Pali Lehohla
JOHANNESBURG - A census of a population is defined in militaristic terms as the biggest mobilisation in peace times. In fact the acronym for the statistics office of Egypt Capmas, stands for Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics.

The public mobilisation aspect was specifically important for collating information to inform the state of the resources that are there, such as doctors, nurses, prospective conscripts for military service, rice provisions and other food required to sustain the public in times of war.

Like in 2 Samuel 24:2 “So the king (David) said to Joab and the commanders of the army: Take a census of all the tribes of Israel - from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south to enrol the fighting men, so that I may know how many people there are” - the census or statistics function as in Egypt had not therefore departed from its function in biblical times - that of war.

King Shaka is said to have asked his army general Mbopha about the strength of his warriors and Mbopha is said to have replied that they are as many as the number of hair strands on a buffalo skin.

Managing the logistics of a census depends on understanding the numbers. Undertaking of censuses as a discipline is steeped in serious project management. Uncertainties pertaining to supplier capabilities and funding levels can turn to be very costly.

It is 2001 March and we are at the UN Statistics Commission, where the bean counters of the world meat annually to address statistical methods, and as it is at the break of the 2000 Round of Population and Housing Censuses the discussions are focused on the census.

As we go for lunch I am with one of the Latin American statisticians who shares his profound dilemma and the teething problems of procurement in the forthcoming census supposed to be held in less than four months.

The issue at stake is that they have been petitioned in court by a supplier who lost the bid for printing census questionnaires and the census questionnaire as a methodological consideration has a date stamp.

And should it be postponed all reference date related questions will introduce a bias in the responses. The question is whether they would sink the census printing costs or go ahead with the census.

Unfortunately I was not able to connect with my counterpart in subsequent meetings. He might have lost his job. A census is really high risk to a statistical organisation.

In August of 2000 we had met in Mauritius as SADC Statisticians and the topic that is biggest is on the censuses of population.

David Diangamo the Zambian statistician, had just tabled his report, and it reads like a horror story. They have adopted scanning technology for their forthcoming census and as a consequence because of capacity to print paper they had to order printing paper from the UK and he was showing planes landing in Zambia with this paper. I ask him with a tinge of ridicule of why he did not come to order printing from South Africa?

Mistrust

It was as though I had forgotten that the South African 1994 Election ballot papers were printed abroad - but that was because of the uncertainty and mistrust that exuded the mood then I justify my comfort in asking him the question. Little did I know what was in store for me.

The 2001 census date for South Africa is set at October 10. We have, like Zambia, adopted scanning technology for our census and this is very demanding on the quality, colour and markings on the paper.

Scanning improves the quality of data outputs and increases the speed of completion of results.

All is well, the contractors for printing and scanning technology have been appointed, and I have personally spoken to them emphasising the importance of the task ahead and that failure is not an option, and they nodded enthusiastically. We have run a pilot set-up six months back in October and looked at the results and we are all thumbs up.

It is end of June and the 14 million questionnaires of 12 pages each are not to be delivered at the rate at which printing was going. Ten million will be on time in September but we will be short four million and that will delay packaging of materials. I inform Minister Trevor Manuel that there is trouble looming and I need to get another provider on line. There is no such extra capacity in South Africa.

Lockheed Martin processed the UK Census and were working prospectively on the American one. John, one of the vice presidents now retired, was at Lockheed and I called him and told him of the dilemma. He informs me that the UK used a printing company in Leeds.

End of June I lead my team to Leeds with a sample questionnaire which was blue - in the memoirs we will discuss the blue light, space does not allow here. We get to Leeds and we cannot help but glow with pride that one of our own Lucas Radebe captained Leeds United. But I am certainly unimpressed by the answers we get, given the urgency of our project.

Worry

The worst part was suggestions that we will have to print in multiple centres in different countries and my worry is: Will the paper colour shading be the same quality? Will the materials be delivered on time as they will be coming from differing points?

I call John and he points me to Webcraft in Philadelphia. I immediately call them and we are set for July 5 - a day after the US Independence Day.

I land at home over the weekend. On Monday I brief Minister Trevor Manuel and head to the US in the evening. At JFK on the morning of the 4th I am received in a Lincoln limousine and sleep over in Jersey and the next day am chauffeur driven to Webcraft in Philadelphia.

I arrive at this amazing plant, pleasantries exchanged and I table the 12-paged blue questionnaire and say to the officials around the table I need 10million of this to similar quality landed in South Africa in the next eight weeks. They all look at each other with amazement and after some exchange they ask me to explore their plant. Impressive staff, massive with planning charts and delivery dates.

After an hour I am back in the board room - the good news is they will meet the deadline, in addition the printing will cost half of what it costs the quantity in South Africa and they can deliver by air cargo and this is where the bad news starts. It is very expensive - had we come earlier they would have shipped the material to Durban at a tenth of the price. I sign on the dotted line for printing, but leave delivery open. Time is against me.

On landing in Joburg, I go to South African Airways and meet Bonang Mohale and ask him whether he can provide five loads of jumbo jets. He is excited by the prospect, but a week passes without an answer. I call my Webcraft suppliers in Philadelphia and ask them to deliver. Wow, from August 12, five massive cargo flights land at Jan Smuts Airport - as it was known then - offloading ten million questionnaires for Census 2001. We were now on our way.

However, I remembered my counterpart in Zambia, David Diangamo, with a picture of a cargo plane landing questionnaires for the 2000 census of Zambia. I recalled my question to him and the embedded ridicule in my tone. I looked very ridiculous now. These are lessons of a census - the biggest mobilisation in times of peace.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the Statisitician-General of South Africa and head of Stats SA.