Truman’s brothel and Ramaphosa’s beer hall debates are no match for Uncepa principals

The Union Buildings in Pretoria. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/Independent Newspapers

The Union Buildings in Pretoria. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/Independent Newspapers

Published Mar 31, 2024


Harry Truman, who was sworn in as the US’s 33rd president on April 12, 1945, and had to deal with the aftermath of World War II, had this to say about his career choices: “My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.”

The then-deputy president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, said: “At times, parliamentary debates bear no difference from those of a beerhall.”

What then could be the role of the Principles of the UN Committee of Experts on Public Administration (Uncepa) and statistical evidence in this rather murky world of politics that have the same difference as a whorehouse or a beerhall?

To this end, the article by Yacoob Abba Omar (Business Day, March 27), titled, Melange of manifestos, but no easy walk to economic freedom, is timely. It says political parties make lofty promises but fail to appreciate how deep problems of poverty and unemployment run.

The opinion advances the content of political debate and holds the potential to tip the scale towards rational discourse of public policy. However, it fails the reason of science by making sweeping statements in its assessment of political party promises.

Omar poses an important question: “What accounts for the diversity of ideas on economic issues in the manifestos of political parties contesting the May 29 elections?”

The question is worth asking again. Philosopher Immanuel Kant said: “All humans are worthy of equal (moral) concern, respect and dignity.”

His answer, however, comes to the sad conclusion that being conservative is rational and being creative is irrational. He thereby commits a cardinal sin in the science of public policy on both counts.

What he needed to do was use a lens of science to check what lay under the hidden lingerie of political party reasoning, some of which, by virtue of incumbency, lay in the open for all to see.

Being conservative hardly meets the golden criterion for rationality. Rationality is anchored in science. When it comes to political economy and statecraft, Uncepa has undertaken seminal research that guides those responsible for public affairs, principles of effective governance for sustainable development (Principles of effective governance_english []).

To this end, it has identified 11 principles and 62 strategies that are essential for attaining social and economic progress.

The 11 policies are classified under three categories of effectiveness, accountability and inclusiveness:

– Under effectiveness are competence, sound policy making and collaboration.

– Under accountability are integrity, transparency and independent oversight.

– Under inclusiveness are leaving no one behind, non-discrimination, participation, subsidiarity and intergenerational equity.

Due to space constraints, I will focus on the effectiveness dimension of the principles:

– The principle of competence embraces the fundamentals that to perform their functions effectively, institutions are to have sufficient expertise, resources and tools to deal adequately with the mandates under their authority.

– The principle of sound policy making achieves their intended results when public policies are coherent with one another and founded on true or well-established grounds, in full accordance with fact, reason and good sense.

– The principle of collaboration is advised that problems of common interest, institutions at all levels of government and in all sectors should work together and jointly with non-state actors towards the same end, purpose and effect.

I was a consultant to the Africa Peer Review Mechanisms (APRM) on the extent to which these principles are applied or applicable in Africa (APRM Case Study). The abridged report further captures the findings under conditions of pandemics (CRP_item 5_APRM summary_CEPA2021.pdf []).

The report is also supported by empirical work undertaken by Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (Ophi) in its seminal work of measuring poverty using a multidimensional lens.

In countries where the lens has been applied, public policy outcomes have proved to be better. For instance, in China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Bhutan and Panama, the results have shown rapid change for the better and coherence in policy making.

Omar does some good work by looking at employment and growth targets by various political parties.

He says: “The creative and incredible ActionSA’s manifesto claims if we vote it into power, the party will create 4.8 million jobs (a figure its leader has a habit of rounding off to 5 million) by 2029.”

An equally imaginative figure is that of Rise Mzansi’s “people’s manifesto” to achieve an annual minimum gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate of 6%.

In the same innovative camp is the EFF’s promise to create at least 5.2 million jobs in the “short to medium term”.

Similarly fantastical, Omar continues, is the MK party’s manifesto, which aims to create five million jobs in five years.

“A mistake these parties are making,” Omar argues, “is the failure to appreciate how deep the problems of poverty and unemployment are, and, hence, the challenges to be surmounted.”

He concludes: “The ANC, burdened with the mantle of incumbency, strikes a more sober, balanced tone, committing in its manifesto to creating and sustaining 2.5 million work opportunities. While working with the corporate sector in improving the business environment, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government has had to ensure the sheer survival, through an ever-widening social net, of South Africans as they slip into more and more desperate situations.”

Omar goes on to say: “There is little a small, open economy such as SA can do about the global economy, but we are seeing the measures that the government and the private sector implemented through their joint working groups beginning to bear fruit.”

The argument does not hold because South Africa, in the context of Africa, cannot be small. It is the third largest economy. In fact, it has been the first all along until it immersed itself in unforgivable policy missteps. Bolivia, instead, shows the way.

Bolivia, a small country in Latin America, has used a policy approach consistent with the Uncepa principles of economy in the service of the planet and people. Since 2005, it is, by all counts, a best performer on many metrics in Latin America, having emerged out of conditions similar to those of South Africa.

Bolivia’s transformation is attributed “to overarching political transformations in the country”. “These included a new constitution with significant economic mandates; nationalisation and public ownership of natural resources and some strategic sectors of the economy; redistributive public investment and wage policies; policy coordination between the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry; and monetary and exchange rate policies directed toward de-dollarising the Bolivian financial system.”

The Centre for Economic Policy and Research, released the paper, Bolivia’s Economic Transformation: Macroeconomic Policies, Institutional Changes, and Results. (chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/

While I hold no brief for Business for South Africa (Busa), it came up with equally impressive targets when it approached the government during the onset of Covid-19. Busa envisaged a South Africa that would grow its GDP at 6% per annum, a South Africa that would generate between six to eight million jobs and a South Africa that would reduce inequalities. This was contained in a 1 000-page document that it said had been researched. The government ignored it.

Equally, the Indlulamithi Scenarios, Indlulamithi Scenarios, in their report of 2018, had deployed science in its quantification of econometric model outcomes, which is a core principle of Uncepa, came to similar conclusions two years later, in its report for transforming South Africa. Indlulamithi Scenarios 2030 is well worth a read. (

More recently, the ADRS has extended the modelling that was executed in the Indlulamithi Scenario 2030, into multidimensional poverty indices as a forward-looking tool.

The report was jointly launched by the Economic Modelling Academy and the Gordon Institute of Business Science on April 20, Multidimensional Poverty: Future Proof with Linked Macro-Micro Modelling (

Consistent with the Uncepa principles of Sound Policy Making, the paper illustrates how the poverty indices, especially in the context of poverty in all its dimensions in South Africa, the impact of macro-micro economic and social policies on poverty can be foresighted.

Were Omar to peel off the thick make-up and the façade of filling up stadiums and inspect the political lingerie by applying the Uncepa lens to assess the manifestos of the political parties, perhaps the deeply flawed conclusion that conservative is better and creative bad could be ameliorated.

Uncepa principles

Let us interrogate the policies by applying the Uncepa principles.

South Africa has the prime position of having all the ingredients to make it work – the rich statistical data base, the ADRS econometric models built on substantively Statistics South Africa data, the Economic Modelling Academy, the Indlulamithi Scenarios, the Busa work to address the poverty, inequality and unemployment challenge.

Let the politics be informed not by filling stadiums as the euphoria for who rushes and hides in the Union Buildings reaches zenith decibels, where Truman’s whorehouse or Ramaphosa’s beerhall debates rule supreme, but by the Uncepa principles of effectiveness in particular sound policy making, accountability and inclusiveness. Let the future be based on sound science policy interfaced with politics.

Omar has pulled the trigger on policy debate. Now let us engage the trigger.

Dr Pali Lehohla is a professor of practice at the University of Johannesburg, a research associate at Oxford University, a board member of Institute for Economic Justice at Wits and a distinguished alumni of the University of Ghana. He is the former statistician-general of South Africa