THE REAL NUMBERS: Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa
JOHANNESBURG - An aunt in an African patriarchy plays a very important role.  She is a disciplinarian and peace maker.  The Venda TV show Muvhangho captures this cultural practice creatively.  The Makadzi is the undisputed advisor to BaMusanda. 

An African saying for the notion that history repeats itself is that: "where water accumulated it will accumulate again". 

But in this instance the saying refers to an uncle who has been caught red-handed in his wayward ways and has to prove to the Makdzi that wandering out of the matrimonial home will never recur.  

How then do you prove ahead of time that where water accumulated it will never accumulate again?  In the Muslim tradition when you steal you would lose a hand, putting paid that water would never accumulate again. 

The family court would threaten an equivalent measure of surgery and only through the Makadzi’s pleading against the loss of essential bodily parts will the threat be withdrawn.  
But the uncle will have frozen out of his wits at the eventuality of such a prospect. 

The same statement whilst painfully true for vice, it is also true for benevolent deeds and instances.  

How one would wish good deeds get repeated over and over again, so that we can relieve the hope Madiba left in our hands.  

Capetonians would wish that water accumulates again and to avoid Day Zero. The question that South Africa asks itself and the world asks us is how did the dawn of our dreams twenty four years ago turn into demons and nightmares that deprive us sleep and rest?  Reputation and integrity takes years to build and to be iconic.  

But these attributes gallop out of the gates in an instance like chariots of fire.  To rebuild trust unfortunately becomes even harder because the Makadzi, the custodian of institutional memory and integrity of institutions asks how can she be assured that the wayward relative ceases his ways? 

Not by words or promises of a future remedy but she needs guarantees that are beyond doubt that there is no future possibility of water accumulating again where it accumulated.   

Irked by the problems of measurement and statistical development on the continent, South Africa took the lead in 2006 and asked me as the then Statistician-General to work with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in resuscitating the statistics function there.  

One of the strategies we adopted was to create the friends of the ECA as African statistics offices.  The African Development Bank (AfDB) which was a place holder when ECA abandoned the statistics responsibility in the 1990s was not pleased with the abrasive and aggressive approach countries took towards it.  

A  protracted process ensued.  In the end peace prevailed and not only did AfDB continue to fund statistics in Africa but actively led in running Pan-African statistical development programmes.  Many regions envy this model of a bank financing statistics.  

We almost foolishly buried this model in our spirited attempt to get statistics on track at the ECA.  The task was exciting and full of challenges but was excellently executed with a handsome reward of Africa for the first time participating, almost fully in the 2010 Round of Censuses.  As this function successfully settled, another challenge and battle for the soul of statistics on the continent arose and this time from the African Union (AU).    

So it was July 2008 when the current Statistician-General, Risenga Maluleke, and I were on a mission to Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, where the highly contested architecture of Africa’s statistics system entered a second round of polarized discussions from Kisenyi in 2007.  

We were worried that with this new polarisation water will accumulate again where it did in the 90’s.  

Our connecting flight was delayed and cancelled and we could not proceed directly to Abidjan.  The airport staff sent us to Meridian hotel to go and relax and they would call us if the flight was reinstated.  Only Abidjan was on our minds so we escaped from the hotel.  We took a route to the land of Sankara where we arrived at 10pm and overnighted in Ouagadougou.  

Risenga travelling on his personal passport required a visa and could not enter.  But the official looked at us once and twice took our passports and cried out Bafana Bafana - Mandela Mandela and without hesitation let us through and ensured that although he was not going to be on duty the next day, he was there at 5 am to ensure our safe passage.

So just on the dot after official opening of the meeting we entered the stage and argued the case for the soul of statistics in Africa.  
In 1998 on launching the results of Census 96, in his speech Madiba said “South Africans wherever they go are feted like kings.”  Risenga and I were heirs to this experience. 

Today in these lands you are confronted by “what did you do to the land of Mandela?”   If we appeared in similar fashion in Sankaraland today they would detain us and question us of what we looted out of the land of Mandela.  The ruling party and the President of the ANC have a tough task of answering the observation of the Makadzi as we struggle to enter the new dawn:  “How can you prove that where water accumulated it will not accumulate again”?  

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa. 

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Independent Group.

- BUSINESS REPORT