Pali Lehohla, Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa, briefs the media.Picture: Jacques Naude
I reflect 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.

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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).

Dr Pali Lehohla is South Africa’s statistician-general and head of Statistics South Africa.