Tak­ing a hard look at the facts and what they tell us

The Mercury - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - Pali Le­hohla Dr Pali Le­hohla is for­mer statis­ti­cian-gen­eral of South Africa and head of Statis­tics SA. He was ad­dress­ing the 28th Ses­sion of the In­ter­na­tional Union for the Sci­en­tific Study of Pop­u­la­tion tak­ing place at the ICC in Cape Town.

IAM NOT su­per­sti­tious. I am ac­tu­ally an­chored in fac­tu­al­ness. But when co­in­ci­dences oc­cur in ways that are dif­fi­cult to ex­plain, imag­i­na­tion floats in the sphere of fate and su­per­sti­tion. On Oc­to­ber 11 I was in China at the In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence Cen­tre, at­tend­ing a con­fer­ence on mul­ti­di­men­sional poverty mea­sure­ment where Statis­tics South Africa is part of the lead­ing in­sti­tu­tions in this sphere of mea­sure­ment.

This was the venue for the 24th In­ter­na­tional Union for the Sci­en­tific Study of Pop­u­la­tion (IUSSP) which was held in China 20 years ago. The year was 1997. As I stepped into the con­fer­ence cen­tre, I thought to my­self that in­deed dreams can turn into re­al­ity.

I could not imag­ine that this au­gust sci­en­tific func­tion would be hosted in South Africa then, although I cer­tainly had liked that it should hap­pen one day.

What cap­ti­vated my thoughts were two pa­pers – one was on post­pon­ing death and the other on vin­tage cars. The first pa­per was on how death rates amongst el­derly Chi­nese spike af­ter a par­tic­u­lar year.

The other was about our ob­ser­va­tions that in hu­man pop­u­la­tions some peo­ple live much longer than oth­ers, and ap­ply­ing th­ese longevity prin­ci­ples on cars and why some ve­hi­cles live to be vin­tages. Th­ese two pa­pers blew my mind. So when four years ago we placed our bid in Bu­san to host the 28th IUSSP, high on my mind was post­pone­ment of death and vin­tage cars. When we won the bid I was ju­bi­lant. I had re­quested Dr Odimego of Wits to rep­re­sent me at the bid­ding ses­sion, an event that I luck­ily par­tially joined by phone.

This was be­cause I was at the 59th Ses­sion of the In­ter­na­tional Statis­tics In­sti­tute in Hong Kong, which set smack on the IUSSP. I should thank Dr Odimego for rep­re­sent­ing South Africa well and hav­ing brought re­sults home.

This year Africa hosts two world cups in the field of num­bers.

The 61st Ses­sion of the ISI was hosted in Mar­rakech, Morocco, in July and the 28th Ses­sion of the IUSSP is hosted here in Cape Town to­day. Th­ese pro­grammes rep­re­sent the high­est level of global in­tel­lect in de­mog­ra­phy and statis­tics.

The ques­tion is, are th­ese ac­ci­dents of yearn­ing for science?

Or are th­ese move­ments point­ing to a par­tic­u­lar par­a­digm to­wards which Africa is mov­ing and an af­fir­ma­tion that it is do­ing so de­lib­er­ately? If th­ese were ac­ci­dents or mat­ters driven by fate, how is Africa re­or­gan­is­ing it­self not to waste a good ac­ci­dent? But if th­ese are not ac­ci­dents and in fact they are a re­flec­tion of pro­grammes etched in de­lib­er­ate­ness and come by de­sign, the ques­tion is then where is the blue­print that points us to this act of sci­en­tific de­lib­er­ate­ness?

I would like to of­fer some point­ers, as I spec­u­late to an­swer th­ese ques­tions of whether this is an ac­ci­dent or a mat­ter of de­sign.

First in 1996, I was en­cour­aged by two Afro-Amer­i­can schol­ars, one An­to­nio McDaniels and his PhD stu­dent Akil Khal­fani, who came to see me at Stat­sSA to dis­cuss how cen­sus data could be used. Cen­sus data, a time ma­chine of note, is un­der­utilised in Africa.

This dis­course took place in the mid­dle of my run­ning the first post-apartheid cen­sus. But by 1998 we had es­tab­lished the African Cen­sus Anal­y­sis Project (Acap) launched in South Africa.

This was launched with Tukufu Zu­beri, who had aban­doned his An­to­nio MacDaniels la­bel. Pro­fes­sor Zu­beri of Penn Univer­sity ad­dressed us on the prin­ci­ple of de­mog­ra­phy of race at the open­ing of the 28th Ses­sion of the IUSSP.

Acap was an im­por­tant fore­run­ner to the African Sym­po­sium for Sta­tis­ti­cal De­vel­op­ment which we launched in Cape Town in 2006.

Through this pro­gramme Africa saw an un­matched per­for­mance in par­tic­i­pa­tion in the 2010 Round of Cen­suses. As it were another stream of thought was the In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence on the Teach­ing of Statis­tics (Icots6) in 2002 hosted in Cape Town. This served as an im­por­tant plat­form for bid­ding for the host­ing of the 57th Ses­sion of the ISI in 2009.

As we nav­i­gated this com­plex road, we asked our­selves some fun­da­men­tal ques­tions on why we should host th­ese two con­fer­ences and what dif­fer­ence they will make to South Africa and its peo­ple.

We noted with re­gret that apartheid de­liv­ered a scourge to our South African so­ci­ety and at the heart of it was hurt­ing the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and fam­ily life. This was es­pe­cially so among peo­ple who were clas­si­fied as not be­ing white – In­di­ans, coloureds and blacks. Our fo­cus then for bid­ding for Icots6 or in wel­com­ing the host­ing for Icots6 was to el­e­vate the plight of our so­ci­ety, which was at the mar­gins, and ad­dress what af­flicts it.

Many who at­tended the 57th Ses­sion of the ISI paid spe­cific at­ten­tion to what we punted as the legacy of Icots6 which con­sol­i­dated into the 57th Ses­sion of the ISI. Two pro­grammes emerged out of Icots6 and the 57th Ses­sion of the ISI.

One of this was the Young African Statis­ti­cians and the other which con­sol­i­dated the Cen­sus@Schools a legacy pro­gramme of Icots6, which fo­cused on the teach­ing of maths and statis­tics at schools and in­tro­duc­ing pub­lic statis­tics in com­mu­ni­ties.

It is still too early to judge how suc­cess­ful or oth­er­wise th­ese legacy pro­grammes are per­form­ing and what the jour­ney is.

But for cer­tain we know our con­scious­ness on what af­flicts us has been el­e­vated and we know th­ese are im­por­tant chal­lenges that re­quire our at­ten­tion es­pe­cially should draw a pan-African at­ten­tion.

As we con­vene to­day for the IUSSP here in South Africa we can there­fore be sure that Statis­tics South Africa has spear­headed th­ese in­tel­lec­tual en­gage­ments with a deep sense of ur­gency to set the African child in South Africa and on the con­ti­nent of Africa free.

We are happy that the South African gov­ern­ment has sup­ported the pro­grammes that Statis­tics South Africa is lead­ing and has brought to bear the nec­es­sary en­cour­age­ment for us to do so.

We are pleased that the world has heeded the call that we as Africans are tak­ing a hard look at the facts and at what they are telling us. Th­ese facts por­tend a world that should take se­ri­ously the plight of its fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. In do­ing so we have to use the gift of think­ing and prob­lem solv­ing which hith­erto such en­dow­ments to our knowl­edge re­sides in abun­dance with the hu­man species.

Let us not waste the mo­ment for it is a mo­ment too pre­cious and whose con­se­quences when wasted will leave no one in com­fort. We are the sci­en­tists and we have to ad­vise ap­pro­pri­ately through science. We have to act ap­pro­pri­ately and we have to be aware that we carry the con­se­quences of our in­ac­tions, es­pe­cially when we know that we know.

There­fore let us not with­hold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do so. The world will judge us harshly. So the time is now.

I could not imag­ine that this au­gust sci­en­tific func­tion would be hosted in South Africa then, although I cer­tainly had liked that it should hap­pen one day.

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