The real numbers: If only we’d learnt from past mobilisations, Newsline

By Pali Lehohla

JOHANNESBURG – One thing the government has is abundant experience in the university of life.

Yet these lessons often wither like history. Nothing measures up to the corruption the Covid-19 pandemic has spawned. This week, I had a discussion with fellow former Statistics SA employee Vusile Mathebula. Before joining Stats SA, Mathebula had a serious NGO experience.

He was reluctant about working in a government bureaucracy. Here is his story in his own words.

“After three days of being persuaded otherwise I finally joined Stats SA.

“I then went for an orientation programme for newly appointed provincial staff members. This was on the third day. Three days before the big day, I was introduced to the bank as a key signatory – and we withdrew cash to buy batteries… phone cards, meals and many other things.

“I hit the ground running. I had to study the system, take over the leadership, identify critical risk areas and at the same time, make sure that Census was supported. It was a hell of job.

“I had to co-ordinate regional offices but there was a strike by listers who were not paid for the work done in August. We rolled with the punches and created control measures (financial and internal) to reduce the risk.

“The key risk was about an outsourced enumerator appointment system which could not be used for the Persal system of government. The system was designed such that it would verify employees with Home Affairs and share the information with the post office to facilitate the payments of workers.

“Although the system was tested during Census pilot, listing and other small-scale survey projects, it flattened miserably before it reached the half-peak intake of census data collection staff.

“There was a crisis lurking that would collapse the informational base for the nation. With the help of Standard Bank, we kicked in a simpler spreadsheet-based system and printed cheques for payment. But this required verification with the home affairs ID database.”

While Covid-19 has exposed the weak governance, massive corruption and poor service delivery, the 2001 Census exposed false marriages to South African women that were facilitated by a syndicate who used this to legitimise citizenship to illegal immigrants.

Perhaps former home affairs minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi was right to insist on creating a “love test” platform for foreign men who wanted to marry South African women.

Each largescale mobilisation has its own challenges. Learning from these operations could have put the UIF Covid-19 Temporary Employer-Employee Relief Scheme (Ters) benefit in a better position. Next year in his 2021 Census, Statistician-General Risenga Maluleke will have to adjust to this new environment.

He is up to the task.

Dr Lehohla is the former statisticiangeneral of South Africa and former head of Statistics SA.