Comments on South Africa’s medium-term budget policy statement (and related matters)

Front-page of the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement

The Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement was tabled on the 1st of November alongside the documents for the ‘adjusted Budget’. Here is my first op-ed on those proposals. I will post the videos from media interviews and oral submissions to Parliament separately.

South Africa’s medium-term budget reflects difficult and contested decisions

Seán Mfundza Muller, University of Johannesburg

The medium-term budget policy statement presented by South Africa’s finance minister, Enoch Godongwana, to parliament on 1 November 2023 is intended to provide a preview of government’s public finance plans over the next three years. It does not actually commit government to anything, either in law or in practice. Nevertheless, it is a crucial document because it presents what the National Treasury intends to be the broad, financial foundation for the functioning of national, provincial and local governments in the near future.

This year’s statement is particularly important for two reasons. The first is that South Africa’s fiscal situation is arguably at its worst in the post-apartheid era. The second is that any decisions taken, especially about the 2024/25 fiscal year, could affect how South Africans view the current government when voting in next year’s elections.

The crucial background to this year’s statement is that South Africa’s national debt levels relative to the size of the economy have increased substantially since 2008. The statement emphasises that the increase was approximately 47 percentage points from 2008. The three main reasons are the global financial crisis that started in 2007, continued slow economic growth partly as a result of state capture and power outages, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additional reasons include lower tax collection, other major expenditure increases such as the “free higher education” policy announced unexpectedly at the end of 2017, and large transfers to the state-owned power utility Eskom in response to its worsening financial position.

As things stand, national debt is expected to reach almost 75% of GDP by next year. Before the COVID-19 pandemic such levels would have been considered unsustainable by many economists and international financial institutions. The sustainability of national debt – how much a country can borrow without leading to a crisis later – drives a lot of thinking about country’s public finances.

But it’s not a science. What was almost unthinkable about debt levels before the COVID-19 pandemic has now become almost normal. Many countries have experienced large increases in their overall debt levels and the resultant debt service costs.

Some so-called radical economists claim that there are few limits on government expenditure. But this is, unfortunately, a luxury that may only be true for much wealthier countries with greater economic and political power – like the US.

On the other side of the spectrum, recent scaremongering statements that the country could “run out of cash” are absurd and misleading.

The question for South Africa is what to do about high and growing levels of debt. A sustainable debt path isn’t just about reducing debt to a particular level. The process of how it’s done is also crucial. Cutting spending in a way that creates social harm and reduces economic growth is self-defeating. Raising taxes too much can also be counter-productive. But letting debt rise indefinitely will mean borrowing costs become impossible to meet without dramatic spending or taxation measures.

The result inevitably involves difficult trade-offs. But because these are contested, within government and by different interest groups, the consequences and details are often concealed or given a misleading spin.

The devil in the detail

A few examples from this year’s statement illustrate this – and the divisions within government itself.

The first is the issue of government spending on salaries.

In the past the National Treasury and some economists have sought to suggest that this kind of spending is inherently “unproductive”. In reality, even from a narrow economic perspective, that is incorrect. Such spending funds the work of teachers who are responsible for educating future generations, nurses whose job includes keeping people in the labour market healthy and alive, and police officers whose presence should contribute to keeping crime in check.

For many years there has been an arm-wrestling match between the treasury and other parts of government responsible for determining public sector wage agreements. The way this has been “resolved” is by the treasury budgeting for the wage increases it believes are appropriate, the other parts of government agreeing to higher wage agreements, and the treasury then forcing departments to cut the total number of employees in order to keep total wage costs down.

Although the treasury accompanies its stance by promising that “essential” or “labour intensive” departments and sectors will be protected, it has never provided any detailed information to actually show that is happening. The consequence is a form of “austerity by stealth” in relation to staff available to provide public services.

The much better solution would have been for a social compact on wage increases and public sector employment. That would require compromise from the treasury but also public sector trade unions. Unable to reach that kind of mature solution, the arm-wrestling continues every year with the general public being the losers.

This year the treasury budgeted for an increase of less than 2% but the actual outcome was 7.5%. Some of this will be covered by funds taken from other important expenditure items, while the rest will come from cutting public sector posts.

A seemingly positive development is that the statement now makes provision for a continuation of the Social Relief of Distress Grant that was introduced during COVID-19. This is one of the only sources of support to millions of South Africans who are unable to find employment.

The 2023 budget made no provision for the continuation of the grant: the treasury planned to end it in March 2024, immediately before the 2024 elections. Earlier this year I argued to Parliament that such a decision would be inequitable and could also unduly influence electoral outcomes.

While it seems sense has prevailed with treasury now planning more than R50 billion ($2.65bn) for such spending over the next two years, it remains to be seen what is proposed in the 2024 budget.

Another example relates to crucial public employment programmes. In a recent speech the president cited his Presidential Employment Initiative as a major success – although without providing any detailed evidence. The treasury proposes to extend this to 2024/25, which seems like a good thing. But it plans to do so by cannibalising funds for other public employment schemes like the Expanded Public Works Programme and Community Works Programme: arguably a case of “robbing Peter to pay Paul”. And it seems intent on continuing the costly and ineffective Employment Tax Incentive.

Lastly, there is the thorny issue of taxes. The major cause of an increase in national debt levels this year is a shortfall in taxation revenue of almost R60 billion ($3.2bn). Only if you read the detail in the medium term budget statement does it turn out that a large part of this is due to private sector investment in decentralised renewable energy generation capacity. This isn’t fully explained, but is likely to be due to value added tax refunds linked to tax incentives introduced in the 2023 budget. In other words: it is the result of a policy proposed by the treasury itself.

Watch this space

While the minister and the treasury have provided an indication of current thinking, the crucial details and commitments of government’s fiscal plans will only be clear when the budget itself is tabled next year. And those will only be cemented when approved by Parliament.

Some political parties have suggested that the 2024 election may be the most important one since 1994: the same is arguably true of the 2024 budget.The Conversation

Seán Mfundza Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What is really happening with Israel-Palestine?

The current Israel-Palestine situation is unprecedented, but in ways that go far beyond what has been explicitly recognised.

The attack by Hamas was unprecedented in its scale and scope: everyone seems to agree on that. Some have gone further and asked how it was possible for Israeli intelligence agencies – amongst the most sophisticated in the world – to have missed the incoming threat. Subsequent reports add to that scepticism, revealing that Egypt and the United States warned Israel of a major threat shortly before the attack took place. Yet for some reason it appears the warning was ignored.

I would argue that the even more unprecedented occurrences relate to commentary and media coverage. I noticed a number of individuals on social media with large followings suddenly start expressing solidarity with Palestinians immediately in the aftermath of the Hamas attack. It seems very strange to wait for hundreds of civilians in Israel to be massacred before making political statements in favour of Palestinians. Why would such voices suddenly become loud when they were absent or quiet when Amnesty International found Israel to be practising apartheid? Or when Palestinians were being killed or brutalised without retaliation?

Related to this has been the reaction of mainstream media outlets which in the past, for decades, systematically downplayed human rights violations by the Israeli state. Immediately after the attack many of these outlets invited critical commentators who showed up the one-sidedness of the coverage of those same outlets. And this happened across numerous, notionally independent broadcasters. Unprecedented.

Moreover, these shifts occurred in a context where the political ground was already shifting against Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s warmongering prime minister. A broad range of groups inside and outside Israel had opposed Netanyahu’s attempt to centralise power and reduce the power of Israel’s judiciary. In recent months even a former head of Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, Mossad, asserted that Israel had been practising apartheid. And shortly after the Hamas attack articles, and even viral manipulated videos, were published suggesting that Netanyahu should step down.

The more crucial geopolitical context is this: the United States has been securing strategic agreements with Arab states in the Middle East. It has cemented ties with the dictatorships in Saudia Arabia and Egypt, despite systematic human rights violations in both countries. In parallel it has established a strong alliance with India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, secured a tenuous alliance with Pakistan after the removal of Imraan Khan, and cemented ties with another de facto dictator, Recep Erdogan, in Turkey. The result is that the United States no longer needs Israel as an isolated imperial outpost or bulwark in the Middle East. In fact, the ongoing Israeli repression of Palestinians impedes the ability of the USA to cement ties with its new allies for as long as it is backing Israel militarily. This, I suggest, is the primary geopolitical undercurrent that will determine the direction of current events and is already influencing media coverage and the flip-flopping of the European Union and pro-Israel politicians like the UK’s Keir Starmer.

In some respects these events mirror what happened with apartheid in South Africa when the Soviet Union collapsed. The United States no longer needed apartheid South Africa as a bulwark against what it claimed to be a communist threat in Africa. Shortly thereafter the hardline apartheid prime minister PW Botha fell from favour and was replaced by FW De Klerk, who despite having been active in supporting and enforcing apartheid positioned himself as a reformer. The United States and its key allies, like the UK, backed De Klerk’s move to end apartheid and the rest, as they say, is history.

Such brazen manipulation of this kind is of course reprehensible: supporting apartheid, a crime against humanity, for decades and then discarding it only after its usefulness has waned. Nevertheless, in the current Israel-Palestine situation it may mean that an actual peace deal is now possible.

As in the South African case the terms of any such agreement matter a great deal. And the deeply entrenched support for apartheid in Israel-Palestine should not be underestimated; right-wing and conservative groupings may yet try to use the situation to extend the borders of Israel and further worsen the living conditions of Palestinians. But if my hypothesis that the United States is covertly backing a move towards peace is correct, simply to support its own geopolitical strategy, then it is difficult to see how hardliners in Israel will hold out when their main financier, weapons supplier and supporter pushes in a different direction.

It is no cause for celebration that the United States is allying with powerful dictatorships as it moves to seek war with China, and perhaps a more intense proxy war with Iran alongside the proxy war with Russia in Ukraine, but for the Palestinian people this may yet bring them the peace and security that is owed to them.

News24’s hypocrisy and failure on Israel-Palestine

Not only did News24 completely ignore the Amnesty International report but it even went to the extent of taking down an article on the Israel-Palestine issue that it had accidentally syndicated in which South Africa’s foreign minister called for Israel to be declared an apartheid state.

The recent escalation in violence in Israel-Palestine has been met with a flood of reactions in traditional and social media. In both instances these reveal a shift in responses to this long-running issue. One thing that has struck me the most is that people and organisations who once ignored or were hostile to those who called Israel ‘an apartheid state’, even after a credible Amnesty International report came to that conclusion, have suddenly discovered that this actually has some legitimacy.

It is particularly strange that they should do so in a time of violence in which Israeli civilians have been killed in large numbers. Why would it be that certain people and organisations suddenly conclude that the oppression of Palestinians is bad in a moment when the first victims of violence were Israelis? Where was this sentiment when Palestinians were being killed and brutalised on a regular basis by the Israel military?

I will write a separate piece about what I think lies behind the current dynamics but here I just want to share some letters I exchanged with the editors of, and Ombud for, News24. According to media surveys, News24 is South Africa’s most-read online news source and supposedly ‘the most trusted’ source of news in South Africa. Not only did News24 completely ignore the Amnesty International report but it even went to the extent of taking down an article on the Israel-Palestine issue that it had accidentally syndicated in which South Africa’s foreign minister called for Israel to be declared an apartheid state. This provides important context for the sudden about-face by at least one of its editors, who was copied on some of that correspondence.

Interestingly, after my complaint News24 started publishing more pieces on the Israel-Palestine situation but continued in its failure to report on Amnesty International and other formal calls for Israel to be declared an apartheid state.

Only in recent months (in 2023) has there been a more substantial shift. But a striking pattern is that – after years of omission and one-sided reporting – News24 only acknowledge the apartheid analogy when it is made by individuals who previously had been active in denying the validity of the comparison (such as this article which cites Benjamin Pogrund), or actively involved in enforcing apartheid in Israel-Palestine (such as this article on remarks by a former Mossad commander). News24 syndicated this piece by Pogrund in August 2023. It is notable from the URL that it did so under the heading of its Ombud/public editor (George Claassen) who previously dismissed my concerns as unsubstantiated.

In short, the recent shift in News24’s reporting conceals a systematic and deliberate bias that denied the oppressive nature of the Israeli state across decades – much as certain media houses during apartheid played a key role in propping up successive apartheid governments by denying that what they were doing was wrong. While the shift here and internationally may well be desirable, those who were complicit should not be allowed to whitewash their histories. (For my expression of similar concerns about apartheid propagandists see this letter to Business Day).

Complaint to News24 on coverage of Israel-Palestine

The initial concern that I raised with News24’s Ombudsman in February 2022 was that News24 had failed to publish a single article on the Amnesty International report:

The Ombud referred this to the editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson. After no reply, I followed-up a month later noting also the strange disjuncture between News24’s reporting on Ukraine compared to the Israel-Palestine situation:

I then received the following reply in which one of the editors sought to paint the non-reporting as merely an ‘oversight’. This is clearly not credible given how many News24 articles concern trivial topics and, more importantly, how consistent its reporting had been in favour of the Israeli state. The links provided are to opinion pieces or/and pieces in other publications. One of the only substantive pieces was published after my letter of concern had been sent to the editor.

There was an interesting increase in News24 articles on the broader issue after this exchange, but those continued to have a strong slant and the only mention

I was reminded of the issue later in the year when News24 briefly syndicated an article on South Africa’s foreign minister calling for Israel to be declared an apartheid state and then deleted it. The evidence of the deletion is still available online:

Here is my follow-up email:

The combination of these two issues is damning: News24 systematically failed to publish any news article on the Amnesty International report that declared Israel to be an apartheid state; News24 censored a story that it had syndicated in which South Africa’s foreign minister called for Israel to be formally declared an apartheid state, and published no article of its own on that major news item.

Despite this evidence, the public editor George Claassen immediately responded claiming that “your accusation of bias, that is a rather harsh accusation without any evidence”. At which point it became evident to me that News24’s internal accountability mechanisms were toothless and themselves hopelessly biased.

Having referred my concern to editors to response and expressed his own opinion without engaging with the substance, the Ombud then nevertheless took it upon himself to provide the response (see below).

In this response he seeks to manufacture an excuse for removing the story about South Africa’s foreign minister calling for Israel to be declared an apartheid state. The absurdity of the explanation – that the story was taken down as “a precautionary measure by the night editor to ensure that the journalist interpreted the news conference by Minister Naledi Pandor correctly” – is evident from the fact that News24 did not subsequently publish a ‘correct’ story of its own.

Similarly, the vast majority of the stories he lists were published after my initial complaint, or were opinion pieces, or where from other publication.

Since it seemed obvious that the Ombud had pre-emptively decided to defend News24’s conduct and create a justification for that decision after the fact, I did waste my time further by replying to their last email.

The public record, and this correspondence, serves as evidence of what I suggest is News24’s wilful and grossly hypocritical bias that renders it complicit in misrepresentations that serve as an obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestine situation.

Eskom, electricity and energy in South Africa

Over the years I have ended-up doing a fair amount of work and commentary on the state-owned power utility Eskom and associated energy policy issues in South Africa, including recently with my collaborator Mike Muller. The intention of this page is to put all these contributions in one place. Loadshedding (power outages) and the broader state of electricity and energy are now arguably the most pressing policy issue in the country, exceeding even the severe state of unemployment.

The contributions are ordered from most recent to oldest and range from television interviews to some detailed pieces of policy research. (There will likely be some interviews missing initially but I will add these as I remember or come across them).

Interview with Newzroom Afrika on the announcements in the 2023 Budget pertaining to Eskom and the departure of the CEO Andre De Ruyter:

Interview with Newzroom Afrika on crisis consultations in January 2023:

Interview with Newzroom Afrika in September 2022 on the new Eskom board, including concerns about conflicts of interest among some board members as well as more broadly in the energy policy space:

Interview with the SABC in September 2022 on the energy crisis in South Africa:

Slides from a presentation at the TIPS Annual Forum:

Video of the TIPS Forum presentation is here (00:02:30-00:20:30, and for Q&A from 01:06:20):

Interview with Newzroom Afrika in August 2022 on proposed higher electricity connection fees: (builds on article below)

Article for The Conversation in August 2022 arguing that higher electricity connection fees are actually a good thing because they make the wealthy pay more of their share and reduce/combat the utility ‘death spiral’: (we noted the need for such fees in a previous article – see below)

Two co-authored op-eds on geopolitics of the energy transition, reproduced here:

Geopolitics of the energy transition: Part 1

Geopolitics of the energy transition: Part 2

Proposed/claimed solutions to the electricity crisis would not work: (written in 2020 and the evidence since then supports these arguments)

Article for The Conversation in March 2019 explaining why the restructuring of Eskom would not resolve the loadshedding problem and could even make it worse:

Briefing (and accompanying slides) for the Parliament of South Africa on proposed special fiscal transfers to Eskom:

Lengthy and detailed report for the Parliament of South Africa in 2015 on the financing of state-owned enterprises:

A collation of my work and writing on randomised control trials (RCTs)

The single topic that I have written on most extensively to date is the use of randomised control trials (RCTs) in economics to identify causal effects, generalise those findings and make policy claims. Much of this was done before this approach was awarded the 2019 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics: I started work on RCTs in 2010 for my PhD in economics.

The purpose of this page is to collate links to all of that work in one place. I have ordered the publications based on how some interested readers might want to go through them (which is why the link to my 200+ page PhD thesis comes at the end!).

Some of the academic articles are, unfortunately, gated – I put 🔐 symbols next to those. Feel free to contact me if you’d like a copy of any of them.

The 2019 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics was awarded to three scholars for the methodological approach that has been the focus of critique in my work. In a short paper in a special issue of the journal World Development on the 2019 Nobel, The implications of a fundamental contradiction in advocating randomized trials for policy” (🔐), I aim to provide a succinct version of my argument against that ‘randomista’ approach.

Two articles with co-authors (Grieve Chelwa and Nimi Hoffmann) in The Conversation aimed at a more general audience also respond to the 2019 Nobel award. The first, How randomised trials became big in development economics, provides some background. The second, Randomised trials in economics: what the critics have to say, explains some of the criticisms – including my own.

In a special issue of the CODESRIA Bulletin on Randomised Control Trials and Development Research in Africa, I argue that RCTs are “A Dead-End for African Development”. In other words, I argue that the likely outcome of the emphasis on such methods will be to retard development – in sharp contrast to what proponents claim.

One example I discuss in that working paper is the use of RCTs in the context of education policy debates in South Africa. In a seminar given as a visiting fellow at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, “The new colonial missionaries: basic education policy and randomised trials in South Africa”, I explain how academics with a ‘missionary zeal’ (Bardhan) have sought, with some success, to inappropriately dominate basic education policy debates in South Africa. (I also wrote a fairly lengthy blog post on related matters in 2016, “Some thoughts on Taylor and Watson’s (2015) RCT on the impact of study guides on school-leaving results in South Africa”).

The crux of the formal (technical/econometric) argument I have made against the ‘randomista’ use of randomised trials in economics and for public policy was published well before the Nobel was awarded, in an article in the World Bank Economic Review, Causal Interaction and External Validity: Obstacles to the Policy Relevance of Randomized Evaluations”.

Some of the limitations of using RCTs for policy, and insisting on them as the only truly credible basis for decision-making, have been revealed during the Covid-19 pandemic. I wrote a short paper on that for a special issue of History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, Masks, mechanisms and Covid-19: the limitations of randomized trials in pandemic policymaking”.

The misuse of an RCT to distort a public policy process in a manner that facilitated private sector rent-seeking – rather than the policy objective of reducing youth unemployment – was the focus of my detailed analysis of South Africa’s ‘Youth Employment Tax Incentive’ (YETI) published in Development and Change, Evidence for a YETI? A Cautionary Tale from South Africa’s Youth Employment Tax Incentive (🔐).

In a recent chapter in the Edward Elgar compilation A Modern Guide to Philosophy of Economics, Randomised trials in economics(🔐), I provide my most detailed assessment of these issues. A notable additional contribution of this chapter is that it examines the strategies advocates of these methods are using in an attempt to counter criticisms and explains why those are unconvincing and cannot succeed.

In another chapter forthcoming in the Routledge volume The Positive and the Normative in Economic Thought, The Unacknowledged Normative Content of Randomised Control Trials in Economics and Its Dangers(🔐), I explain how normative factors (biases, prejudices, ideologies, etc) enter a process that is typically represented as ‘objective’, ‘scientific’ and ‘neutral’. This develops a point I alluded to in earlier work.

All of this work began with the research conducted for my PhD in economics, “The external validity of treatment effects: an investigation of educational production”, which I started at the beginning of 2010 and completed in 2014 – under the supervision of Martin Wittenberg, examined by Gary Solon, Jeff Smith and Steve Koch.

Causal inference, alcohol bans and Covid-19 in South Africa: a short comment

As in other countries, South Africa has used various forms of restrictions on societal activity in an attempt to slow or prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (‘Covid’). One measure that is relatively unusual is the limit on alcohol sales, which has varied in severity from a complete ban on any sales or transporting of alcohol to less severe variations on that such as banning only sales for off-site consumption, or limiting such sales to particular days and hours.

Such measures have drawn some vehement criticism, not least from the alcohol industry itself. One large player in that industry, Distell, commissioned a piece of research which argued that there was no defensible basis for these measures. That in turn was widely cited in the media, and at least one editor claimed that it showed: “There’s no way the alcohol bans in SA have been based on credible science. They’re based on prejudice.”

In the same month (April 2021) I was contacted by a civil society organisation for an expert opinion on that report. I wrote a short assessment, which takes a dim view of the approach and claims of the report – with corresponding implications for associated assertions that use it as a ‘scientific’ basis for opposing alcohol restrictions.


As I indicate in my comments, this is ultimately an empirical question on which I have no prior views. The claim that a reduction in access to alcohol does significantly reduce the demand for hospital resources that are needed for critical Covid-19 cases is plausible. Whether it is true remains to be seen. A number of papers have been published on the subject, see:

I leave thoughts on those, and others which are likely to be out soon, for later work.

On the issue of economic impact, which the alcohol industry emphasises, there are certainly also concerns. However, it is useful to remember that industry estimates of economic harm from limiting their activities are often exaggerations of the net economic impact. Reductions in consumption also have a significant negative impact on government revenue from excise duties, though these are arguably quite small when compared to the broader economic and fiscal harm of ‘lockdown’ measures.

Elsewhere I have outlined in detail my views on the balancing act required of decision-makers, especially for less wealthy countries, in dealing with the pandemic. I argued that contrary to the conventional wisdom in 2020, South Africa’s response was deeply flawed and caused social and economic harm without adequate benefits in terms of long-term health outcomes. That remains my view, but it does not follow that every decision is flawed: in my assessment, the restrictions on alcohol sales/consumption, even if unnecessary or ineffective, are amongst the least of the government’s failures.

Higher education funding in South Africa

Recently, student protests have again erupted at higher education institutions in South Africa. When the original #FeesMustFall protests began in 2015 I was working at the Parliamentary Budget Office and trying to advise members of the finance and appropriations committees as best I could on the proposals being hurriedly drafted by the government. Subsequently, after moving back into academia, I wrote a number of pieces on the issues raised both by the students, the associated public debate, and actual or proposed policy decisions:

“Free higher education in South Africa: cutting through the lies and statistics”

Options on the table as South Africa wrestles with funding higher education

On the recent protests and apparent policy decisions, these two interviews (radio and television) provide my initial assessment:



At present, I am conducting research on some related matters with colleagues from UCT and we hope through that to contribute to deeper understanding of the issues. Our report should be completed by the end of 2021.

A letter rejected by the South African Medical Journal

Throughout South Africa’s Covid-19 pandemic response, I have been raising concerns about the basis for the government’s decisions – starting with an op-ed when the lockdown was announced. It has been particularly concerning how uncritical academics and journalists were at the outset. I am still in the process of writing a number of academic pieces on this, but unfortunately these will only come out later in this year or next year. One effort I made in the interim was to write a cautionary letter to the South African Medical Journal, which has been responsible for publishing some concerning editorials that contribute to the problematic stance of the South African academy. Today I received notification that my correspondence was rejected as “The editors have determined that this submission is not appropriate for this journal and will not be considered for publication.” Given that the pieces criticised were journal editorials, this is perhaps not very surprising. Decide for yourself.

Unmitigated praise of government’s Covid-19 response is premature and inconsistent with available evidence

A recent editorial[1] expresses concern with statements by the Minister and Department of Health[2,3] and Medical Research Council (MRC)[4] in response to remarks attributed to Dr Glenda Gray[5,6] relating to the government’s approach to lockdown regulations and public health consequences of the lockdown. I concur with the authors on the primacy of Constitutional principles of free speech and academic freedom for members of the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on Covid-19, and the institutional independence of the MRC (which has now found no transgression[7]). However, premature, unsubstantiated statements about government’s response to Covid-19 contribute to an environment of uncritical praise that preceded, and arguably contributed to, the controversy in question.
The theoretically optimal policy response to Covid-19 remains unknown under the usual standards of academic and scientific justification, given extensive uncertainty about characteristics of the virus itself along with the dynamics of contagion, morbidity and mortality in different populations and contexts. Furthermore, thorough assessment of the efficacy and optimality of government responses can only be made on evidence that will become available after the pandemic is over. Only preliminary assessments are possible at present and cannot be exempt from basic standards of justification and evidence. The authors’ statements[1], as with others elsewhere[8], do not meet such standards and thereby undermine impartial, evidence-based criticism. For example:

Notwithstanding the concerns raised above, the Minister of Health’s management of the country’s COVID-19 pandemic, to date, is laudable


SA’s response to COVID-19 has been swift and science based, and merits praise

The apparent premise, that “other governments around the world have not grounded their response to the pandemic in science and evidence”[1], is too low a bar. The British government, for example, has rightly been criticised not for failing to use science and evidence, but for doing so selectively and secretively[9]. Yet the authors fail to critically examine the composition and conduct of the MAC, asking only for “involvement of experts from academia outside of the biomedical sciences, and statutory bodies”[1].
There is evidence that contradicts this stance. As noted by others[10], and reflected in international open Covid-19 databases[11], South Africa has not been forthcoming in publishing detailed data on testing, screening, contact tracing and patient characteristics – despite international calls for transparency[9,12]. Even more concerning, while the original lockdown decision was premised on modelling[13], only limited details of the strategy and basis were provided much later[14] while current projections and model details have only recently been made public[15].

Good intent along with science- and evidence-based decision-making are not sufficient to ensure the best policy decisions are taken. Transparency in evidence, modelling, decision-making, use of expertise and balancing of societal priorities is paramount. The South African government has performed badly on some of these dimensions. Rhetoric of “unity and solidarity” in that context potentially undermines the role of dissent, rather than deference, in contributing to the public good. Unsubstantiated and premature praise may contribute to a sub-optimal response to the pandemic.

1. Singh JA. Freedom of speech and public interest, not allegiance, should underpin science advisement to government. S Afr Med J. 2020 May 26;
2. Mkhize Z. Health Minister’s statement on Prof Glenda Gray’s public attack of government based on inaccurate information [Internet]. National Department of Health; [accessed 26 May 2020]. Available from:
3. Human L, Geffen N. Health department boss calls for investigation into Glenda Gray. GroundUp [Internet]. 22 May 2020 [accessed 26 May 2020]; Available from:
4. Herman P. SAMRC board apologises for Prof Gray’s comments, bars staff from speaking to media. News24 [Internet]. 25 May 2020; Available from:
5. Karrim A, Evans S. Unscientific and nonsensical: Top scientist slams government’s lockdown strategy. News24 [Internet]. 16 May 2020 [accessed 16 May 2020]; Available from:
6. Karrim A. I didn’t criticise the lockdown, but the regulations ‒ Prof Glenda Gray after Mkhize slams criticism. News24. 21 May 2020
7. SAMRC. Media statement from the SAMRC Board [Internet]. 26 May 2020 [accessed 26 May 2020]. Available from:
8. Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf). Public Statement on COVID-19. 18 May 2020.
9. Alwan NA, Bhopal R, Burgess RA, Colburn T, Cuevas LE, Smith GD, et al. Evidence informing the UK’s COVID-19 public health response must be transparent. Lancet. 2020 Mar;395(10229):1036–7.
10. Marivate V, Combrink HM. Use of Available Data To Inform The COVID-19 Outbreak in South Africa: A Case Study. Data Science Journal. 6 May 2020; 19(1):19.
11. Xu B, Kraemer MUG, Xu B, Gutierrez B, Mekaru S, Sewalk K, et al. Open access epidemiological data from the COVID-19 outbreak. The Lancet Infectious Diseases. 2020; 20(5):534.
12. Barton CM, Alberti M, Ames D, Atkinson J-A, Bales J, Burke E, et al. Call for transparency of COVID-19 models. Sills J, editor. Science. 2020; 368(6490):482.2-483.
13. Republic of South Africa. President Cyril Ramaphosa: Escalation of measures to combat Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic [Internet]. 23 March 2020 [accessed 25 May 2020]. Available from:
14. Abdool Karim SS. SA’s Covid-19 epidemic: Trends & Next steps. Presentation for the Minister of Health; 13 April 2020. [accessed 16 May 2020].
15. Silal S, Pulliam J, Meyer-Rath G, Nichols B, Jamieson L, Moultrie H. Estimating cases for COVID-19 in South Africa Update: 19 May 2020. South African COVID-19 Modelling Consortium; 19 May 2020.

A note on the philosophy literature on external validity

Later this month (August 2019) I’ll be presenting a paper at the 14th conference of the International Network for Economic Method (INEM). The paper is titled, “From ‘data mining’ to ‘machine learning’: the role of randomised trials and the credibility revolution”. An apparent puzzle is that there’s a session on external validity – which was the subject of my economics PhD, a working paper and short publication – in which I’m not presenting. Surely if I am going to be presenting at conferences on the method or philosophy of economics I should be presenting my work on external validity? The short answer is: I already did in 2012. But I think the longer explanation is also worth giving.

First, the paper I will be presenting at INEM (and ENPOSS) builds explicitly on work I’ve done on external validity (henceforth ‘EV’).

Second, and more importantly, my contribution to the philosophy literature on EV was not just presented at the Evidence and Causality in the Sciences (ECitS) 2012 conference but subsequently finalised as a paper in 2012, revised in 2013. Unfortunately that paper was not published at the time, for reasons that were at best flimsy. Preoccupied with finishing my economics PhD and changing jobs, I delayed resubmitting the manuscript. When I returned to academia in 2016 I discovered that a paper on the subject had been published in Philosophy of Science. More surprising was that, apart from some differences in verbiage and references, the core arguments of the paper seem to be the same as about 30-40% of my own paper but with no reference to that or my work in economics. Then, earlier this year, another paper appeared in the Journal of Economic Methodology. The core arguments of this paper, too, are very similar to the other 30-40% of my paper (dealing with issues like causal process tracing and related matters). In the second instance, my economics work is cited by misunderstood or misrepresented: suggesting that my views are different to the author’s when in fact, as is clear from the 2012/13 paper, they are almost entirely the same.

Needless to say, this creates a rather awkward situation. Not least because I believe, for reasons I will not ventilate in detail at this point, that it is implausible that the two authors were unaware of, or uninfluenced by, my 2012/13 work. But it is now simply impossible to publish my own work, despite clearly having a claim to intellectual priority. These concerns have been taken-up in the relevant fora, but the wheels turn slowly. And it will be informative to test the extent to which academic philosophy is committed to principles of intellectual priority. In the interim it makes for an ‘interesting’ context for intellectual engagement…

Economic justice will not be televised

(Riffing on Gil Scott-Heron:

Economic justice
Will not be televised
It will not be delivered
Like a fast food dinner
By white men
Using black economists
To front for them.

Economic justice
Will not be televised
It will not be delivered
By VAT zero-ratings
That benefit the rich
More than the poor.

Economic justice
Will not be televised
It will not be delivered
Like fast food transported by exploited workers
By commissioned research
Elevating the status of a few white men
Using black economists
To front for them.

Economic justice
Will not be televised
It will not be brought to you
Like a hot take
By the tentacles of institutes
Wrapped around civil society initiatives
To promote themselves.

Economic justice
Will not be televised
It will not be delivered
Like emailed interventions
To protect sexual harassers.

Economic justice
Will not be televised
It will not be brought to you
By men
Defending sex ‘not consensual’.

Economic justice
Will not be televised
It will not be delivered
By the festivities
Of ideological cliques
Shouting about reform.

Economic justice
Will not be televised.