So you thought that mathematics and bureaucracy have nothing to do with each other. Well, that is not exactly so. Mix them up together and you get an omelette that is often inedible, but sometimes unavoidable.

Many, many years ago, decades ago in fact, I was employed by the engineering division of the Post Office (Telkom today). At that time, among that department’s employees, were some who had to do a lot of walking in the course of their duties. Postmen were an example.

Some kindly senior noticed his local postman trudging along bravely and thought about the wear and tear on knees, ankles, calf muscles and other parts of his anatomy. “Why not allow him to use his own bicycle?” the kind senior thought. “Life will be much easier for him then.”

At that point the matter was handed over to the mathematicians in the bureaucracy. How much should such a person be reimbursed for the use of his private bicycle in the course of his duties. Bicycles do not use fuel, so that expense could be discounted. That left the capital expenditure every ten years or so of purchasing a new bicycle. If the number of kilometres travelled was divided into the cost of the bicycle you had the capital cost per kilometre of a common roadster bicycle. As far as it went, that was true, but you also needed to work in the postman’s own private usage. He could hardly expect the department to reimburse him for scooting down to the corner café for cigarettes. Then there was the amount of rubber worn off the tyres per kilometre – not much. The amount of three-in-one oil you needed to service you bicycle to keep it running smoothly (maybe one small tin a year) also had to come into the calculation.

The bureaucracy’s sturdy mathematicians were equal to the task. They worked out the cost per kilometre to the second decimal point of a cent – I swear this is true. The figure they came up with was 0.16 cents per kilometre (the figure has stuck in my memory all the years since then) that could be claimed back by a postman, using own bicycle.

That episode in the distant past may have the appearance of a comic opera, but not all bureaucratic calculations are equally amusing. The Employment Equity Act that is currently passing through the wheels of government is an example.

According to this Act, enterprises that employ more than 50 people have to conform to percentage targets of employees that, according to the authors of the Act, will compensate for past injustices. The detail is astonishing. For instance a certain percentage of senior managers in a Western Cape company in a particular sector may have to be female Asians and a different percentage have to be male coloureds.

The bureaucratic mathematicians have had a field day on this one. They have tabulated all the targets for us lesser mortals to follow. Factors that are taken into consideration are gender, of which the Act recognises two; nine provinces, all of which have different targets; four population groups, keeping the old racist categories alive; management levels, of which the Act appears to see just two; and eighteen economic sectors. Work it out and you find 2 592 possible targets. None of the figures on their massive table add up to 100%, illustrating perhaps a mathematical weakness in the bureaucracy. God help the company hiring if in their province and their economic sector they cannot find someone to fill a management position who is of the right gender, race and suitable skill set.

The targets become quite as bizarre as the old postman expenditure. Natale Labia points out in the Daily Maverick, that agricultural businesses in the Western Cape that have 50 or more employees, must have at least 27.6% female Africans among their skilled employees and 14.8% coloured females. Heaven only knows what a 0.6% Asian or a 0.8% coloured looks like. I’ve never seen either.  If you doubt all of this, have a look for yourself. The Act is displayed on the Internet for all to see.

I wonder what we would find if we could examine the emotional state of the people who create and implement this sort of thing. Come back, Sigmund Freud. All is forgiven.

Mathematics and the Bureaucrat