White, democratic, technocratic: the political charge behind official statistics in South Africa

Juliette Alenda-Demoutiez (2020)

Review of International Political Economy. Online first

Abstract. Central to governance, comparison and evaluation—and evolving at the intersection of economic ideas, interests and institutions—official statistics are far from neutral artifacts in both the global north and south. This article investigates the case of South Africa. Building on primary sources and interviews, I distinguish between three periods in the history of the country’s official economic statistics. This history—and the nation’s statistical self-presentation—have been shaped by the legacy of apartheid, the construction of the new democratic state, the influence of international standards setters, and heated political struggles in a nation divided along racial and class lines. Although the South African case is unique in many ways, it offers valuable insights into the evolution of official statistics outside of the global north more broadly.

Extract. “In France, the economy of conventions has sought to study the process of quantification (Desrosières, 2011) by studying the implicit choices made by actors who produce, interpret and reform statistics, revealing their methodologies, the tensions around measures and definitions, and the external relationships of statistics organizations (Camargo, 2009). As conventions, statistics—to the extent that actors accept and use them—help to construct a common language. The utility of official statistics stems from their reliability, not as faithful representations of reality but as conventions that can structure debate and action.” (p. 4)

Link to the review