So­lu­tions for Africa found in col­lat­ing essen­tial data

A pan-African cen­sus lan­guage has helped statis­ti­cians de­vise Agenda 2063 and Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals for the con­ti­nent go­ing for­ward.

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - Pali Le­hohla Dr Pali Le­hohla is South Africa’s statis­ti­cian gen­eral and head of Sta­tis­tics South Africa.

IREFLECT on the forces be­hind sta­tis­ti­cal de­vel­op­ment in Africa as part of com­mem­o­rat­ing Africa Month and Africa Day. In July 1995 my pre­de­ces­sor, Dr Mark Orkin, was ap­pointed head of the then Cen­tral Sta­tis­ti­cal Ser­vice (CSS), now Sta­tis­tics South Africa.

Within a week of his ap­point­ment I was hauled out of North West, where I headed the sta­tis­tics of­fice, to join him in Pre­to­ria. Pay­ing for my sins of mo­bil­is­ing a very suc­cess­ful three-per­son re­sis­tance move­ment that in­tel­lec­tu­ally ob­jected to the way the CSS in­tended to plan and run the then planned-for 1995 post-apartheid cen­sus, I was tasked with the oner­ous re­spon­si­bil­ity of lead­ing and mar­shalling the first post-apartheid na­tional pop­u­la­tion cen­sus, Cen­sus ’96.

A task I ac­cepted para­dox­i­cally, with trep­i­da­tion, and at the same time with a deep sense of hon­our and hu­mil­ity. I had just be­come nat­u­ralised as a South African cit­i­zen. I des­per­ately, yet con­fi­dently, felt the bur­den of duty and this con­di­tion has con­tin­ued to haunt my fac­ulty.

I had run two rel­a­tively suc­cess­ful cen­suses in Bo­phuthatswana, one in 1985 and an­other in 1991. But Bo­phuthatswana, al­beit spread across South Africa like an oc­to­pus, still was not com­pa­ra­ble by any stretch of the imag­i­na­tion to South Africa.

Our heads and hands, dug in the daily slough of the task of de­tailed cen­sus plan­ning in the con­text of a di­vided civil ser­vice and so­ci­ety, posed a ma­jor chal­lenge. My re­spon­si­bil­ity was to mo­bilise and build a lead­ing coali­tion out of a frac­tious sys­tem of sta­tis­tics.

It was to hone these to­wards a uni­fied vi­sion of run­ning the big­gest mo­bil­i­sa­tion ever in South Africa – a na­tional pop­u­la­tion cen­sus. A sense of trep­i­da­tion spurred me into mo­bil­is­ing a theme and slo­gan that would res­onate with the im­pulse of the time. “If the na­tional elec­tions were the bricks, the cen­sus is the mor­tar for bring­ing the na­tion to­gether” be­came the theme. “Cen­sus ’96 – a na­tion-build­ing ex­er­cise” was the slo­gan.

‘Bo­ere­wors cur­tain’

Armed with these two easy-to-re­mem­ber phrases, the vi­sion was set, the mis­sion was de­fined and the star danc­ing over the true north shone. I had to mar­shal the forces to­wards this star. Al­though ex­cit­ing, the march for­ward re­mained pre­car­i­ous.

To get the team for­ward and give them cen­sus ex­po­sure, my first port of call was Lesotho, my coun­try of birth, which was hold­ing its third post-in­de­pen­dence cen­sus in April 1996. Many in the team were cross­ing “the bo­ere­wors cur­tain” into an­other coun­try for the first time. And Mar­garet Africa, who later joined Stats SA was host to the team that vis­ited Lesotho.

From this point on, we de­vel­oped a pan-African cen­sus lan­guage as Swazi­land, Botswana, Mozam­bique and Namibia, to men­tion a few, were in line shortly for their pop­u­la­tion cen­suses in the SADC re­gion. The seed for a pan-African out­look to sta­tis­tics was planted. In 1997, Orkin com­ing out of a con­ti­nen­tal meet­ing in Ad­dis, flew into my of­fice and asked: “Pali, why don’t we go for a one, uni­fied, ref­er­ence day SADC cen­sus?”

With­out think­ing twice, I tabled the idea at our SADC meet­ing in Lesotho to­wards the end of 1997.

While the idea of a uni­fied ref­er­ence was shot down, the idea of a uni­form SADC ap­proach to cen­suses was adopted. I as­signed Mar­garet Africa, who had joined Stat­sSA, to lead the SADC Cen­sus Pro­gramme

This task was later led by Mi­randa Mafafo from 2004 and she meta­mor­phosed the pro­gramme into the African Sym­po­sium or Sta­tis­ti­cal De­vel­op­ment (ASSD), which Risenga Maluleke and I led vig­or­ously, since it was in­au­gu­rated in 2006 with its sec­re­tar­iat, hosted at Stat­sSA to date.

Un­der­utilised re­source

At same time, in 1996, a ma­jor con­ti­nen­tal study by Tukufu Zu­beri, a pan-African par ex­cel­lence based at Penn Univer­sity (Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia), was con­cluded and it re­vealed that cen­sus data is a ter­ri­bly un­der-utilised re­source. He, with a team of African PhD stu­dents, col­lected old cen­sus tapes and ques­tion­naires across the con­ti­nent and re­cov­ered these cen­sus files and en­sured that African schol­ars can im­merse them­selves in­tel­lec­tu­ally in these datasets. He re­li­giously re­turned the files to their African cus­to­di­ans.

Tukufu and I, in 1998, con­vened many African de­mog­ra­phers here in South Africa to ad­vance anal­y­sis of the data re­cov­ered and which con­tin­ues to be re­cov­ered. Among them were Wole Adeg­boyega (Nige­ria), Martin Bang (Cameroon), Am­son Sibanda (Zim­babwe), Cheikh Mackhe (Sene­gal), Eric Udjo (South Africa and Nige­ria), John Keko­v­ole (Kenya), Pierre Ngom (Sene­gal), Aki Khafani (US), Eli­jah Zulu (Malawi) and Alex Ezeh (Nige­ria). To­gether we estab­lished the African Cen­sus Anal­y­sis Project (ACAP).

Back to the ASSD, three pri­or­ity pro­gram­mers con­tinue to ma­te­ri­alise.

First, Africa be­came con­spic­u­ously vis­i­ble in the 2010 Round of Pop­u­la­tion and Hous­ing Cen­suses wherein 48 coun­ties un­der­took their cen­suses. Sec­ond is a pro­gramme of civil reg­is­tra­tion and vi­tal sta­tis­tics that Africa ini­ti­ated, and third is the ISIbalo Young African Statis­ti­cians (YAS) pro­gramme.

As African statis­ti­cians we have led and par­tic­i­pated fully in the dis­course of Agenda 2063 and the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals (SDGs), as well as aligned these con­ti­nen­tal and global pro­grammes through an in­te­grated-in­di­ca­tor frame­work. Here at home we have aligned these to the Na­tional De­vel­op­ment Plan – our na­tional lodestar.

I would be re­miss if, in Africa Month and close to Africa Day, I do not con­grat­u­late the first African to be ap­pointed di­rec­tor-gen­eral of the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion (WHO), an Ethiopian – Dr Te­dros Ad­hanom Ghe­breye­sus.

We look for­ward to em­bark­ing on this jour­ney with the WHO, as we all strive to­wards achiev­ing the 17 SDGs and Agenda 2063. I also thank Dr Mar­garet Chen for lead­ing and steer­ing the WHO as we in­ter­sected on the de­vel­op­ment of causes of death sta­tis­tics and CRVS (civil reg­is­tra­tion and vi­tal sta­tis­tics).


Com­mu­nity mem­bers work­ing with the Com­mu­nity Or­gan­i­sa­tion Re­source Cen­tre con­duct a cen­sus of who is liv­ing in these newly-built hous­ing units in the Western Cape. As African statis­ti­cians we have led and par­tic­i­pated fully in the dis­course of Agenda 2063 and the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals, says Pali Le­hohla.

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