Statistician-general Dr Pali Lehohla
Mr Mosome, a school teacher in Tampostad, Kwa Matlhako, lost an eye in a squabble. He was a census enumerator in the 1985 census of Bophutha­­­tswana, when he met this unfortunate fate.

Over a period of six weeks the case of assault with grievous bodily harm was heard in the Madikwe Regional Court.

Mosome lost the case, which I had attended each court day as an employer.

To be a field functionary in the world of statistics is a privileged position that exposes individuals to systematic observations on how society functions.

The problem though, is that such exposure can only be understood adequately when the data has been aggregated and the analysis begins. The data nuggets can be connected through systematic analysis, with a clearer picture emerging.

A field worker, while a critical cog in ensuring that the data is collected, often times under very harsh conditions, may not see this in the heat and complexity of negotiating an appointment for an interview, interviewing and exiting a household.

The statistician-general of South Africa is empowered by the Statistics Act, Act 6 of 1999, to demand answers from persons and businesses. Failure of the public to answer questions put by the statistician-general fetches a fine or a prison term or both.

Public co-operation is the best way to solicit answers and I rarely invoke the powers of fines or arrests, although the temptation may be overwhelmingly strong. I have chosen the route of educating the nation about the powers of statistics rather than the powers of the statistician-general.

However, during census 2011, I found myself having to invoke these powers and some very prominent members of society in their communities have had to undertake community service because they refused to participate in the census.

It's serious business, nonetheless at times very amusing. In this column I reflect on my days in the field either to negotiate with community leaders for permission to administer a survey in their community, or during field inspections to deal with hard-to-convince respondents or to manage and deliver presentations.

These experiences are often far removed from a seemingly tidy and well formatted dataset, which academia and intellectuals embellish with interest and at times with severe criticism about the quality of the data, with scant regard or appreciation that data collection is an intricate, painful but powerful interaction of social intercourse.

The Royal Bafokeng Community, located in the present Bojanala District of North West, raises fond memories.

They were the first to visit after my arrival in Bophuthatswana in late 1982, as I negotiated for the first census after the “independence” of the Bophuthatswana homeland. The census was scheduled for 1985. I made the necessary arrangements to go and meet Chief Molotlegi in 1983 to explain the forthcoming census, manage field mapping and ultimately the census itself. Saturday morning arrived.

Ingrid Setshedi, now chief director and head of statistics in the province, Johannah Motshwaedi, now director for field operations, and I headed to Phokeng very early to meet the chief at 9am. The chieftain, Ms Semana, received us at their palatial mansion. Tea was served and our eyes were riveted to the walls full of rich paintings and photos. And we waited and waited and waited for the chief in vain.

Finally, we were told the chief could not see us and had left on an important errand to Rustenburg and that we should make another arrangement. Census 1985 was ultimately conducted without having met Chief Molotlegi.

Another episode was with Chieftain Gopane of Gopane, in Lehurutshe, where a survey was to be run in 1984. The chieftain presided over a number of villages and one of these was in the sample. I had to facilitate undertaking the survey in this place.

The chieftain was very welcoming, but was more worried about the selection of Motlhabe village among her villages.

I explained the randomness of our selection of the sample, but she was not going to budge, as she complained about how it is always Motlhabe village that is preferred over all her villages and she repeatedly asked why always Motlhabe? No, not Motlhabe. So Motlhabe could not be accepted as a sample point. Out went the science of statistics at the mercy of politics.

But back to the Royal Bafokeng in the census of 1991. In March, the census was to start and it was all systems go, but in a tense and fiery South Africa that smelt the end of both apartheid and homeland rule. Our teams were in the field knocking on doors, and doors were opening.

But something happened in the politics of Bophuthatswana and Chief Molotlegi had to flee. The next day, the census ground to a halt in Phokeng. The citizens linked data collection with informers and would not tolerate any gathering of data by government employees or agents. Negotiations became very thorny, with my staff being thrown out, violently at times. Utimately, the Bafokeng were counted despite the difficulties.

As I indulged in the processing of the Bophuthatswana census data, the nuggets appeared and the statistical analysis software was experimenting with geographic information system and had some good graphics.

Read also: Statistics is a conduit of trust

So, it was time to deliver the results in Tampostad village, the home of Moses Kotane, a village in which the school teacher, Mosome, lost an eye in a fight over alcohol while he was an enumerator in census 1985. He received workmen’s compensation of R6000. But back to the census results for Tampostad.

Arrangements were made and the elders gathered in the community hall to receive the results of their village. Since a village may not just as a province, municipality or country be a monolith, I had divided the village into the components by which it is known. Tampostad had seven sections and the demographics differed significantly.

The elders had taken their seats and I was connecting my overhead projector to get the slides neatly placed one after the other, and ready to be explained. Slide one, providing an outline of the presentation, was well received as it pointed out what subjects I was about to cover, including education and employment and the size of the village by sex. Slide two provided an outline of the map with sub-place names.

I was warming up to go, when an old man raised his voice and asked the question, upon reading a place name: "What is that place? Who named it? he asked. Almost possessed, he asked: “Is this name now known in the government?”

The end of the presentation of 30 slides of rich information was nigh, spoilt prematurely at slide two by a place name. The name of the sub-place was “Basha ba e rata”, which translated into "The Youth Like it". Little did I know that this place name was a serious bone of contention in the village of Peela.

It was a section of the village dominated by the youth who were now seen to be rebelling against tradition. The elders were not at all pleased and would have none of it. That the name had an endorsement from the government added insult to injury.

Statistical information was sacrificed at the alter of social and political life in Peela. What is in a name? A rose by any name smells just as good. But does it? There is a lot in fact, of baggage in a name.

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