Mboweni slams Statistics Council for 'bad etiquette' after funding gripe

26 February 2020 - 18:52 By Andisiwe Makinana
Finance minister Tito Mboweni has criticised the Statistics Council for publicly threatening to "resign" over alleged funding shortages at Stats SA.
Finance minister Tito Mboweni has criticised the Statistics Council for publicly threatening to "resign" over alleged funding shortages at Stats SA.
Image: Sunday Times/Esa Alexander

Finance minister Tito Mboweni has lashed out at the South African Statistics Council, accusing it of “bad etiquette” and “wrong upbringing” for recent threats to resign over inadequate funding of Stats SA by the government.

The council is an advisory body that endorses the releases of data by Stats SA. Its members recently threatened to resign as a measure of last resort if the national statistics agency did not get more funding to fill frozen posts.

Mboweni criticised the council for complaining in the media, instead of engaging Treasury director-general Dondo Mogajane about its concerns.

Responding to journalists about the Treasury's plans to address the financial crisis at Stats SA, Mogajane said the budgeting process was not an overnight event and Stats SA had known about its preliminary allocation for at least three months.

He said the allocation was a product of various processes that the Treasury engages in, which departments and state agencies participate in and were aware of.

“I don't want it to appear as if we are being pressurised by the council or by some people who are pushing - and because of that push we then relented as government and then we are giving them resources," he said.

“That is not true. It is not true because in the budget engagements that we have throughout the year, we interact with departments on a bilateral basis … and we issue allocation letters.”

He said over the next three years, Stats SA would get R154m to address compensation challenges - R40m in the first year. They would also get R150m for poverty surveys and an extra R4.2bn for the 2021 census. He said Stats SA was aware of these allocations since around November 2019.

“It would be bad budgeting when departments, agencies or public entities go to the media and shout, raise fists and say, 'We want more', and then we are seen to be giving them.

“There is a process that is very structured and departments know this. So this matter is laid to rest. There is no underfunding of any kind. There are processes to address the shortcomings and the shortfalls that they have.

"We think Stats SA will remain a credible institution that provides credible statistics that can actually inform our planning moving forward as a country.”

Mboweni felt Mogajane was being “very nice” in his response to the council.

“DG, you are very nice. It was bad etiquette on the part of Stats SA's council,” he said.

“You don't start with me like that. You can't negotiate with me in public by sowing volleys of bad language at me. Don't do that. Bad etiquette. Wrong upbringing. Don't do that kind of thing. You go through the process, as the DG has outlined it,” said the minister.

A visibly annoyed Mboweni said going to the media brought short-term publicity with no long-term gain. “They might sell a couple of more newspapers using your headline and bad etiquette … You go to the DG and discuss with the director-general - not this bad etiquette.” 

His comments come after the council published a press statement earlier this month complaining that despite Stats SA being a globally recognised centre of excellence for producing official statistics, its budget was reduced in 2015 and a freeze on all posts was imposed by the government. It said the situation reached crisis point by early 2020, with a vacancy rate of almost 20%.

“If Treasury fails immediately to fund Statistics SA adequately, like Humpy-Dumpty it may not be able to put it together again - and decades of building the institution post-1994 will have been wasted,” said the council statement, warning that StatsSA was at a tipping point.

“The warning lights are flashing red and government needs to act swiftly if South Africa is to retain a robust and innovative Stats SA. If Stats SA is not able to fill posts with skilled people, keep sample sizes up and innovate, the council will be forced to withdraw support for official statistics.

“This is the very worst option for everyone in South Africa, but council either endorses the release of data everyone can trust or council stops, because we cannot endorse data we mistrust.”

The body called on the government to heed its call and inject funds into Stats SA or “council will withdraw our support for official statistics - and resign”.