Pali Lehohla

JOHANNESBURG - The story of a population census is a narrative that talks to people, about people, their state of health, economy and wellbeing. 

The infrastructure they have at their disposal to transact and commune with family, friends and the economy is part of the package. In the past three columns, I have written about logistics and payments of more than a hundred thousand temporary staff who put their energy into ensuring that we know South Africa, and not only that, but it is a home we understand.

Payments even in Census 2011 still became a major issue, despite paying at least 98% of all enumerators in the first week of paying - a heart-warming fit after monumental challenges of Censuses 96 and 2001 as regards payments. But a glimpse into the Census 2011 campaign is worthwhile.

In my estimation in the history of censuses in South Africa, Census 2011 was to be the most visible in the public eye. It was an unfair race though, as it came after the 2010 World Cup with all its razzmatazz.

But expectations were high for the census too. Minister Trevor Manuel would torture me and say: “I am not feeling it.” It is October 2010, three months after the world cup and a year before the census and we are launching this at a hotel in Sandton.

It did not raise the stakes - very little by way of media and projection - frankly it was a dud.

Restless

We are now in November and I am very restless and I had to dream deep before December. We are still not feeling it. Beginning of December I rounded up the troops and said to them: "We shall have to be dramatic and make this census a success.

"The odds are against us and I am not seeing any inspiration out of us to mobilise the country into action."

As December started I had my first yellow suit done and by December, beginning of January, we were filming for adverts in it.

In the 2011 State of the Nation Address I lit up the campaign with canary yellow as I boldly stepped out. I never looked back. We had several run-ins with Minister Manuel on the campaign.

One of those was “the risk of one swallow doth summer not make.” My argument was: whilst I agreed with him, “consistency is an element of surprise, raises questions and it pays.” So after seven hundred and eighty days of consistently wearing a yellow suit, I had raised the bar - a swallow summer doth make.

It is the second week of November, 95percent of all field staff have been paid electronically.

They can go to any ATM, any retail store - literally anywhere where there is a machine readable device that can dispense money, and they will get money. A far cry from 2001 Post Office debacle that promised equivalent, but failed dismally. What a relief we had. We have finally cracked the payment problem that even the introduction of Mzanzi could not crack a decade earlier.

We are celebrating, and sooner than I know, we have paid up to 98percent of the enumerators. I send Minister Trevor Manuel an SMS with a message: "Hooray finally we made it."

Paying 156000 people at one go was a scoop. But as they all started transacting, the Absa/Barclays machines sent a strange spike and the engineers had to be on site and high alert to ensure that the system does not collapse - and fortunately it did not.

Well, the pains were still to come - pains of kinds. What we had forgotten, whilst we settled on ATM payments, was that the people we employed had never in their lives transacted in electronic money - they had never had a bank account, let alone an electronic one. We knew that they each had a mobile device and could use these devices, but it never crossed our mind that the majority had not held an electronic card dispensing money.

No sooner had the transactions started than a deluge of complaints mounted of cards disallowed, cards swallowed by the machine, money finished by the machine. In each of these cases as we traced and started gaining the cause we found out that it had to do with ATM virginity and that the insertion including typing in the personal identification code number was always problematic. What does this tell us - that a significant number of citizens are left behind in this electronic era.

Another set of problems on payments were to emerge reflecting the tapestry of our nation. I had a trip to Tokyo, where we were to explore possibility of the statistics school of Asia taking on some of our staff members for training, and I could safely go in the third week of November as payments have successfully gone through. It is 8pm in Tokyo, and 1pm in South Africa and I get a call from a private number and I already have a suspicion from whence it came.

Heat of payments

It is Trevor Manuel now feeling the heat of payments. A Mr David Beukes is on his case and he wants his money. So I get the wrath of who gave Beukes his (Manuel’s) number - a matter I have no clue about. Of course, he self corrects, and realises that it was possibly obtained from his ANC branch office in Cape Town. But besides, what has he as a minister have to do with census payments, he asks?

I am fully aware of Mr Beukes’ case - we had suspended him because he left the census materials unattended and we were not going to pay him until we have the record straight.

Manuel jokes, and says you know Pali, I enjoy my freedom, and have no need for any bodyguards, even as a minister, but this census thing makes me to think otherwise - I am now terrified and I need bodyguards.

Another complainant from the Northern Cape calls whilst I am still in Tokyo.

Her ATM card does not work and she has to get a replacement. So I call Kimberley and instruct Lawrence Ndaki to personally take the card to Upington. He religiously does so, gets into the township and presents himself and the card the next day.

The lady says, oh no, I am not going to take this card. Everyone among my friends knows of my plight that I did not receive my money as I have been complaining about it.

But now a census vehicle coming to take me to town heralds problems for me. Public knowledge that I got my money cannot be good for me at all. It will attract unwelcome visitors from my friends and neighbours.

So other means had to be sought later in the week to take this lady to town under cover of sorts.

Whilst in Tokyo I had a number of calls on payments, which dampened the bravo spirit.

It is just a day before Christmas and I receive an SMS from Mr Beukes and it is pouring with scorn and abusive language. Among the messages is that good luck with the turkey you are about to have whilst I have nothing for myself and my children.

The message weighs heavily on me and I call him back to clarify my position in relation to his conduct and why it has not been possible to process part of the payment. Discipline is part of accountability - turkey or no turkey, Christmas or no Christmas. In time it all ended well between Mr Beukes and StatsSA.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the Statistician-General of South Africa and Head of StatsSA.

- BUSINESS REPORT