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Source: National Treasury
Title: Manuel: Anniversary Conference of the SA Statistics
ADDRESS BY TREVOR A MANUEL, MINISTER OF FINANCE, AT THE FIFTIETH
ANNIVERSARY CONFERENCE OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN STATISTICS ASSOCIATION,
Ekhureleni, 5 November 2003
Outgoing President of SASA, Professor de Wet
Thank you for honouring me with the invitation to address this
milestone conference, the fiftieth anniversary of the South African
Statistics Association (SASA).
This place is called Caesar's. I am reminded of the old Latin maxim
- Africa semper aliguid novi - "out of Africa, there is always
something new". Well, what is new out of Africa today is that
statisticians choose to gather at a casino.
This fact presents me with a philosophical problem. Is this the
thesis or the antithesis of the behaviour of statisticians? If it
is the thesis, then we accept that the throw of dice or the spin of
a one-armed-bandit is all determined by statistical probability.
Indeed, then, all of statistics is a gamble and understanding life
and numbers has just become much easier. If, on the other hand,
this is the antithesis, then the statisticians here who may in the
circumstances demonstrate a rush of blood to the head, hot flashes
or "hoopla" display - all of the characteristics that one would not
want in statisticians.
Whilst we ponder that, I have a confession to make. I too am a
gambler. I have a wonderful pair of brass dice. Instead of numbers,
my dice have words. On two sides the word NO appear, on a third
side MAYBE, a fourth side has IF, on the fifth UNLIKELY and the
sixth side has the word YES.
These dice are the tools of Finance Ministers. We roll them to
determine how to approach the request from colleagues for more
money. Of course NO has a much better chance. This method has never
let me down. I call it "derived evidence-based decision-making".
Each year, at around this time, I roll the dice and take the
decisions. Each year they add back to the predetermined fiscal
framework. We then set about describing these decisions in words
and numbers thus we compile the 1100 or so pages we release on
Returning to SASA, I would suggest that of its 50 years existence,
the past decade has been the most challenging and the most
rewarding because it is the first period that SASA was freed from
the strictures of apartheid. For the first time therefore, SASA
could draw on the skills of much wider cross-section of South
Africans. This fact is borne out by the representation here.
Let me share with you some of my observations about challenges that
confront SASA. I speak as a non-statistician, but as one depends on
timely and accurate statisticians for evidence-based
decision-making. I speak as the Minister responsible for
statistics, but who is prohibited by statute from being directly
involved in the work of Statistics South Africa (Stats SA). I have
a filter in the form of the Statistics Council Chaired by Dr
Hillary South all to intercede between Stats SA and I on the
outputs of Stats SA.
The first challenge I would like to share with you is embedded in
South Africa's past. Apartheid was a lie. It was a lie, which
masqueraded as truth, because it was apparently supported by
numbers. Blacks were not counted; they were not even regarded as
Notwithstanding, there were so-called statistical outputs derived
by warped fertility and morbidity models, with the occasional
aerial photographs to support the thesis. Today, there exists
amongst ordinary people an unhealthy disregard for official
statistics. Perhaps people remain of the view that the numbers will
be made up anyway. The first challenge, which confronts SASA, is
the restoration of trust in official statistics. Without the vital
element of trust, no official statistics will be reliable.
The second challenge is that there are too few South Africans who
love statistics or have a passion for it. As with first challenge,
this too is embedded in South Africa's apartheid history. On 17
September 1953, the Minister of Native Affairs, HF Verwoerd,
addressed Parliament and said, "What is the use of teaching the
Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice". Thus
Bantu Education was introduced in 1954, consciously de-emphasising
the teaching of mathematics and science.
A generation of mathematics students was destroyed and thereafter,
successive generations of mathematics teachers. To this day, the
teaching of mathematics and science, where it occurs in the
majority of schools is too frequently mediocre. Ten years into
democracy, this residue of apartheid decision lives on. It must be
reversed - not merely at universities or in the work place, but at
primary and pre-schools. SASA has a role to play. We have a model
teaching approach in ICOTS, which must be built out as a conscious
effort to interrupt the cycle of the poverty of numeracy.
The third challenge is the absence of sufficient discourse on
methodology and outcomes. At a distance I observe how easily
positions are polarised and entrenched. I have seen this with data
sets like causes of death, road accidents, crime and HIV and AIDS.
Statisticians become the analysts. Results trump method. The value
of statistics is lost. I truly hope that SASA, and this conference
in particular will deal with this illusion of certainly, which
parades as professional confidence.
The fourth challenge is to try and pace ourselves relative to our
capacity. I have, at close quarters, observed the struggles of my
counterparts on the Africa continent as they prepare Poverty
Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). The PRSPs must be consulted upon
and have a strong statistical foundation. In the absence of the
latter, these countries cannot easily access facilities such as the
debt relief for Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC). South
Africa, or parts of it, is highly sophisticated. We are not deemed
either highly indebted or poor. We are thus required to play in a
different league. We have to comply with the Standardised Data
Dissemination Standard (SDDS). The requirements are onerous.
Yet, we must recognise that the South Africa of the majority is
indeed deeply poor. Similarly, we lack a sufficient skills
endowment to meet all of the requirements. SASA must rise to the
challenge of deepening the skills base whilst engaging in a process
to determine how much we can undertake reasonably.
The fourth challenge I wish to draw attention to is - what gets
measured and who determines that. I observed an interesting debate
in the United States (US) recently on the war in Iraq. What do you
measure as the cost of war?
* The cost of the bombs dropped in April and the troops
* The additional $87 billion approved by Congress last week for
* The number of body bags returned (measured alone?) or with the
number of injured (both physical and mentally) troops
* The profound anti-Americanism developing in large parts of the
* The inter-temporal taxation effects of a deficit now approaching
5% of US GNP.
What gets measured? And, who determines that?
I recognise that the work of statisticians is incredibly hard. I
recognise too that the work of statisticians too frequently tends
to be numbers driven - many statisticians appear happy to live in a
rarefied environment with their computers and models and then tend
to see conversation with other people as a horrible intrusion. But,
our best endeavours are not about numbers, they are about people
and the quality of the lives of even the poorest. This is the
measure of civilisation.
Statistics can make an enormous difference to the quality of
democracy. Innumeracy is the enemy of democracy. People familiar
with numbers and facts can measure progress in their own lives and
are empowered to speak about what remains to be done.
SASA, through its work, can thus significantly contribute to the
quality of democracy. It can do this by broadening the number of
statisticians, and generating the love for numbers and a broad
statistical literacy in society. This is a huge but highly
rewarding task. It is the kind of task that makes everyday worth
getting out of bed for.
In conclusion, I am reminded that Ian Hacking argues, "Quiet
statisticians have changed our world, not by discovering new facts
or technical developments, but by changing the ways that we reason,
experiment and for our opinions".
I invite SASA to go forward in the same spirit.
I have pleasure in opening the 50th Anniversary Conference of SASA
and I wish you the very best - your discussions and
Source: National Treasury (http://www.treasury.gov.za)