Statistician-general Pali Lehohla is calling for Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) to be given greater independence. Image: Simphiwe Mbokazi.
JOHANNESBURG - Respected statistician-general Pali Lehohla is calling for Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) to be given greater independence like that enjoyed by the judiciary, saying stats have come of age.

While he warned there would be “resistance” ahead, Lehohla was optimistic that the institution would finally win its professional and administrative independence.

The maths expert, who is stepping down from StatsSA at the end of the month after 17 years at the helm and 34 years with the agency, said they wanted greater independence “like judges” in the execution of their duties.

Also read: WATCH: Outgoing boss says Stats SA could die if funding is not addressed

In a wide-ranging interview with Business Report yesterday, Lehohla said: “You don’t have to be an altar boy in the game of numbers, you have to be a priest (and) politicians might not always like them (numbers).”

While some countries are known to have hijacked their national stats agencies to massage the numbers to prop up their regimes, Lehohla was emphatic that “in South Africa that has not happened. Where they have tried to massage the numbers and have succeeded is in Greece and Argentina,” he said.

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Argentina is said to have, for a decade, deliberately suppressed inflation and poverty stats to suit former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. But when President Mauricio Macri took over in 2015, he reportedly declared a statistical emergency and rebuilt the agency’s collections.

Lehohla said no one has ever tried to interfere in his work, but recalled that during the Thabo Mbeki presidency, some in the cabinet would approach former finance minister Trevor Manuel to complain about him and Manuel would say Lehohla was independent.

Lehohla, who spoke passionately about Africa’s integration, criticised African states who seemed unwilling to conduct a population census.

“A census has always been a problem for many presidents across the continent. Nigeria released its 1991 census in 1998.”

He compared Africa to Asia, saying the latter took data and information seriously in order to plot its economic trajectory.

“Africans are playing with their futures. How many times have (African) countries not run their censuses. It’s a travesty to think African leaders can lead when they don’t even know the number of the people they are leading,” he said.

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“It begs the question, ‘Do they really care and are you worth sitting there and being a president of the country?’ You have got to have statistics to which to plot the trajectory of your society. It starts with running a census.”

He lashed out at the Demo­cratic Republic of the Congo for “shifting goals in matters of the census. It doesn’t look like they are interested in knowing their numbers. If statistics are not driven to integrate Africa, it’s going to be a loss”.

Fulfilling career

In a letter to his colleagues and counterparts from across the African continent, Lehohla thanks them for their “guidance, advice and rebuke”.

In his fulfilling career, Lehohla chaired, among others, the SADC Census Committee, Paris21, UN Statistics Commission, Statistics Commission Africa, and the 28th Session of the International Union for the Scientific Study of the Population. Looking back, Lehohla didn’t have any regrets and was quick to stress he would not be “retiring” when his term ends on October 31.

Statistician-general Pali Lehohla.

“I’m unapologetic about the fact that I drove the culture and discipline of statistics in South Africa. I probably would have loved to continue (working at StatsSA), because I’m doing a pretty good job anyway.”

- BUSINESS REPORT