OPINION: Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Norman McFarlane

The genesis of this assertion is shrouded in conjecture, but it is, in this form, most commonly attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, fully 15 years after his death.

The New York Times editorial of August 20 1895, addressing the subject of official statistics, says: “According to a saying credited to Lord Beaconsfield, there are three kinds of mendacity-lies, blank lies, and statistics.

“This means, doubtless, that nobody with a cause to maintain it ever lacked figures with which to do it.”

As May 8 races ever closer, and political parties scramble for the votes they desperately need to retain their presences in provincial and national legislatures, the poor, confused voter will be bombarded with statistics in an attempt to get them to put their crosses in a particular box on their ballot papers.

The ANC will proudly announce how many households have been electrified and connected to water-borne sanitation, how many people have easy access to potable water, how many houses have been built and given to people, how many clinics and schools have been constructed, how many people passed matric last year, how many jobs were created, and how many people receive social grants each month.

Similarly, the DA will proudly announce what it has achieved where it rules, either at provincial or local government level: how many schools and clinics it has built, how many job opportunities it has created, how much money it has saved by dismantling the patronage networks in municipalities previously run by the ANC, how many unqualified audits it has achieved (compared to the ANC), and how much lower is unemployment in the
Western Cape compared to other provinces (run by the ANC) and nationally (run by the ANC).

What the ANC won’t tell the voter is just how many homes still need to be connected to the grid and water-borne sanitation, have no easy access to potable water, how many people do not have a roof over their heads, how many school pupils are housed in school buildings that are in shocking condition, how many rural schools still have pit toilets 25 years into democracy, how many children start school in Grade 1 but never write and pass a matric exam, how pitifully few taxpayers fund the fiscus which pays those social grants, or how many billions of rands are wiped off the national GDP when load shedding kicks in – R1 billion per load shedding stage per day.

The DA won’t tell the voter about the decline in clean audit reports noted by the Western Cape office of the auditor general, the extent of irregular expenditure, how many schools and clinics it has struggled to get built because of unrest in
target communities, the extent of community dissatisfaction which manifests in service delivery protests – in the last fortnight, Sir Lowry’s Pass Village, Bot River, Knysna, to name a few, have brought those communities to a standstill and closed national roads.

(The EFF doesn’t figure in this debate, because it rules nowhere, and rather than deploy selective statistics, it issues veiled threats, makes grandiose but laughably unrealistic promises, attempts to compensate for its previous political gaffes, all in an attempt to shore up its electoral prospects, in what is arguably the most hotly contested election since 1994.)

But there are some statistics which must be put to politicians on the stump, with a demand for answers. Why did 10 million eligible voters not bother to register to vote in the May 8 election?

Why, according to the latest Ipsos poll, do 37% of eligible voters feel that no political party represents their views?

Why, according to the same poll, are 25% of eligible voters not interested in politics or elections?

Why is the January business confidence index sitting at 28 index points, one up on January last year, and only 16 index points above the all-time low of 12 index points, reported in the fourth quarter 1977?

Asking these questions of politicians will put them on the spot, but chances are, the answers will be along the lines of: “I’m glad you asked that question” followed by a non-sequitur. Why? Because honest answers will do the politician on the spot no favours.

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