THE REAL NUMBERS: Pali Lehohla is the Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa
JOHANNESBURG - As we ponder the political and economic futures of South Africa, including education of the youth in 2018 in the aftermath of a significant event on the national calendar - the recently concluded 54th session of the ANC - I am reminded of Josef Stalin's seminal quote: “Those who vote decide nothing. Those who count the vote decide everything.”

This was a heart-warming quotation for statisticians, because they count. But I am also reminded that Stalin executed his national statistician for returning a smaller population number in a census. Why do numbers matter? George Bush, the 41st president of the US, ascended to victory on January 20, 2001, with the slightest of margins over Al Gore.

The number of votes were exactly 537 votes in a nation of 323million people. The margin was 0.009percent. Although losing to Bush, Al Gore had won the popular vote by more than half a million votes (543895).

This made him the 4th president to win a popular vote but lose the election. This was the case in 1824, 1876 and 1888. The record shows that these earlier losses did not invite such protracted litigation as that in the case of Al Gore, which reached the US Supreme Court.

Politics is about decision making and statistics is about evidence. The platform of accountability consists of the legislature, executive and the judiciary.

Into this space have come eminently supreme audits, a public protector and, largely as a latecomer, statistics - with some (including in the ruling party) suggesting statisticians should not interpret statistics.

The media plays a crucial role and has often been referred to as the Fourth Estate. The revisiting of the Kader Asmal report on chapter nine institutions, formed part of the resolutions of the 54th Elective Conference of the ANC, which was successfully held from December 16 and concluded on December 20. Not without complexities, though.

Adding up

At the heart of it was putting the numbers together meticulously and ensuring that they all add up.

As a statistician who deals with masses of datasets, seeing people troubled by 4776 unique persons was quite entertaining.

It reminded me about problems of systems, which statisticians encounter perennially when they try to assemble numbers together with associated problems that a one-to-many and many-to-one can generate.

In that way my entertainment of struggling with 4776 was unfortunately short-lived as I appreciated what these numbers in an especially highly politically charged environment can do. A number 537 became more important than 323million in the US in 2000.

And in South Africa the search for a number equal to or greater than 63 and equal to or smaller than 68 has become a national headache that has become more important than 57million. This is where the power of politics in numbers lies.

As part of my long sojourn as South Africa’s statistician-general, I had the pleasure of meeting all premiers of South Africa.

I should suggest without fear of contradiction their appreciation for numbers. For now, however, I need to focus on the two around whom the mysterious number x falling between 63 and 68 continue to cause anxiety in the nation, including a possible court case.

I have shared Census 2011 and 2016 Community Survey Results with Premier Ace Magashule. He was very engaging on the numbers.

At one point the animated deliberations on progression ratios showing progressive decline in completion at tertiary, prompted him to the number of students that his office was sponsoring. His argument was that those do not fail and could not believe that black students were regressing cohort after cohort year in and year out.

He stated that he was sponsoring about 9000 at higher institutions of learning - he did not refer to the denominator. So in the end, however, he saw the point Risenga Maluleke, the current statistician-general and I then as statistician-general, were making that his was proof of concept.

If he extended his assistance to all students then they will have no reason to fail. I also had the privilege of presenting the citizen satisfaction survey of KZN to the then-premier of KZN Senzo Mchunu in January 2016.

KZN remains the only province that has had a universal citizen satisfaction survey conducted obviously by a competent institution - Stats SA.

The then-premier welcomed the numbers and they propelled him and his cabinet into making pledges for focused attention on those things that citizens said were not going the direction they wanted.

KZN since then committed to a two-yearly citizen satisfaction survey conducted by the fact finder of the nation - Stats SA - and Maluleke has his job cut out for KZN. In the case of both premiers, our interactions blossomed as they appreciated the numbers.

Politics is about decisions, and therefore an insignificant number lying between 63 and 68 suddenly becomes significant as it determines who wields political power - the power of decision making.

The statistics that on the upper poverty line almost 32million South Africans are poor remains a significant number and South Africans reminded themselves about it, including at the 54th Elective Conference of the ANC.

But that number is not a number that anyone can take to court. That number wields no decision making, it does not vote anyone into or out of office. Except, however, to say only Mpumalanga province had poverty declining according to the poverty report.

Did Premier DD Mabuza rise to be a deputy president on the basis of this different performance compared to all other provinces?

Running commentary and narratives had nothing to do with this particular achievement of continuous poverty reduction in his province. When the count is about who wields power - only those who count, count - in this instance - the politicians.

Dr Pali Lehohla is South Africa's former Statistician-General and former Head of Statistics South Africa.

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