Statistics, labour & a no-confidence vote in Zuma

Posted on July 28, 2017


South Africa’s Labour Forces Survey (LFS) for the second quarter of this year has been postponed from July 25 to the eve of August 8. But there is probably nothing sinister about the delay although details in the LFS are likely to be swamped by reports from parliament on that day.

It was this fact that triggered rumours that the delay and the date chosen were deliberate, a desperate attempt to at least partially bury possibly very bad news in the LFS. This is understandable in circumstances of much media manipulation and because the media focus on August 8 will certainly be on the scheduled parliamentary vote of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma.

Radio, television and print outlets are likely to have an almost exclusive focus on how the parliamentary process unfolds: arguments about a secret ballot or not, the ultimate decision on the day and the result of any vote. All to be followed by recriminations and analysis. Hopefully not to the exclusion of serious consideration of the LFS.

Because the LFS is a much more accurate reflection of reality for the majority of South Africans than is the hullabaloo in parliament. And the postponement of the results is also not unusual. There have been delays in the past, usually for the same reason advanced this time: “The processing of data has taken longer than anticipated.”

This to ensure that there are no errors in the figures. The fact that August 8 was selected as the date to announce the LFS results may be purely coincidental. Especially since what the survey reveals is unlikely to be any worse than already anticipated.

It seems probable that — barring some serious, but unlikely, massaging of the statistics — the already established upward trend of joblessness will be shown to have continued, along with a possible further decline in the total income received in salaries and wages. This decline in disposable income has a serious knock-on effect, particularly in the wholesale and retail sectors.

Total earnings figures for the first quarter of this year declined by R19.4 billion and this has had a dampening effect on sales across the board. A classic example was provided this week by a long established Cape Town retail business that has registered a decline of R1.2 million in turnover this year.

Over recent months, five of the company’s 25 long-serving employees have also retired, but only two have been replaced. The consequence is that there are now fewer taxpayers in the business. The lower turnover also means lower VAT returns for government and lower tax revenues as profits are squeezed.

It is a gloomy scenario that has seen at least one leading commentator predict that the government could soon be bankrupt. This at a time when two sections of the pubic service are on strike, wage negotiations are scheduled to begin for the overall pubic sector and there are more than 150 000 state posts vacant.

Now, only one month into the third quarter, there is the prospect of 2 651 jobs being lost should the Bokoni platinum mine in Limpopo go onto a “care and maintenance” basis. Talks are also underway about more than 8 500 possible retrenchments announced last month by AngloGold Ashanti.

Such potentially large scale job losses make the news. But most of the very many cases of steady employment attrition never do. It should also not be forgotten that to be officially regarded as employed means only to have worked for one hour during the week surveyed.

The official StatsSA definition of employed people (between the ages of 15 and 64) is: “[Anyone] who, during the reference week, did any work for at least one hour, or had a job or business but were not at work (temporarily absent).” If that definition was extended to anyone eking out a bare living earning less than R1 000 a month — a reflection of hidden unemployment — it is clear that the majority of South Africans are now jobless.

This is the reality that the LFS deals with. As statistician Pali Lehohla notes, his department’s work analyses the problems that need urgently to be tackled. As such, the LFS is perhaps even more deserving of attention on August 8 as the parliamentary circus featuring far too many highly paid political party voting fodder.