OPINION: The question of race in statistics is a complex issue
JOHANNESBURG - Retired Free State Judge President Thekiso Musi recently said he should not be called a black African and went on to quote late ANC president Oliver Tambo’s address to the UN in1963.
Tambo told the UN that life for Africans in South Africa was no longer worth anything. What he said probably echoes the African-Americans situation in the US
Race has shaped the way the world works today although it does not exist as an objective feature to determine the pecking order in society.
Pennsylvania University professor of race relations Tukufu Zuberi told the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population in Cape Town in October 2017 that if white and black existed as an intrinsic genetic blood feature, the product of such a biological union would be grey.
We are yet to see any babies born grey.
But race as a social construct and economic force led to millions of Africa’s population being exterminated in the treacherous slave trade to the Americas.
Zuberi went on to argue that white stereotypes and guilt have mutated into fear and hatred where brute state force is applied against blacks. The cold blooded murder of US's George Floyd last week is a fresh case of complicit state brutality in the the land of the free.
Even President Cyril Ramaphosa has reminded us that indeed racial discrimination is a global phenomena and coronavirus has laid bare the race-based differential contours on a global map, not just in South Africa.
Why are the remarks of Musi on Tambo important?
Musi makes an observation that the “black African” concept arises from the fact that we now have white people who have permanently settled in Africa, and who, for that reason, consider themselves also African, leading to the notion of white Africans as distinct from black Africans.
Khoi and San have placed petitions before the successive presidents of South Africa.
Problems arose in 1995 as we were preparing the questionnaire or the instrument for collecting census data on categories that were the historically assigned by apartheid.
The concept of black embraced all three historically disadvantaged groups: coloured, Asian and black. So the term did not pertain to pigmentation but politics.
How then was black economic empowerment and reversals applied if black refers to what we notionally know as black. We then drifted to the notion of African, coloured, Asian and white.
I distinctly recall Professor David Stoker, an Afrikaner who spoke Afrikaans, making the point that he was an African and knew no other continent except that of Africa.
This was a profound moment. I wish that Musi could have been there to make the point then.
Ethnicity, race and religion are not mandatory questions in the census.
Statisticians can not leave race out because of the redress inequality requirements from apartheid.
So we concluded on the classification of the categories black African, white, Asian/Indian and coloured.
This has complicated the work of the current Statistician-General Risenga Maluleke.
We have not seen anything yet.
Chief Khoisan SA, Christian Martin, Brendon Billing and Shane Plaatjies have protested in all censuses that they are Khoisan, not coloured and should not be classified as such.
Maluleke knows a census is just not a count, but is the platform for stakeholder claims. He may enlist Musi’s wisdom to address this complex issue as he prepares for Census 2021.
Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General and former head of Statistics South Africa. Meet him on www.pie.org.za and @palilehohla