Lee Mwiti 10 things we didn’t learn at Africa Check this year

Does being single kill faster than obesity? Can you sue over an opinion poll? Just how much does Nigeria owe China? Some claims push back at fact-checkers. Here’s why.

At Africa Check, we work the phones and scour both new and obscure research to find answers to the claims you regularly task us to check. But some claims push back. Here are some we couldn’t break – this year, at least.

  1. Does singlehood kill faster than obesity?

“Being single will kill you faster than obesity”, ran an August 2018 headline in a popular Kenyan online newspaper, a story that also got attention on social media.

Citing a meta-analysis, or a review of different studies to arrive a stronger conclusion about a topic, the article seemed to start off on sure footing.

One of the researchers told Africa Check that while studying how social connections affected mortality, they had focused on “social isolation, loneliness and living alone”. They found the effect of social isolation “was stronger than the effect found for obesity.”

But does this translate to death by singlehood? Most of the studies they reviewed had not specifically looked at being single and the reasons for it, the researchers said.

  1. Is Ekhuruleni Gauteng’s best-performing metro?

Ekurhuleni performs best of the three metros in South Africa’s Gauteng province, beating out Johannesburg and Tshwane, a recent survey found.

This was because of the metro’s focus on service delivery, mayor Mzwandile Masina said in a November 2018 statement.   

In a 2017/18 survey, the Gauteng City-Region Observatory included the views of nearly 25,000 people in the province on indicators such as their quality of life, socioeconomic circumstances and service delivery. Ekhuruleni scored highest on satisfaction with service delivery.

But is perception a reliable measure?

“A survey is, regardless of what it claims, always going to be a measure of the perceptions of people,” the observatory’s research director, Graeme Götz, told Africa Check.

Existing financial and administrative data can also be used to rate performance, Götz said. But the observatory wasn’t making claims about that.

“If the mayor of Ekurhuleni goes out and says, ‘In terms of the quality of life survey, we can say this is the best performing metro’, it is supported by the data.”

  1. Just how much does Nigeria owe China?

China’s increasing visibility in Africa tends to animate many across the continent, from Kenya to South Africa.

How much it has lent African countries is often a focus of this public debate. But sometimes official information is not forthcoming.

Despite weeks of knocking, the Nigeria Debt Management Office would not divulge this information to Africa Check. It did issue a statement  in September 2018 that put debt to one bank, China Eximbank, at 8.5% of external debt as at June 2018, but stayed silent on whether this was its only Chinese creditor.

  1. Can you sue over an opinion poll?

An opinion poll by Ipsos, released in August 2018, found that Kenya’s deputy president William Ruto and Kirinyaga county governor Anne Waiguru were perceived as the country’s most corrupt political leaders.

Waiguru said she would sue Ipsos for harm to her reputation. But can a pollster be sued in Kenya for a survey of people’s views? What would be the grounds? Who would you sue – the researcher or the people asked for their opinions? The publisher of the poll results, perhaps?

And how would the suit be argued in terms of the constitutional right to freedom of expression?

  1. A lot of smoke in South Africa, but little light

South Africans pay a lot of attention to smoking, as the interest in our recent fact-check of the country’s share of smokers suggested. But do three in every four informal vendors sell illegal cigarettes, as a tobacco industry group claimed in July 2018?

At Africa Check a cardinal rule is to nail your definitions if you want to make any headway. It can be knotty.

We grappled with many questions on this one. What is the difference between illicit and illegal cigarettes? Are they contraband or counterfeit? Who is an informal or “non-organised” vendor? Is it illegal to sell cigarettes for less than the minimum tax of R17.85 a pack? (According to the taxman, no.) You get the drift.

(Bonus: The more you smoke, the lower your bedroom performance, health minister Aaron Motsoaledi claimed in March 2018. The minister said this at an international conference, but his office insisted they  would “not be commenting on this one”.)

  1. Are one in four South African workers depressed?

In May 2018, articles appeared saying a study had shown that one in four South African workers were depressed. But the study was actually from 2015, its authors told us.  

The survey was of 1,061 adults and was the most recent and relevant, a public relations team told us. But there was a significant warning light: the depression was self-reported, not diagnosed. This was an important distinction, as we found out when checking a claim made by the World Bank about how many Nigerian adults had chronic depression.  

  1. Do more than 8,300 super rich Kenyans own more than everyone else?

New World Wealth is a Johannesburg-based consulting firm whose wealth reports regularly get media attention. One such report claimed that “in 2013, there were approximately 8,300 high net-worth individuals in Kenya, with a combined wealth of US$31 billion, accounting for roughly 62% of Kenya’s total individual wealth”.

The firm told us it had a database of such individuals and had built up a model to estimate their wealth. But it said the data was proprietary, and couldn’t be shared.

Without this information it would be difficult to check the merits of the claim, experts said. The problems here were the opacity of wealth records in Kenya, the lack of household balance sheets and studies that conclude such a small number could not possibly own such an outsized share of national wealth.

Read: Do 8,300 super-rich Kenyans own more than the rest?

  1. Is Nigeria’s unemployment rate the highest in its history?

Nigeria’s elections are only weeks away. In July 2018 one of the frontrunners, Atiku Abubakar, claimed the current administration had left more Nigerians out of work than at any other point in the country’s history. Incumbent Muhammadu Buhari took office in 2015.

At the time Abubakar made the claim, the most recent official data showed unemployment was at 18.8%. In 2011 however, the unemployment rate was 23.9%.

But the national statistics office changed how it calculated unemployment in 2014, making a direct comparison with periods before this difficult.

  1. Do South African townships contribute R100bn to the economy?

“South Africa’s townships contribute up to R100 billion to the overall economy,” the head of a company claimed while promoting a township investment summit.

But the data offered as evidence did not have this figure. In South Africa, “township” usually refers to underdeveloped residential areas reserved for African, coloured and Indian people during apartheid. Much of the economic activity in townships is informal.

Measuring informal sector output is notoriously difficult, experts told Africa Check. There would therefore be a risk of errors in any attempt to set a value for the townships’ contribution to the country’s total economy.

Read: Townships contribute R100bn to South Africa’s economy? No way to tell

  1. How many kilometres of new road has Kenya’s Jubilee government built?

For two years and counting, we have sought data on the kilometres of road built since 2013, when the current Jubilee administration took office.

This was after we had noticed a lot of conflicting data in official publications while evaluating a key campaign promise ahead of 2017 elections.

After getting the run-around for months we eventually invoked the Access to Information Act and asked the Kenya Roads Board for the data.

The board referred us to the State Department of Infrastructure, asking us to write to the principal secretary. The secretary referred the matter to his legal office, which in turn passed us on to the department’s chief engineer.

The chief engineer sent us back to the principal secretary, saying only he could release the information we sought. All a bit dizzying, but rest assured – we have no intention of throwing in the towel.


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