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StatsSA: How StatsSA was built into a household state institution

Business Report
Statistics is a derived word from facts about the state - statis - and the suffix - tics - is facts or study of and in this case of the state.

This is very much like economics, which is a body of knowledge about the economy, and the suffix - ics - connotes facts of and in this case of the economy. Statistics South Africa is such an institution in the state and provides a numerical evidence on the status of the state.

By end of the year, that is 2017, I will be 17 years at the helm of the mighty institution called Stats SA as the Statistician-General and Head of Stats SA.

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At my first one-on-one meeting with him when he took political responsibility over Stats SA from retired former Minister Trevor Manuel, the Honourable Jeff Radebe, in June 2014 said to me that Stats SA is a formidable institution.

Little was known of the formidable role Stats SA played in the matters of state in those formative years, of what appeared from a distance to be an error prone organisation. It was largely known as an office that counts people every five years and for the rest of the time it hibernates.

That was with the exception of those moments when it would be in the press for all the wrong reasons. Such reasons abounded.

In the litany of comedy of errors was the 2003 Consumer Price Indexion, the error in manufacturing, the successive audit findings of disclaimer, qualified and less severe opinions such as matter of emphasis.

We have seen it all, and in the mix of these troubles were also allegations levelled against me by some of my staff who claimed I embezzled funds on residential property acquisitions.

So where I sat in 2002, just over two years in what would be a journey of now seventeen years, I must have felt completely paranoid and captured by forces conspiring against me.

Fortunately or unfortunately I never felt that way. Why was this the case? This was because internally I was at work building the organisation with a formidable team of people who grew from 800 in 2001 to 3500 by 2012.

Their mission has consistently been nothing else but seeing an organisation that in time will be defined like in Matthew 5:14 - “You are the light of the world. A city set on the hill cannot be hidden.”

Outside the institution, there was a government and political system that was tolerant and understood the enormity of the task and the unwavering commitment of the people behind it.

I personally approached the leadership of the government and offered myself to be probed on those impropriety allegations.

And of course subsequently at the end of the investigation I cracked the whip on the perpetrators - in the end my integrity is all I have and it would not be or ever for sale.

Hard at work

Were we all and always united internally? No, not. But there were the crucial body of thousands of employees that was hard at work.

I cannot mention them all by name, suffice to say that there was a critical mass of four at the helm that was unified and relentlessly charting the way through under all difficult and trying circumstances.

There was a Statistics Council, which was always tough and frank and truly supportive. But truth be told there were two members in the audit committee who were downright hostile as they holus bolus bought in this notion of embezzlement and impropriety.

This made the task of building very difficult. But as the unified leadership, we had to sort them out.

This rendition focuses mainly on the years 2001 to 2005, which I call the troubled years. At the helm of making Stats SA work under troubled waters were my retired Deputy Director-General (DD-G), Dr Ros Hirschowitz.

Whenever the two of us asked for an appointment with the former minister Trevor Manuel, he would claim that he has serious heart palpitations. He was kept apprised of the challenges and problems at all times. That is why in jest he argues often that he is a statistic of a young man in a body of an old man because of Stats SA, and in particular because of myself.

Risenga Maluleke, whom I recruited in 1997 after a protracted paper correspondence of two years from 1994 is another, and currently my DD-G.

The paper correspondence emanating from the headquarters of two homelands of Gazankulu (Giyani) in Limpopo where Risenga hailed from and of Mmabatho in Bophuthatswana, where I was located, were about the future of statistics in South Africa. The two-year correspondence culminated in a physical meeting in 1996 and this increased our circle of influence on what was the only forward looking centre of discourse on state facts in South Africa.

Since then there was a meeting of minds and through the turbulent period Risenga remained rock solid on the cause and course of statistics in South Africa. Another anchor in those formative years was Annette Myburgh, an economist of note, whose commitment to training staff in project management, established against my instincts, a programme office and thus systematically set the system to migrate us from the troubled institution of bad audits in the 2003-2005 period.

A key catalyst for change was training and as I took position in Steyn’s Arcade in November 2000, my mission besides working towards producing high quality statistics was first and foremost grounded and centred on building the human resources capable of doing so and attracting high calibre staff to engender a culture of learning.

So Africa was to be deliberately the space in which we train.

In 2001, hardly three months into the job, I had nominated and sent with a commitment for the next ten years cohorts of staff who acquired their statistics qualifications from Makerere University in Uganda and East Africa Statistics Training Centre in Tanzania.

The challenge of language was very acute and Ensea, a French Statistics School training at Masters Degree was the next destination, and since 2008 cohorts of staff qualify in statistical training in French.

The next stop was urban and regional planning as a fundamental for statistics as an information system for the state and in this regard by 2010 a Stats SA Centre for Regional and Urban Innovation and Regional Science (Cruise) at the University of Stellenbosch, which now enrols a full-time Masters Programme in Regional Science was established.

Every year up to ten senior staff from DD-Gs to directors level are released for full-time study on this programme. Since 2003, we started a successful internship programme taking successful matriculants through university for studies and they compete for jobs in Stats SA.

Tirelessly

Like a bird, which collects materials, builds a nest and creates conditions for eggs to hatch and nestlings to thrive, at Stats SA that has been my task.

Yandiswa Mpetsheni led a team that worked tirelessly on the first ever UN World Data Forum for Sustainable Development held in Cape Town in January this year.

In 2016 Stats SA occupied a new home in Freedom Park. It is a marvel, a city on the hill that cannot be hidden. It is a nest from which the country will continue to enjoy high quality facts of the state.

Again here staff excel, and mention of Akhtari Henning, the DD-G for Corporate Services in Stats SA, is deserved as she showed through immense leadership how Public Private Partnerships are possible (PPP) in South Africa.

A R1.4billion building was concluded within 24 months and this PPP is hailed as the fastest to be concluded and, there are no blemishes.

Minister Jeff Radebe opened this nest to staff in December 2016 and said information is freedom. Now we are aggressively building modelling competency and capability for identifying and addressing data gaps and planning systems for the state.

My horizon ahead in this role surely is much and far shorter than 17 years, but I can look back with pride on what a privilege South Africa bestowed on me in these years and a nest where nestlings thrive is what I had the privilege of building.

Pali Lehohla is South Africa’s Statistician-General and Head of Statistics South Africa.

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