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Checking the claim again and again – until they get it right

Fact-checking can sometimes feel as effective as flogging the proverbial dead horse. The same incorrect claims are made again and again and we check them again and again.

We’ve debunked the claim that South Africa has the worst maths and science education in the world three times. It’s still wrong! We’re also three fact-checks deep into the often repeated (and incorrect) claim that Zimbabwe has the highest literacy rate in Africa.


Growth of South Africa’s economy

Since the beginning of 2019 Africa Check has twice rated as misleading a claim by the African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party, that the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) has tripled since 1994.

I first fact-checked the claim when President Cyril Ramaphosa said it in the party’s traditional January 8 statement: “Despite economic challenges over the last few years, our economy has tripled in size over the last 25 years.”

GDP is a measure of the size of a country’s economy. It’s the value of all goods and services produced in a certain period, usually a year.

Data from the World Bank shows that South Africa’s current or “nominal” GDP grew 2.5 times from US$139.7 billion in 1994 to $349.4 billion in 2017.

But this growth is in current or nominal GDP, which includes the effects of price inflation over the years. Comparing nominal GDP from different years gives you “completely distorted figures”, says Prof Jannie Rossouw, head of the school of economic and business sciences at Wits University.  

It’s important to separate real economic growth from inflation, he says.

World Bank data based on constant or real GDP (where the effect of inflation is removed) shows that the country’s economy grew 1.9 times from $225.6 billion in 1994 to $426.7 billion in 2017.


Claim repeated – twice

Yet the misleading claim was repeated two more times.

Later in January, we fact-checked a tweet by the ANC’s head of risk management, Bo Mbindwane, which said the party had grown GDP “three fold” since 1994.

The South African government’s Twitter feed posted the same claim in February.

“How many more times could we publish the same fact-check?” I thought.


We’re not trying to catch people out

So imagine my delight when during a parliamentary question and answer session on 7 March, Ramaphosa changed his tune on the country’s GDP growth.

“Do you honestly believe that the economic policy of the last 25 years has brought real change to the economy and the people of this country?” an opposition member of parliament asked him.

Ramaphosa said there had been progress. “The GDP of our country has almost doubled.”

The president was spot on. South Africa’s real GDP has almost doubled. It’s now 1.9 times the size it was in 1994.

I can’t be sure that our fact-checks helped persuade the president to re-examine the claim. But it’s a great reminder of why we sometimes fact check the same claim over and over again.

We’re not trying to catch people out. We’re hoping that, eventually, they get it right.  

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