INTELLECTUAL ABILITY IN STATS SA
A treasured asset that continues to shed light on the health of South Africa
STATISTICS South Africa (Stats SA) rightly so has to be considered as one of the intellectual hubs of South Africa, a treasured asset of the nation that continues to shed light on the health of the state. Statistics is a crucial planning and risk management tool, an essential life blood for a democratic state, a citadel of fortitude and a conduit of trust. In pursuit of this burden I would be remiss if I do not narrate the story of building intellectual capability at Stats SA.
Building capacity and capability at Stats SA did not come by a sudden flight, neither was it ephemeral. It came by staying the course. So from July 3 to 5 through the 3rd ISIbalo Cruise, which is an outfit of Stats SA at the University of Stellenbosch, we witnessed this conference culminate into the launch of the Africa Regional Science Association at the Centre for Regional and Urban Innovation and Statistical Exploration (Cruise) at the University of Stellenbosch.
It is here that after 16 years of trying hard to get the training off the ground, Professor Geyer, the director of Cruise, and I, as the Statistician-General of South Africa, agreed that an outfit for training Stats SA staff in regional science would be the most beneficial investment for implementing national planning. So in 2011 Cruise opened its doors exclusively to Stats SA staff, but subsequently many are now at Cruise and Stats SA Masters students are in the minority.
Tomorrow at the home of Stats SA, ISIbalo House in Pretoria, Stats SA will host the 12th Conference of the Population Association of South Africa, (Pasa). This conference is different from previous ones and it is indeed coming of age, both intellectually and in terms of diversity of subjects as well as in the backgrounds of the participants.
The history of the discipline of population studies and demography in South Africa is terribly chequered and continues to be challenged. This Pasa conference attests to this positive development.
Established in 1987 by a group of demographers, among them Professors Sadie, Mostert, Oosthuizen, Hofmeyer, Van Tonder, Van Heerden et al, it was exclusively white and male. Dr Preston-White was the odd female in this “white boys only club.”
Tuition had to be supported by an association and the Demographic Association of South Africa (Demsa) was formed in in the same year. It had its inclusive inaugural conference in Stellenbosch and was hosted by Stellenbosch Farmers Wineries.
I remember distinctly that Dr Wole Adegboyega, Dr Chimere Dan, the two Nigerians, Dr Marina Xaba-Mokuena based in the Transkei Medical School and I from Bophuthatswana were the only black people in this almost all-white affair.
In the first 10 years of its being, Demsa showed bad cracks which expressed themselves across racial lines. In the absence of qualified black demographers in South Africa, the Demsa journal only carried white authors. But more importantly the white demography professors were not getting younger either.
There were also clear racial tensions among staff at the University of Pretoria between foreign black professors and white local professors.
Professor van Heerden, the leader of the Demography school at the University of Pretoria, had cancer and met his early death in 1987. He was replaced by Professor Oosthuizen, who also met his untimely death in what was considered a routine operation. Professor Sadie had retired earlier from Stellenbosch and had also passed on. Professor Mostert had retired.
The project at Tukkies subsequently collapsed. Those who were at Tukkies, like Professor Van Aardt, moved on to Unisa to start a new demography outfit, where they were joined by Professor Udjo, a well published professor, who served for quite a while at Stats SA. Dr Phillips and Professor Van Tonder left for Stats SA as well.
In the meantime other outposts such as the University of the North West under Professor Sabiti, Wits under Professor Odimego, UKZN under Professor Julian May, and UWC under Professor Robert Shell tried with variable success in building capacity for tuition in demography at this institutions. It was too thin and dispersed to make an impact.
The road has therefore been ugly for demography in South Africa and this sad chapter deserves a separate write-up sometime. As a consequence of all this and the racialised nature that stalked Demsa, it finally folded as the parallel Pasa structure was created.
Pasa was not dressed in glory either, as it faltered for a long period of time with a lot of substandard practices and poorly structured intellectual work.
In 2005 I recall when our bench at the DBSA consisted of all foreign-born demographers, including myself, and I argued to my colleagues that it was not to be found in any of our African countries that this would be the case. I asked Udjo, Bah, Odimego, Kekovole and I to set ourselves a target for change.
I repeated this message at Pasa six years later that as Africans we shall be successful if only we immerse ourselves in shaping our future and using the data we have. That change has come.
At this Pasa conference held at ISIbalo House, there are 157 papers to be presented. Seventy nine of these are presented by South Africa, with 39 presented by Stats SA staff members.
There are three important pointers to make in this crucial intellectual enterprise, which also carries practical applications. First almost all South African papers are applying data from Stats SA, pointing to the development and relevance of Stats SA in the country.
Second and importantly, the University of Transkei where Dr Marina XabaMokuena was a dean 23 years ago, has quite a number of papers that are focusing not only on South Africa at the national level but are addressing both provincial and local municipality challenges in OR Tambo.
And third a good number of papers by Stats SA apply spatial analysis. This puts paid the benefits accrued from Cruise in demographic analysis.
Another heart-warming development is that the 12th Pasa Conference has managed to be attended by 13 other countries, with staff from universities and statistics offices. These include Nigeria, Ghana, Malawi, Botswana, Lesotho, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Swaziland, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso and India.
The quality of papers if this is anything to go by is a serious precursor to Stats SA’s hosting of the 28th International Union for the Scientific Study of Population later in Cape Town from October 29 to November 4 this year.
The journey of building intellectual assets of population data and statistics, building the demography and population studies as a discipline and creating supporting mechanisms for it to thrive in South Africa, was as much littered by the turbulence of struggle and fought through single mindedness of building Statistics South Africa as it is a tale of the transformation challenges of South Africa.
This story of overcoming the failing and fragile demography and population studies as a discipline is therefore not far removed from the question of addressing our currently challenged social, economic, physical and political order of our national democratic revolution.
Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe and Statistician-General Pali Lehohla at the official opening of the ISIbalo House (Stats SA) in Salvokop, Pretoria in this file photo. Stats SA is an intellectual hub, says the writer.