Dr Pali Lehohla.
JOHANNESBURG - At the invitation of the director of the Pacific Community, Dr Ofa Ketu’ I was allowed a few remarks on my experiences as South Africa’s statistician-general.

These are views shared in my address.

I am honoured to be here in the Pacific, where the waters can be very calm and peaceful, but also can be rough and stormy.

Unleashing the Pacific Data, the theme you have chosen for this the 5th Regional Conference of Heads of Planning and Statistics (Hops) rhymes with a number of themes of a sleeping giant.

The citizens of the pacific know too well from experience that the region has repeatedly shown that it can be very deadly when angered.

Yet its beauty, its serene and peaceful waves, its unique vegetation, the endless view of its waters and the multitudes of its islands, the colourfully dressed people and their peaceful coexistence with their surroundings, the tourist attractions it offers put to shame its often deadly anger. Its distance from everywhere else and especially where I come from remains its magic.

On the other hand Hops is one of the four crucial ingredients in beer. The other three are water, malt, and yeast. Hops therefore plays in this space where people can be made very happy or aggressive when they have partaken of beer.

We recall that the turn of the 21st Century was accompanied by the Millennium Declaration where world leaders committed to the eight Millennium Development Goals and the 18 targets and their accompanying 48 indicators. This effort gave rise to recognition of statistics, but did not go far enough, especially in addressing the plight of the peoples of the Small Islands Developing States, (Sids).

The peoples of the Sids are spread over three geographical regions of the world - the Pacific and the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and the South China Sea. When the environment is angered we know it through these three regions. In similar ways, when Hops does its work in alcohol we see its effects on the people’s excitement and at times in their anger.

The Sids harbour for the world crucial environmental assets and secrets. Thus unleashing the power of the Pacific Data means unleashing the power of everyone’s data, big or small.

The way you are defined is in terms of your human population and in that respect you may appear small.

However, if we were to consider the extent of the jurisdiction of your waters and marine life you remain very big. Allow me to define your greatness. In my country South Africa we have eleven official languages.


The Sepedi language, which resides under the Sesotho group of languages, prides itself of an important saying that grounds my intervention. The saying refers to a particular medicinal plant which comes in minute quantities. It unleashes this not from its size, but from the force of its aroma or odour. For as long as its smell is present its curative powers are felt and remain effective. From this observation the Bapeli people use Serokoloana - a miniature medicinal plant for health. The saying goes that Serokoloana has an innate and infinite curative multiplier effect driven by its smell.


Why are the Sids so important and as powerful as Serokoloana? We note that the advent of the Sustainable Development Goals settled on 17 Global Goals and a closer look at the agenda shows that ten of these goals have a direct link to the environment.

The Sids are in the engine room of environmental concerns steeped in the UN Statistics Community System of Environmental and Economic Accounting and for that we draw directly from the environment of the Sids.

I am part of the Global Environment Outlook Report Geo6 and our work concerns itself with data and statistics, including indigenous knowledge systems.

The Sids have learnt to coexist with the environment for ages. They understand that they are central to the post-2015 Agenda of Dignity, People, Planet, Partnerships, Justice and Prosperity.

Coming back to the theme of the 5th Conference - Unleashing the Power of Pacific Data - therefore allow me to make some tentative suggestions, discuss some risks associated with the suggestions, but be more concrete in terms of how the future will look like.

Like Serokoloana of the Bapedi in South Africa, data and statistics have their power not in the amount of money and resources deployed towards them, but rather in their ability to influence, in their visibility to give meaning to the other - indeed the odour and aroma they carry with each and every human endeavour they, multiply their effectiveness.

Statistics have the power of making value visible. Let us remember at all times that statistics is a conduit of trust - bringing nations, communities and peoples together, connecting people and planet for prosperity. We who endeavour to be in this space we dare not fail those who have entrusted us with this precious conduit of trust. So we need to be trustworthy.

There are some simple tools I have successfully applied in my career of 34 years with 17 as statistician-general of South Africa in advancing the idea of value visibility and value appropriation. The first had to do with understanding why I am a statistician. And when I got appointed 17 years ago as South Africa’s very first statistician-general, I was confident about what my role was.


I had ordered my priorities first and foremost as that of being a statistician, second knowing, understanding and deploying technology and geography in my space for implementation of statistical programmes, third ensuring that I master logistics and at any point my antenna should be on the ball, fourth I knew that administration is important and in particular theauditor-general should not sniff your tail and find you wanting and fifth I prioritised understanding politics.

But as I grew older and possibly wiser in my job, I realised that the ordering of my priorities was wrong in fact in order to succeed you need to work the politics first and foremost. This is the task most statisticians at best do not know and do not understand and at worst fear. You need to work the politics and by that I mean understand them fully without being partisan and political. What is then the positioning of the 21st century statistician-general?

Honest broker

The 21st statistician-general is an honest broker of statistics, a communicator of value par-excellence, a stickler for principle understanding the consequences of bad statistics as well as political risks associated with cosy relationships with politics. It is one who does not throw statistics over the fence and ask politicians to make sense of them, but it is one who takes time to interpret and explain the statistics while conscious of the attendant risks.

It is one who dances on the serrated side of the saw instead of on the safe plain side of the blade. It is one who continues to find what technological solutions are emerging from the horizon and what efficiencies they may deliver. It is one who keeps at training and encouraging their staff to reach better heights. It is one who commits to a self-liquidating catalytic role as a basis for empowerment.

Finally it is one who knows that the Sids count and make the point that the success of the world and its sustainable development goals are proven to be achieved only and only if the Sids are not left behind.

For all of these to happen and be achieved let us always remember the power of the tiny medicinal herb of the Bapedi of South Africa that uses the function of odour and aroma for effectiveness. The successful unleashing of the power of Pacific Data depends on influence, odour, fragrance and aroma.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.