Statistician-general Dr Pali Lehohla
Innovation is a tricky enterprise and to succeed you need to study, know and understand not only your current environment, but its evolving and potentially disrupted content and form.

In 2001, former finance minister Trevor Manuel launching fieldwork of Census 2001 in the Western Cape with the introduction of the [email protected], out of the blue asked me: “Pali, what do you think comes to the minds of children when you talk about census and statistics? Do you think they understand?”

I don’t remember what I said, but I did not answer the question. With the passage of time, I realise I deferred a response, and over time gradually came back to it. Fifteen years later, the Minister in the Presidency responsible for Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, Jeff Radebe, asked how do we bring statistics into the service of planning?

Before I talk about innovation in StatsSA, which is the subject of my column, I wish to reflect on innovation in my village of Qibing in Lesotho over a decade of the 1960s. In 1961 I was four-years old and I remember Mr Lephole, an extension officer in my village.

He was very active providing advice on pasture and livestock management. But his highlight was giving advice on the community garden. It was located near reeds and was always the centre of communal production. He also advised on nutrition and every year the school, where both my parents taught, there would be a flurry of activity with food and goodies on display.

He rode a brown horse and wore shorts most of the time. With each change of season, I always got a bad cold and it would knock me down. It was when I had one of those bad colds that my father and sister took me across to Wepener, a village in the Free State, to see Dr Calitz.

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On our way back, there was Mr Lephole, the extension officer, on his horse having just crossed the river. My father, reluctant to take off his shoes and roll up his trousers to cross the river, asked Mr Lephole to assist him so that he did not get his legs wet. Mr Lephole obliged, crossed back and my father and Mr Lephole crossed the river on horseback. My sister walked across, carrying me on her back.

This provided a perfect view for an unexpected spectacle.


But my father lost his balance on the horse and held onto Mr Lephole. They fell head first into the river, while the horse just strode across. My cough was aggravated while I laughed my lungs out at this spectacle. My father and the extension officer were both thoroughly soaked from head to toe.

When I got home it was the first thing I told my mother,who not very sympathetic to the mishap, was concerned about my medicine and worried that it would have gone with the flow. The tablets were soaked, unfortunately. So the innovation of a ride was not so successful.

Four years on, the much loved extension officer, Mr Lephole, left my village and was replaced by an elderly Mr Moeketse. He had a red motorbike. He immediately introduced changes to the community garden, extending it so that more households could participate.

He brought in an engine with an irrigation system so the villagers no longer carried jerry cans to water their plots. Another innovation was to negotiate that the community garden would feed the school in exchange for the engine and its running costs.

Wow, the elderly extension officer appeared to be very innovative.

But it did not take long before the wheels came off. First, by extending the community garden, the extension officer crossed the fine line of reeds and they wildly invaded the whole community garden, making it unmanageable.

Second, Makae, a naughty young boy used the L-shaped steel pipe from the engine as a see-saw and broke it. It was never repaired, rendering the irrigation system useless.

Third, the catchment area of the beneficiary pupils extended beyond the community garden producers and this was a source of dissatisfaction, because my village now had to feed children from other villages who attended school in my village.

By 1969, the once for decades vibrant community garden of Hermon in the village of Qibing, the source of community pact and production, waned and ultimately folded. The innovation fell flat on its face leaving the Qibing community worse off.

Back to the question that Trevor Manuel asked me. He was essentially asking me how do I innovate in statistics such that it gets known, understood and used. But more importantly, how do I make this future generation sustain evidence as the basis for rationality and accountability.

Over the 16 years at StatsSA , we have sought to answer this question by not only producing more data, but by making it more visible and accessible to the nation. We have ensured that data visualisation is central to our dissemination and use of strategy. We have moved from single data releases to integrated products. Through Soccer4Stats, Johnny Black Sunday Masegela, one of the staff at StatsSA ,has created something that can break the barrier between sport and statistics.

Measuring tools

He has introduced geometry, measurement and talent identification all in one to the delight of pupils and scholars.

Minister Radebe has over the past two years called upon StatsSA not only to make the data visible but that through tools at the disposal of StatsSA, we ensure that both data and tools are systemically embedded in planning. Today, the Growth Accounting Framework , the Supply and Use Tables and the Zipf empirical law, form a solid platform that StatsSA has put at the disposal of planning.

We shall thus continue to enter the school system to influence the curriculum, especially with regard to learning Outcomes 4, on data handling and statistics, as well as that of geography and geographical information systems. By doing so, we can prepare the young minds of South Africa to prepare for the future world of data and technology.

Thus answering the questions of Trevor Manuel on the young minds and that of Jeff Radebe on how evidence should be used in planning. Challenges, however, still remain.

Dr Pali Lehohla is South Africa’s Statistician-General and head of Statistics SA.