IT’S been almost 14 minutes and there are at least another six to go. I’m not sure I’m going to make it; everything is becoming a bit blurred and I’m struggling to recall what it is I’m doing. Should I abandon it all now and lose the 14 minutes I’ve already invested? Or persevere to the very end? But for what purpose? Will any of it matter?

“Just one more set of questions and it’ll all be over,” said the patient interviewer, sensing my frustration and fearing that my answers to his seemingly never-ending and increasingly pointless questions might become so glib that the statisticians who pore over these things would declare my input null and void.

My heart went out to the 58 anonymous South African executives who had the time and the patience to plough through the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness survey. I had fewer than 30 questions to answer in my phone survey relating to discretionary consumer products; they had 80 questions to answer relating to the very essence of South Africa.

“In your country, how effective are the regulation and supervision of securities exchanges? Rank between one and seven with one, not at all effective and seven, extremely effective.” Or, “In your country, how would you characterise labour-employer relations? One is generally confrontational and seven is generally cooperative.”

As it happened South Africa came tops (out of 144 countries) in the first question and stone last in the second.

While there’s certainly no getting away from the fact that we do have problems and some things are getting worse, it is very likely that things are not as bad as perceived by our 58 executives. Not even with regard to things like labour and education.

These are just two of the questions the WEF wants answered. And you can’t do what I might be inclined to do, which is give up a third of the way through and tell the interviewer to put you down for three for all of the remaining 60 questions. That would demonstrate “a lack of sufficient focus on the part of the respondent” and get you disqualified.

The really interesting thing about the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Report, which runs to just under 600 pages, is not that South Africa keeps slipping down towards position 144 or that so many South Africans get upset and defensive. No, the really interesting thing about it is that there are 58 senior executives in South Africa who have the time and patience to do the survey.

The WEF doesn’t say how many South African executives were asked to complete the survey, only that 58 did so. This figure, which seems remarkably small given the impact of the survey, is deemed statistically relevant — by statisticians.

Allowing for the size of its economy, South Africa’s 58 participants reflects comparatively low levels of participation. Although not as low as Israel and Swaziland, where only 32 executives from each country bothered to respond.

At the other end of the scale is, unsurprisingly, the US with 369 participants and China with 362. And then there’s Mexico, where 340 executives had time to complete the survey.

The second most interesting thing about the WEF competitiveness survey is that the 34 “indicators” that don’t rely on opinions of executives reflect a reasonably strong showing from South Africa. We rank in the top 50% for many of these.

But the picture becomes bleak when the 58 rather disgruntled executives weigh in. In general the executives believe corporate stuff in South Africa is good, and government and labour stuff is bad.

While there’s certainly no getting away from the fact that we do have problems and some things are getting worse, it is very likely that things are not as bad as perceived by our 58 executives. Not even with regard to things like labour and education.

It’s equally likely they are not as good with regard to stuff like the regulation of securities exchanges and affordability of financial services.

But that’s surveys and perceptions for you.

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