Statistician-general Risenga Maluleke. Picture: SIYABULELA DUDA
Statistician-general Risenga Maluleke. Picture: SIYABULELA DUDA

Minister in the presidency Jackson Mthembu will meet the SA Statistics Council this weekend, after its members threatened to resign en masse over a funding crunch at Stats SA.

The 20-person council is charged with promoting and safeguarding official statistics published by Stats SA, as well as advising the minister of planning, monitoring and evaluation in the presidency, and the agency’s head, statistician-general Risenga Maluleke.

Stats SA produces a raft of important statistics on everything from consumer inflation, and unemployment data to surveys on poverty and inequality. These are used to inform private-sector planning as well as government’s policymaking and budgeting decisions on crucial services such as health and education.

But successive budget cuts, a long-standing hiring freeze and a vacancy rate of close to 20% have left Stats SA at a tipping point as it heads into an important national census in 2021, according to the council’s chair, Prof David Everatt,

Without the council’s support, the official statistics published “are effectively rendered meaningless” and this has serious economic consequences, Everatt told Business Day on Tuesday. He was speaking shortly after the council released a statement outlining its promise to quit if the government does not provide the agency more funds.

Mthembu, the council and Maluleke will meet on Sunday, February 23 to “further engage on ways to guarantee the integrity of the entire system of the nation’s statistics ... within the constraints the national fiscus is faced with,” the ministry spokesperson Nonceba Mhlauli said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon.

“The lack of funding for Stats SA is a matter the minister is fully aware of,” she said. “The minister and the statistician-general have been in negotiations with the finance minister in this regard.”

The talks have resulted in partial additional funding being provided to Stats SA that will come into effect on April 1, Mhlauli said.

However, according to the council, emergency funds of R46m promised to Stats SA this year amount to “once-off Band-Aids” that will not stop the decline of the institution.

Though the state has also allocated Stats SA an additional R3.2bn in the coming years to conduct the census, Everatt said this “does not mean that Stats SA is functional”, only that the government had costed the rollout of the census. “A census that has no Stats SA to analyse it or run a post-enumeration survey is a waste of money.” 

Ahead of the ministry’s announcement, Maluleke appeared before the portfolio committee on public service and administration on Wednesday morning when he promised, despite the constraints, to maintain the quality of the country’s statistics.

Important surveys, such as the income and inequality survey, remain partially funded, he told MPs, which “has effects on the poverty estimates, the [consumer price inflation] baskets, the GDP estimates.”

Nevertheless, he assured MPs, that “while the basic statistics remains at risk in [the] long term” any statistics made public by Stats SA “are solid ... We will do everything to maintain the quality of basic statistics.”

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