analysisBy Mandy De Waal
President Jacob Zuma will have South Africans believe the gap between rich and poor is narrowing. Tim Harris, the DA’s shadow minister of finance, said the gap is widening and the president is talking nonsense. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Thanks to a new fact-checking service called Africa Check, people who love the truth can find out.
Earlier this month, President Zuma cautioned locals not to fall for propaganda or spin when it came to economic inequality. “Notions that the gap between the rich and poor in South Africa is widening is a farce,” the president said in parliament. “Why now, after 1994, do we say it’s widening?
“The inequality gap is not growing since 1994, it’s narrowing. In pre-1994, there were no black businesses. There were only corner shops and perhaps some butchery. Poverty was worse than what it is now,” Zuma said.
This story was reported in The Mercury, which offered much of Zuma’s speech in the report, and then (to be balanced) got an opposing view on the president’s statements from DA Shadow Minister of Finance Tim Harris.
The DA’s view was that the president was not correct. “The truth is… that the latest available statistics on income inequality show that overall inequality has grown steadily,” Harris told The Mercury.
“Our economy has become characterised by ‘insiders’ who have jobs, homes and the prospect of rising incomes, and ‘outsiders’ who do not participate in the economic mainstream,” he said. Harris said experts blamed “an underperforming education system, the resultant skills shortages and the government’s failure to create an enabling environment for job-intensive growth” for the inequality.
The Mercury didn’t attempt to discern which politician’s nose was growing longer. The story would have been abandoned there, leaving the reader to make up their own mind, were it not for a fact checking service that’s been pioneered locally to promote accuracy in the public discourse.
A non-profit organisation that tests claims made by public figures and the media, Africa Check was devised by the AFP Foundation, the media development arm of the AFP news service, and is being run in partnership with Wits’ journalism department.
Africa Check got stuck into the inequality fray and determined that neither Zuma nor Harris was right about the gap between rich and poor.
“The problem is that the president’s argument is about absolute levels of income, not income inequality,” wrote researcher Ruth Becker, on Africa Check’s website. “And since income inequality is a measure of the difference between the richest and the poorest, an increase in income levels for the poorest will not reduce the gap if the income of the richest rises faster.”
Becker said that contrary to the president’s claims, there hasn’t been a narrowing of the gap between rich and poor, but she added that Harris’ claim that inequality has “grown steadily” is also wrong.
Africa Check cited the presidency’s 2009 report on development indicators, which showed that “the percentage of national income received by the poorest 10% of the population rose and fell, but ended unchanged at 0.57% of the total. And the share taken by the richest 10% was almost unchanged at around 54%”. This while Becker stated that the Gini co-efficient rose marginally to 0.679 in 2008 from 0.640 in 1995.
Africa Check’s conclusion: the gap between rich and poor isn’t getting worse, but it is not getting better either.
Wits journalism professor Anton Harber, who acts as an advisor to the project, said that fact-checking services are becoming more important because of social media, which causes factual errors to spread in the discourse much more quickly and easily. “It’s partly to counter the quick spread of untruths. In a climate where rumour, gossip and incorrect facts spread virally, it is crucial to promote a culture of accuracy. But I think it's very much part of transparency and a move to hold public figures accountable for what they say.”
South Africa is a country where politicians have largely been able to get away with saying whatever they’ve liked, with little recourse. To date, there hasn’t been a service where lying liars and the lies they tell have been exposed or brought to book.
Fact checking-sites across the world range from being fairly neutral to actively partisan, and Harber said Africa Check will strive for absolute impartiality. “We strive to be completely non-partisan and we are not rushing to make judgements. What we're looking to do is put the correct facts out there. We all make decisions on policy and voting and things like that based on the discussion in the public arena, and if it's ill-informed, then we're going to distort our decisions”.
The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to help an electorate make informed choices - now there’s a service that could make a real difference. If only the mighty cared about being caught lying, that is.