Data: the blunt instrument used to beat South Africa?

eNitiate | Bra Willy Seyama | Data the blunt instrument | Mar 2021

This is the second eNsight in a series that is based on the latest Global Digital Report that incorporates assessment of trends of individual African countries.

The the related eNsight in the series can be found in the link below.

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In this eNsight I intend to show that South Africa is among the leading countries in the world in giving free access to quality data that across many areas.

I also argue that, in turn, that the freely accessible data are used as a blunt instrument to beat the country on the head, and at times unfairly.

Join in.

Table of Contents

Inspiration for the eNsight

It has been my observation that negative reportage using South Africa’s own data has become a trend that is increasingly on steroids.

The one-sidedness of the negative reportage has been bothering me for some while, and now I am frankly gatvol with it all.

Thanks to the power of the Internet – the best thing for Africa since the slice of bread, I am hereby able to share a different perspective with the world, using the same and other trusted data sources for Mzansi.

So let’s get into it.

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An observation on the data-based reportage of South Africa

Join me in counting the main topics that are reported on in the media about South Africa, which are based on hard data:

  • Population census
  • Pregnancy, birth and death rates
  • TB, HIV and AIDS among health-related data
  • Company registrations, inflation, GINI co-efficient, employment and related national economy data
  • Annual Matric performance and related education data
  • National, provincial and municipal election data
  • COVID-19 infections, deaths and recoveries

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Have you ever noticed, bar for a few exceptions here and there, that the published data reports about South Africa across the topics above never question the validity of the data that belie such reports?

What does that tell you?

South Africa’s data sources are credible, and thus they are trusted by the media and others that use such data.

How should reporting be done then?

Balanced reporting is my appeal.

Let me give you examples to make the point.

1. Overall quality of South African data is worth a mention

We are currently analysing digital performance of top 10 African countries, base on the latest Global Digital Report. 

Of the 10 African countries in the tweeted map above, can you guess how many have verifiable data across the 47 digital factors that we are analysing?

I reveal the answer in the relevant section below, where I make a data-backed case that South Africa’s data are among the most trusted in the world, and this speaks to reputable sources that produce such data about the country.

Yes, I have become aware that StatsSA - one of South Africa's main data centres - is at risk due to underfunding of its operations by the government.
I pray that there are no questionable reasons on the part of politicians for this development, and that sense prevails.

2. The are 2 sides to every data set coin

Case number 1: AIDS

It is a well-known fact that South Africa’s AIDS infections are [among] the highest in the world. 

The operative word is in the square brackets in the sentence above, and I shall indicate my reason in the relevant section below.

The topic above continues to be the main headline when AIDS and South Africa are mentioned in one sentence, amplified by the related denialism of President Mbeki’s administration that is said to have contributed to the unnecessary AIDS-related deaths at the time. 

I find it troubling that there has been limited reporting of the following three AIDS related topics that, in my view, do not receive equal share of mentions as the negative reportage in mainstream media:  

  • The fact that South Africa runs that largest Anti-Retroviral Treatment (ART) programme in the world, which was introduced in 2004 during President Mbeki’s tenure and expanded by his predecessor – President Zuma – in 2012;
  • that the ART programme, which was funded by PEPFAR at inception, is now funded by the government to a large extent, unlike is normally the case in parts of the developing world where governments rely on outside agencies such as the one above, and the Global Fund, for funding of large-scale programmes; and  
  • that the South African ART programme has been a success, as measured by falling  mortality rates after peaking in 2005 – the year after the ART programme was introduced.

Case number 2: COVID-19.

Initially, President Cyril Ramaphosa received global applause for how he showed leadership in dealing with the  COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa. 

But it has been downhill ever since.

First, South Africa has been repeatedly sited for being the African country with the highest COVID-19 infection and death rates.

This was followed by the widely reported corruption related to state procurement of PPE.   

The spotlight has since moved to procurement of COVID-19 vaccines.

Yet again, the South African government is in hot waters for overpaying of the AstraZenecca vaccine. 

This is in addition to the discovery that this vaccine was no match for the South African variant of the pandemic, which information came to the attention of the Health Ministry only after the widely publicised delivery of the first batch of this vaccine. 

The following 3 points are being missed though:

  • The country has not done a bad job of capturing COVID-19 data, and promptly sharing the data with WHO for proper tracking and analysis.
  • Corruption was exposed when it was discovered, and by and large no wrongdoer was spared from being publicly named and shamed.
  • In the case of the vaccine saga, this developing country had set aside budget to buy the vaccine from its own coffers, and did not go cap-in-hand to WHO for a donation like many of its peers did.

Side note: there are indications of undercounted COVID-19 cases in parts of the continent

A study of corpses in a Zambian morgue suggests that deaths from Covid-19 may have been routinely undercounted in the country, and by extension possibly elsewhere in Africa, challenging the view that the continent has avoided the worst effects of the pandemic.

www.irishtimes.com | Jan 31, 2021 Tweet

Is the undercounting issue in parts of Africa only limited to COVID-19?

Is it possible that there has been widespread undercounting in the case of AIDS, GINI co-efficient, and other data-driven indicators too?

Let me phrase the question differently.

In light of the Irish Times article that is quoted above, should South Africa be receiving commendations for keeping more reliable records of this and other pandemics? 

I certainly think this should be done in the spirit of balanced reporting. Don’t you?

Back to the Global Digital Report: assessment of relevant data gaps of top 10 African countries

I promised that I shall answer a question I asked in the relevant subsection above about quality of data from South Africa.

As part of collating the data that we extracted from the latest Global Digital Report for the top 10 African countries by Facebook monthly active users, of which South Africa is one, we discovered that there are data gaps linked to some of 47 digital factors that form part of our analysis.

See a screenshot of 20 of the 47 digital factors with data gaps across the top 10 African countries below:

eNitiate | Bra Willy Seyama | Data the blunt instrument | Facebook Monthly Active Users | Mar 2021
Global Digital Report of Top African Countries on Facebook - Digital Factors with Missing Data

A query related to the data gaps was sent the author of the report – Simon Kemp of Wearesocial.

In his response, he indicated that there are several reasons for the missing data; and these include absence of records of the relevant data, inability to access existing data due to country’s privacy laws etc, and/or inability to verify the validity of the existing data.

Top 10 African countries without digital data gaps?

Notice the top 10 African countries that do not have data gaps in the screenshot above? 

These are South Africa (ZA) and Egypt – that is 2 in 10.

Essentially, only these two African countries have data for all the 47 digital factors that we are analysing. 

Yet again, Mzansi is counted for freely available and reliable data; and this was confirmed by Simon Kemp in my email correspondence with him a year or so ago.

Conclusion

Am I trying too hard to spin the data story in South Africa's favour?
Is there "no there" there?
You be the judge.

Now that you have read thus far, I urge you to scratch beyond the surface when it comes to especially negative data reports about South Africa, and in doing so provide your own informed perspective.

May the rainbow nation never suffer from the 280-character information syndrome.

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