly raises the challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment.


StatsSA tells this that 55% of the population is defined as living in poverty, that we have the worst GINI co-efficient in the world, and that 26% of our working population is ‘officially’ unemployed.

The Economist defines poverty “as a short, brutish and wretched life with no reliable access to education, healthcare, proper clothing and shelter, let alone electricity and potable water and enough food for physical and mental health.” It mentions that the internationally acceptable extreme poverty line is $1.25 a day (R 15.00), but that in the richer parts of the emerging world $4.00 (R 50.00) a day is the poverty barrier.

  • What is the StatsSA definition of poverty? OR is the 55% ‘stat’ aimed at justifying the R140 billion spent on 17 million Social Grant recipients in 2016.

In contrast, StatsSA tell us that 88% of the population live in a formal dwelling with a mobile phone, colour television, access to subsidised electricity and potable water and free education.

  • Is this ‘stat’ a justification of successful social services delivery?

It is therefore doubtful that 55% of our citizens live in the poverty conditions defined by the Economist above, closer to 5.5% maybe.

Where did the ‘stat’ that 30% of South Africans own a second home go?


Likewise with inequality, do we define our GINI co-efficient ‘stat’ in a manner which includes social grants, pensions, disability allowances, foster parenting allowances, free schooling, subsidised housing, electricity, water and the like – or excludes them, just measuring earned income and crudely comparing the top 10% with the bottom 10%?


And in respect of ‘official’ unemployment, do we define the 6.5 million people ‘unofficially’ economically engaged in the informal sector (valued at R 850 billion per annum) as being lumped with the 8 million ‘stat’ of the ‘officially’ unemployed in the formal sector because statistical data can’t capture or trace them?

  • Is this ‘stat’ a further justification of our Social Grant spend?

This begs a much larger question, is the government agenda informing what StatsSA publishes, or is what StatsSA publishes informing the Government agenda on ‘policy development, planning and decision-making’?

Given the inconsistencies cited above methinks it is the former.

I’m not sure Minister Dlamini-Zuma wants our stats to ‘learn from the past’ but rather to use our stats to ‘justify the future’.