Paying tribute to Lawrence Ndaki: He leaves behind a well empowered and mighty StatsSA

Dr Pali Lehohla pays tribute to Lawrence Ndaki. He was put to rest on Saturday, the 25th May 2024.

Dr Pali Lehohla pays tribute to Lawrence Ndaki. He was put to rest on Saturday, the 25th May 2024.

Published May 27, 2024


Ndaki was a skilful diplomat who understood protocol.

Lawrence Ndaki.

My first recruit for field operations in preparation for the Bophuthatswana Census of 1985, Lawrence Ndaki, is no more. He was put to rest on Saturday, May 25.

My success and rise in the South African statistical system began in Bophuthatswana in November, 1982, when I had to start from scratch and progressively build a formidable team, over a period of 13 years, that became a reference core for Census ’96, the very first census in a democratic South Africa.

As the country completes thirty years of democracy, it was in 1998 that President Nelson Mandela, upon receiving the results of the census, would say: “At last we have the numbers that count for the nation. Numbers that we can count on.”

The end of the 30-year journey is marked by the demise of one of the core cogs that joined me on that formative journey in Bophuthatswana.

I was granted the rare opportunity to lead a team that would seed the Bophuthatswana experience, and took a deliberate and definitive departure from the apartheid-style approach to the census count. I transported the changes I institutionalised in the Bophuthatswana Census into the 1996 census. Ndaki was part of that journey.

He arrived at the office one morning early in 1984 from the Taung District – one of the 12 districts that were run by my complement of 12 disciples. With nowhere to stay, Lawrence Ndaki would be invited to my home at the end of the working day. This became his home as we prepared the census field operations that would ensue.

My son, who was four-years old at the time, forgot his name. After some struggle, he said, “Ntate Sefahleho”. And that became the name we used to call him at home.

Mahikeng, in the North West, was very hot, and wearing a jacket and tie to the office made me feel strange. The legendary Nigerian musician, Fela Kuti, puts it unambiguously with his lyrics: “Afrika ihot, I like em so, if you put em tie, you go sweat like dog, you go smell like shit.”

I was used to the free-flowing batik of West Africa, where I had studied, and the Mahikeng weather flowed in neatly with this style and I heeded Kuti’s advice. But this would not grant me an audience in Mahikeng. Ndaki understood this very well.

In the first of our meetings, I was stopped abruptly at the door of the Ratshidi Kgotla in Mahikeng. The hand of the chief told me I was not properly dressed. As an official, I had to be in a jacket and tie. I was in my West African tie-and-dye flowing regalia. This did not meet the princely standards of the Ratshidi Kgotla. I immediately said to the chief’s hand: “I am just a driver; the main person is Mr Lawrence Ndaki.”

Then I returned to sit under a tree and Ndaki proceeded into the community hall.

After a few minutes, the chief’s hand came outside and called me in. Whatever Ndaki said to grant me entrance I was never ever privy to, and four decades later he was buried with the secret that allowed the “driver” to present – obviously in Sesotho, a neighbour of the Setswana language – to the attentive elders of the Kgotla. Ndaki was a skilful diplomat who understood protocol.

The civil servants of the time lived among the people and we had to get accommodation at the chief’s place, or any household that would be willing to host us in our public service work.

Ndaki took the lead among the 12 disciples that I appointed and they traversed the islands of Bophuthatswana. They would be stationed in a village for about a week.

When they returned to base, stories would be told of how Ndaki would pitch up at night, introducing himself as the one that was distributing the 11 others in the village and he too needed accommodation.

Ndaki, like all other staff members at the time, arrived at work with only a matric certificate. When he departed, he had completed a degree, a feature that the Bophuthatswana Statistics staff embraced. He retired at the level of director and was sent off by his cohort of colleagues, who through this journey had acquired degrees and were chief directors and directors as they rose in the mighty organisation over that journey of 40 years.

I derive a lot of joy when I witness the seed, Ndaki, that I planted in 1984, the change that I had the opportunity to inspire, lead and now celebrate over 40 years. This as we commemorate our 30 years as a constitutional democracy.

May the Soul of Lawrence Ndaki Rest In Peace, and his family be consoled. He leaves a well empowered and mighty Statistics South Africa.

Dr Pali Lehohla is a Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, a Research Associate at Oxford University, a board member of the Institute for Economic Justice at Wits and a distinguished alumni of the University of Ghana. He is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former president of the African Symposium for Statistical Development (ASSD)