Masilo Matseke

JOHANNESBURG - On October 29, the Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe officially opened the 28th Session of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP).

On October 31 my journey of 34 years in Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) through its myriad incarnations finally came to an end. In 17 of these years I was South Africa’s statistician-general - adios my amigos. The journey has had several unique experiences, but least expected was the end, which was quite dramatic as it climaxed on a high note.

The transition from myself to my successor Risenga Maluleke was witnessed by more than 1300 foreign delegates. 

This is how it happened.

In 2012 I led on behalf of South Africa and Africa a bid to host the 28th Session of the IUSSP. Four years later as the chairperson of the International Organising Committee and host this session convened in Cape Town from October 29 to November 4 at the ICC.

This was the first time in its 128-year history that the IUSSP convened in sub-Saharan Africa. At midnight of October 31 the office of the Statistician-General changed guard in the presence of the management and leadership of StatsSA. We convened in Cape Town on the margins of the IUSSP. My successor, Risenga Maluleke, and I had this unique opportunity of sharing this prestigious summit of population science. At its opening I was the statistician-general and at its closing Maluleke was the statistician-general.

The IUSSP gala dinner held on November 2 would not have had a better choice. In song I was seen off and in was ushered Maluleke in the presence of 1300 foreign delegates.

Yvonne Chaka Chaka, the ambassador of music, was at her best, wowing the community of demographers and statisticians with rhythm from the demography and statistical community. The scientists rocked to the music. She handed to Risenga and I her latest release titled Keep Looking at Me, autographed with very important messages for our role in statistics.

Pleased

Risenga and I were also pleased with the visit of Abdulae Janneh - the former executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). Janneh resuscitated the then waning and non-existent statistics function at the ECA. The last time there was a meaningful function there was under the leadership of Dr Adebayo Adedeji, who was the executive secretary and De Graft Johnson of Ghana headed statistics at the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

Then Africa was at the top of its game. Among others the UN-ECA introduced the household survey capability programme, which grew to be an international standard. After the tenure of Adebayo, statistics literally collapsed at the ECA.

This happened for a period of almost a decade. Even the Lagos Plan of Action could not resuscitate it. It was against this state of affairs that upon his ascension to the helm of the ECA, Janneh in November 2005 was approached by Trevor Manuel - then minister of finance - to come to South Africa where African statisticians were meeting to pave the way forward for a revival of statistics in Africa.

The African Symposium for Statistical Development (ASSD) was born in January 2006 at the same venue - the ICC in Cape Town, presided over by Messrs Manuel and Janneh. So we were pleased by the presence of Janneh. The ASSD as a disruptive programme brought about improvements in how Africa conducted her statistics affairs.

The mission of the ASSD was to have Africa counting its populations in the 2010 Round of Censuses and prioritising countries in conflict. In this regard Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Angola became our prime targets. These included Somalia, Madagascar and the DRC, but they remained ever elusive and could not count in the 2010 Round of Censuses.

The ASSD raised the profile on Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) and subsequently a regular ministerial conference that draws the attention of authorities to the importance of registration of life events in the light of “leave no one behind” that was programmed.

The second of these ministerial conferences was presided over by Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma in South Africa in 2012, just before she became the AU Commission chairperson. At the beginning of December this year the fourth conference of ministers responsible for CRVS will be held in Mauritania.

Quite clearly Janneh and Manuel had provided a platform upon which statistical production was possible, where ministerial engagement with officials on matters statistics could be entertained and progress towards measurement could be achieved.

The situation changed after 2013, and Africa is struggling again as relates to matters of statistics.

Coherence

In the past four years we have not been able to move with the state of coherence and determination as we did from 2007 to 2012. We reminisced over this sad state of affairs, but drew courage in the fact that South Africa with a fresh set of eyes of the new statistician-general relates to these matters and could re-ignite that which from 2007 to 2012 made Africa progress rapidly on matters statistics.

Maluleke, the new statistician-general, has what it takes and will receive our full support towards this objective.

Creating the best of times is a lesson in leadership, and many times, even in the best of times, transitions are not easy, and institutions and leadership are at their weakest during times of transitions.

In the case of StatsSA we have witnessed a transition that was exceedingly smooth. This thus secured the confidence in the integrity of the organisation.

The coincidence of forces at my departure and arrival of Maluleke were so positive that I am convinced that a much brighter future for statistics in South Africa is in store and should energise the new statistician-general.

The world has witnessed how leadership has been exercised in StatsSA and how institutions can be successfully built. The only thing worrying me “profusely” is for a man from a community that loves and adores colour refuses to don my yellow suit nor my blue shoes.

Perhaps he will choose pink, but the Blue Bulls have taken that. Perhaps red, but Pirates have gone red. Grey will be too dull for a Shangaan man. He chuckles though, that it is not in the colour but in the counting that matters. I can continue on my trademark yellow.

I wish to thank the peoples of South Africa for the opportunity. I wish to thank the leadership of the government, the Statistics Council, the audit committee, the portfolio committee, business and NGOs for allowing me the space to lead in official statistics in South Africa.

I specifically wish to thank the ministers under whom I served, namely ministers Manuel and Radebe. Finally I express my gratitude to the presidents under whom I served, namely Presidents Mbeki, Motlanthe and Zuma, respectively, and those I had the benefit of counting as the bean counter of the nation, namely Presidents Mandela and De Klerk, Mbeki, Motlanthe and Zuma. They all contributed as leadership to profile why counting counts for the nation.

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

- BUSINESS REPORT