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Census can’t hide failures of a capitalist system

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Picture: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS – Deputy Minister in Presidency Thembi Siweya conducting a census 2022 state of readiness at Gauteng Provincial Blitz launch in Diepsloot, North of Johannesburg.

By Trevor Ngwane

Grins and wide smiles by President Cyril Ramaphosa and senior government officials greeted the release of the census results by the Statistician-General, Risenga Maluleke. The atmosphere was upbeat and even celebratory with one minister claiming that the figures showed that the future of the country under the ruling party is bright. When David Everett, on behalf of the Statistics Council, the statutory oversight body of Statistics South Africa, declared Census 2022 “fit for purpose” and noted that it had been conducted in line with international best practice, a sigh of relief could almost be heard amidst the hand clapping that followed.

Picture: Oupa Mokoena / African News Agency (ANA) – President Cyril Ramaphosa receives South Africa’s Census 2022 national results from Statistician General Risenga Maluleke at Union Building.

Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, viewed the census as an essential element in “the art of government” whereby various control techniques were used to make people “governable” (to allow themselves to be governed by others). Governments must appear to know what they are doing, to be in control of processes and to allocate resources rationally and fairly. Ramaphosa emphasised that the census was crucial in ensuring that government decisions were “evidence-driven” and thus impartial, effective and, Foucault would underline, legitimate. In other words, the first test Census 2022 must pass is that of legitimacy.

Unfortunately for the ANC, its past and present failures have irretrievably eroded its integrity and trustworthiness in the eyes of many people in South Africa and beyond. Economic mismanagement, weak governance and the energy crisis have arguably contributed immensely to the decline of the legitimacy of its rule. It now faces its Waterloo moment in the impending 2024 general elections which coincide with 30 years of democracy under its tutelage. Indeed, in its 10-year review, covering the years 2012-2022, the National Planning Commission, set up by and located in the Presidency, found that “most… economic targets have not only been missed but are moving in the wrong direction.”

The ANC’s desperation in the face of its documented litany of failures, compels it to grab at straws like a drowning person being swept out to sea. Census 2022 is a straw that looks like a big log to a distressed swimmer like the ANC President who, during the ceremonial handing over of the report, emphasised the validity of the figures and how they showed that the ANC had changed people’s lives especially if compared to their miserable condition under apartheid.

The use of apartheid as a benchmark to assess the country’s progress is a red flag, especially for the youth who were “born free”. It raises the question of whether and to what extent the census results redeem the ANC given its apparent failures in the eyes of the masses. More importantly, can the future of the country be entrusted to the ANC?

Source: Census2022/StatsSA- Average household sizes are on the decline in South Africa.

The census findings indicate that the South African population has increased from 51.7 million in 2011 to more than 62 million in 2022; a growth rate of 1.8%. Most demographers will agree that this is a good growth rate for a young, healthy and thriving society. The spoilsports are the economists who point out that the country’s economic growth rate hovers around 1%, that is, below the population growth rate.

There is concern because of the high rate of unemployment among young people in a country where many people are youthful and whose lived experiences are of economic hardship in a democratic state.

Racial categorisation is very much alive in South Africa with the figures indicating that “Black Africans remain the dominant population group at 81.4%.” On the other hand, the “white population percentage declined to 7.3% in 2022 from 8.9% observed in 2011”. This is of concern because of the racialised character of poverty in the country with the majority group poor, or even getting poorer according to the National Development Plan’s 10-year review, while the declining minority group remains richer.

There have already been cries that Census 2022 massaged the numbers when it comes to migration.

This is because of the hysterical conversation, partly xenophobia-driven, about the increase in international migrant workers in the country. This is a great pity because migration is immanent in human social existence and should be approached rationally rather than being used as a political football by political parties desperate for votes and cheap point scoring. The thumb-sucked astronomical figures that suggest that the country is being flooded by international migrants are false. In fact, “Census 2022 showed there were more than 2.4 million international migrants, which equates to just above 3% of the total population.”

In general, the census figures paint a complex picture of a changing country and population. While the President decided to focus on evidence-based indicators of the success of ANC rule since 1994, there is a lot in the figures that underline the monumental failures of this first government of national liberation.

The rural-urban disparity in water provision, for example, points to the continuities of past apartheid oppressions. The gendered nature of unemployment, poverty and inequality is worrying.

Census figures, and especially their interpretation, underline the class struggle that wreaks havoc on a world dominated by the capitalist system of production and distribution of goods and services. As Foucault suggested, statistical and other technologies of state rule are mired through and through by class prejudices, priorities and interests. Census 2022 serves the interests of the capitalist class and its ANC-run capitalist government. A working class-run government would focus on indicators that underline the iniquities and injustices of the system of wage labour.

*Trevor Ngwane is the director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice, University of Johannesburg.