Statistician-general Dr Pali Lehohla
When the pea skin fails to hold, the pea breaks in half and it is no longer a seed. I often think about my life when I was under 12 years. This is where herding calves, then donkeys and cattle, ploughing, planting and tending plants as they grow and searching for fodder to keep livestock alive in times of drought were the DNA of village life.

One of those days was in the late afternoon in the winter of 1969. My two cousins and I had just finished planting in one of the fields and were proceeding to another where we were to deliver the planter and pea seeds for the next day’s planting.

It was the turn of my one cousin and I to have a ride on the sledge and my other cousin, who is now late, had to steer the span. A span always follow a path and when the path is straight there is usually no problem for the sledge. However, when the path bends or zigzags the span has to be steered out of the path so that the sledge can always be kept on the path.

My cousin decided to join us on the sledge ride and left the span to move unattended.

The span came to a curve around a donga that was full of water. Unguided, they followed the path and as the sledge headed for the donga, we jumped off, but the bag of seeds fell into the water.

The problem is, once the pea skin gets wet it peels off and the pea seed breaks in half, nullifying it as a seed that can grow.

The moment of reckoning arrived when we got home long after sunset and it was time to report to my father about our farming activities for the day and our plans for planting the next day.

Well, it was a difficult moment to report on the second part of our task, because the seeds had been destroyed during our adventure on the sledge ride. It no longer mattered whose legitimate turn it was to ride on the sledge and who had to guide the span.

We were lucky we did not get a hiding, but the lesson sunk deep in my head that no amount of quibbling and clinging to privilege can solve problems and deliver results. So, last week as I left for Dakar for the 10th Joint Meeting of the AU and ECA Conference of African Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, I had no memory of my pea seed experience.

I was focusing on Agenda 2063 and its Sustainable Development Goals. But this experience replayed itself so vividly five decades later. For three days the continent failed to rise above legalese and petty differences to capture the theme of growth, unemployment and inequality.

Completely exhausted by the filibustering of Morocco when they could not accept the presence of the Western Sahara and Polisario Front, as well as the Sarhawi Arab Democratic Republic in the meeting, the meeting finally collapsed.

I could not help, but share my concerns following on those of Guinea, Libya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, and this was my address to the meeting.

“Let me first express my appreciation to the government and peoples of Senegal who are our hosts for this, the 10th Joint Meeting of the AU and ECA Conference of African Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development.

“Over time, holding these meetings away from Africa’s capital, Addis Ababa, we demonstrated that these meetings can be held in other countries and can touch in a direct way the peoples and citizens of our respective countries on the continent.

“However, we have witnessed for the first time a disastrous situation whereby this meeting has collapsed under our own watch as Africans. How disturbing, how disgusting and how painful this is.

“I join the voices of Guinea, Libya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria that a strongly worded resolution be taken at this meeting to reflect on our disgust, at not only the time wasted, but the risk of not ever having joint meetings, or the risk of not actually ever having a meeting.

“It is sad that this happens here in Dakar, it is sad that it even happens on the soil of Africa. We thought, and indeed we still think, that goodwill, good faith and commitment to Africa’s development should have prevailed above everything else. We should continue to focus on Agenda 2063, Sustainable Development Goals 2030 and indeed our own national development plans.

“But all that has gone up in flames here in this very city of Dakar. How disgusting, how disturbing, and how fulfilling this situation is.

“The outgoing chairperson sitting next to me, Risenga Maluleke, tells me that in his own language, and we are always worried about that - all the time - having worked over a number of years together - what eats the tail, ultimately eats the head. And it doesn’t stop there.

“And today, we have seen how the tail has been eaten - the head is to be eaten. It will be eaten If we are not vigilant, if we don’t stand up together - united as Africans for this continent, the head will finally be eaten.

“And the evidence is plentiful that the world owes us nothing, and as the world owes us nothing, it will divide us as Africans. We will divide ourselves, and that will make it possible for that tail to be eaten, the body to be eaten and the head to be swallowed.

“Where will the millions of Africans be for whom we thought we were coming to talk about today on issues of inequality, unemployment, and poverty? How else are we going to resolve the problems of the tens and hundreds of thousands that are crossing the Mediterranean, volunteering themselves to go to Europe, running away from their continent A continent that is rich, but of poor people.

“How are going to resolve that? When we ourselves as the leadership, as the technocrats of our own countries are unable to come and hold discussions in a sane manner?

“We will not please our enemies, because this can only happen when you have enemies. We have to go and prepare ourselves, so that whatever tail has been eaten will be vomited so that our body and head are not swallowed.

“We appeal to the two secretariats that this meeting happens before the heads of state meeting takes place in July. And we have to express ourselves (I wanted to say violently, but not violently), but very strongly that this should never, ever happen on the African continent.

“In those words, chair, we need a resolution, strongly worded, about our disappointment, our disgust and our utter rejection of what has happened in this environment.

“Had we known that it was going to be this way, we would have come better prepared. We were hijacked, we were ambushed, we have been violated in ways that the millions of people that are crossing the Mediterranean, going to seek some life elsewhere, running away from their own continent, have been violated.

“How are we going to deal with this? What are we going to say to the millions of Africans whom we think we represent? We have put on the table several options, options that provided for inclusivity, but we have come out less inclusive. Yet we have put inclusive growth on the table. What we are agreeing to here is to be exclusive and not include anybody.

“When we come we shall be not defeated, ho tjhetjha ha ramo hase ho baleha ke ho nka matla (which means: the ram reverses in order to gain strength). The next time we will hit like a ram.

“So, chair, please convey our warm and heartfelt considerations to your government, but also our regrets that this (meeting’s) collapse in this beautiful city of Dakar will go down in history as a terrible thing to happen.

“I do not wish any other city on this African soil to experience this kind of thing. So, convey to your president - the president of Senegal - our regrets, but also our appreciation that he offered to host us. We will be back in Dakar. Thank you.”

Like the pea skin that had peeled off and the pea seed broken into two halves, the UNECA (UN Economic Commission for Africa) and the AU sat as two halves and no longer could be joined. That sadly marked the collapse of the 10th joint meeting.

Address by Dr Pali Lehohla, SA’s Statistician-General and head of Statistics SA, following the degeneration of the 10th Joint Meeting of the AU & ECA Conference of African Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development.