Straight-talking statistician-general Pali Lehohla raises economic issues and rings social alarm bells, and his message should jolt us into action.
One of the soundtracks of the New South Africa was a song released in 1993 by music group Boom Shaka, titled It’s About Time.
The catchy refrain of the song said: It’s about time, to listen to Boom Shaka.
And the nation obeyed. In those years, black and white South Africans found the rhythm of our new nation in the kwaito phenomenon that was Boom Shaka.
The energetic quartet comprising the late Lebo Mathosa, Junior Sokhela, Theo Nhlengethwa and Thembi Seete ushered us into our democratic future.
If the 1990s were a time to listen to Boom Shaka, the song of the second half of the second decade of the 21st century ought to say, “It’s about time to listen to Dr Pali Lehohla”, our truth-telling and straight-talking statistician-general.
Unlike the message of Boom Shaka, the message of Dr Lehohla is not intended to get the nation dancing. Except if we wish to be “dancing the death drill” of the kind Fred Khumalo writes about in his recent book of the same title. But unlike the heroic death drill of the men of the sinking SS Mendi, ours will be the shameful dancing of perishing fools drunk with ignorance, having failed to read the signs of our times.ADVERTISING
It’s about time to listen carefully to Pali Lehohla. Afflicted by the present and future implications of the disparities suggested in the big data of our nation, Lehohla has been raising several economic issues and ringing social alarm bells over the past few years.
Each year, he sounds more and more like a clairvoyant (a word whose literal meaning is: “someone who sees clearly”) tormented by a crystal clear vision of an unfolding tragedy coming at us like a ferocious hurricane.
But his is not the airy-fairy vision of the eccentric psychic holed up in a cave atop the mountains of Maluti. He claims no special revelation or esoteric knowledge visited upon him either by the gods or the spirits of the dead. Don’t let his bright yellow suit cause you to mistake him for a TB Joshua, a TD Jakes or a modern day Mhlakaza.
Lehohla’s clarion calls are informed by the numbers he has been employed to crunch on our behalf. The mirror he puts before the nation is made up of a blinding tapestry of figures, digits, numerals and numbers.
It’s about time to listen to Pali Lehohla, lest we miss the many windows (of opportunity) he has been pointing out to the nation, beyond the mirror.
One such window was the so-called demographic dividend which Lehohla believes South Africa has missed completely through its spectacular failure to invest in the youth, resulting in an inadequately skilled workforce.
“There is an uneasy intersection and confluence of socio-economic, demographic, biological and economic forces which portend a land and a country at the crossroads,” he said in a recent article.
In this regard, Lehohla has alluded to worrying stats related to issues as varied as incidents of spousal violence, obesity among women, high levels of alcohol consumption patterns among young boys and men, infantile stunting, as well as a high number of school-age youth who are not at school.
One of the most consistent messages to have come from Lehohla in recent times relates to the critical role of education if the country is to pull itself out of the doldrums. Many times, in various ways, Lehohla has pointed out our problem is not merely that we have a chronically high unemployment rate, but the vast majority of the unemployed are young and unskilled.
In 1970, Nina Simone lamented the fate of her black compatriots in the song, To Be Young, Gifted and Black. It seems to me that a different song of lament, “to be young, unskilled and black'”,may speak more truthfully to our situation. What fate is more cruel than being young and unskilled in the 21st century – the century of the third industrial revolution?
Unemployment among “graduates from non-university education qualifications in the post-school system is equivalent to those with only matric”, says Lehohla elsewhere.
But how can a country such as ours afford such a grotesque mismatch between post-school vocational qualifications and employability? Nor has Lehohla minced his words regarding what the numbers say about the efficacy of our university system.
He has argued with a million students enrolled in a system that has capacity only for 600000 students, the South African university system is bloated, over-subscribed and necessarily inefficient.
While making his presentation to the Heher Commission, Lehohla pointed out that while “graduates among whites constitute 47% of the white population in the age group 25-34 (which is an increase of) almost 20 percentage points in the last 20 years among black persons the proportion of graduates is 9%’.
These kinds of statements, as well as his inferences that the country may be in danger of regressing beyond apartheid statistics in some instances, have led the department of higher and basic education to object to some of Lehohla’s stats and/or his deductions. It is possible that, a few times, Lehohla may shoot from the proverbial hip.
But the picture we see in the mirror he holds before us, can neither be summarily dismissed nor blamed entirely on him. It is hard to dispute Lehohla’s assertion that inequality among whites is lower (with a Gini Coefficient of 0.45, dropped from 0.56 in 2006) while the inequality among blacks is higher (with a Gini Coefficient of nearly 0.66).
These numbers do not bode well either for social cohesion or for social stability. As Lehohla notes, statistics ought to be more than “simple backward-looking facts that only serve to be marvelled at”. Instead they should be used to improve our “modelling capability in state planning” as we chisel out the future we want for ourselves for generations to come.
Referring to the results of the General Household Survey periodically conducted by Statistics South Africa, Lehohla noted “among reasons why they are not in school young boys say school is useless and young girls say they have family responsibilities”.
According to Lehohla, such is the growing constellation of negative socio-economic factors, some South African youth may be tempted to think that crime pays more than education. What with some influential leaders publically and repeatedly trashing the value of education and educational qualifications,Lehohla might as well have substituted “crime” with “political connections”. The latter seems to pay as well if not better, if you can work out the difference between the two, that is.
The cry of Pali Lehohla, captured in more than 700 opinion pieces since the year 2000, dozens of official briefings and numerous media interviews, ought to pump up the wells beneath our eyeballs until they flow over with tears. It ought to send a chill down our spines. It ought to rouse our leaders from the deadly politics of the belly and their petty-politicking. Lehohla’s message ought to jolt us all into action.
* Maluleke is a professor at the University of Pretoria. He writes in his personal capacity. You can follow him on Twitter @ProfTinyiko