THE REAL NUMBERS: Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa
Pali Lehohla

JOHANNESBURG -  Marker, Vestergaard and Hendricks of the University of Copenhagen have penned an interesting article titled Digital Colonialism on the African Continent.

Hendricks correctly argues that in the attention economics of digital euphoria, people become the product to be consumed.  Africans, in this regard, are the product to be packaged and sold.  I want to write “Why Africa sadly deserves to be digitally colonized?”

And they deserve it.  When you make value visible and not appropriate it,  you deserve to be a product for consumption.  

In 2005, African statisticians rebelled against the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) docile position on matters data. Data Revolution was ignited and the African Symposium for Statistical Development (ASSD) was born.  Former finance minister Trevor Manuel asked me to assist the ECA to reestablish the statistics office at the UNECA.  With O O Ajayi the former director general of Nigeria Bureau of Statistics we delivered what Abdoulie Janneh, the new Executive Secretary of the ECA ,concluded to be a brilliant strategy.  Within a month, the search for a well deserving head of the African centre for statistics began.  Professor Ben Kiregyera, author of the Emerging Data Revolution in Africa was recruited to lead this task. Charles Lufumpa, director of Statistics at the African Development Bank, developed a funding model. The pulse was visible and Africa was on the move.  

The first struggle was for Africa to count in the 2010 Round of Censuses – a task we executed with flying colours.  The second was eliminating the scandal of invisibility.  So convinced was Kiregyera about it that he put this back on the agenda of the UN Statistics Commission against incredible resistance.  

Africa had indeed made value visible, so much so that Asia and Latin America cried out not to be left behind.  But seven years later Africa, is licking the wounds inflicted by the multiplicity of initiatives which count for very little strategically, some driven by well-wishers such as the Centre of Excellence in Canada, Bloemberg and the World Bank.  

The paucity of systems thinking in Africa is mortgaging the continent holus bolus to the owners of digital capital.  And African leaders and institutions are in slumber whilst this happens.  South Africa’s resolution on what industrial strategy for owning and managing the technology of identity for Africa by Africans has been reduced to nothing as agencies and agents are moving with spirited enthusiasm for a market of the future – the four billion souls.  This ideologically barren approach to development will yield nothing but Africans enslaved as products as Hendricks surmises.   

In a different Africa, ideologically conscious and alive to the identity economy, rather than leave this matter to spirited enthusiasts who are chaining it to a new form of slavery, the African leadership would have paused and asked what digital identity would do to inspire industrialization and what should we do about it?   They would see that a digital economy that annually tracks 120 million births, 115m grade ones, 75m matriculants going into university, 40m going into other trades, 100m joining the labour force, 40m family formations, 30m housing and associated services demand, 80m bank accounts, consumers of material products and trillion transactions etc. would set the African economy on a path for the future.  But only if Africa invested in the production and ownership of digital technology.  When Africa comes in as a consumer, it can only speed up the enslavement of Africans to zeroes and ones.  Thus killing the Africans statisticians dream of statistical revival in Africa.  

Ali Mazrui in the “Africans: A triple heritage” reminds us that Africans produce what they do not consume and consume what they do not produce.  Nowhere than at the second World Data Forum in Dubai did this eventuality spectacularly played itself out.  

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

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.