THE REAL NUMBERS: Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa
JOHANNESBURG - Professor Akiiki Kahimbaara and I would often giggle over the uniformity of grey shoes these white men donned when they were at their best.

One of them was Professor Nico Crowther, who departed from the world of the living last week on Wednesday. He was 73 years old.

He leaves an unmatched intellectual legacy in the field of statistics both theory and practice. In the picture they were at the graduation ceremony of BopStats staff in Mmabatho in 1993.

Arriving in Bophuthatswana in September 1982 and taking on the task of running an office that had zero professionals was not an easy task. My first task was to run the 1985 census of Bophuthatswana. The preparations were not easy.

None of the staff members had a driver's licence, let alone any competence in managing a household survey. So my task was that of a driver, a designer and drafter of questionnaires and manuals as well as an analyst.

As we almost finalised preparations of census 1985 Jean Ditsebe, Hlabi Morudu and Motale Phirwa, all graduates of the National University of Lesotho, had joined BopStats. Life was getting slightly better.

They were all from Diepkloof and their parents used to run successful businesses there until these were destroyed in the 1976 student uprisings.

This part of our history needs to be revisited to the extent of its implications on the rise and fall of black business and what to do about it.

In 1986 Motale left for a job in Johannesburg and Hlabi left for Notre Dame University in the US, where he completed his PhD. They came back to StatsSA later.

Then irked by the lack of skills in the office of statistics in Bophuthatswana, in 1986 I approached the late Professor Phala, the then head of the statistics department at the University of Bophuthatswana, asking him to create a programme for my statistics staff.

I detailed what the competencies would be later in a letter. I only got a reply from him four years later in 1990.

He asked what the qualification of this would be called?

The question was not only puzzling, but ridiculous. Over the four years I had made alternative arrangements with the HSRC to conduct a survey methodology programme for my staff. So the response by Professor Phala was to be of no consequence and I never bothered to respond.

I then got to know Professor Nico Crowther more closely, and he was introduced to me by Professor Stoker, whom I had known from 1983 as we intersected on survey methods.

By 1991 Professor Kahimbaara had joined Bophuthatswana Statistics Office (BopStats) as my adviser, and together we formed a formidable intellectual leadership, envisioning and practically exploring what the post-apartheid statistics system in South Africa would be.

We approached Professor Stoker, asking him to be our resident resource. He had just retired from the HSRC at the time and had joined the Bureau for Statistical and Survey Methodology (Statomet) that Nico Crowther had just established.

The Statistics Association of South Africa says: “Nico Crowther will be remembered as an expert in his field, as one of the great minds in statistics. He was head of the department of statistics at the University of Pretoria from 1991 to 2012, where he established Statomet, the Bureau for Statistical and Survey Methodology which led the foundation for what is now known as Enterprises University of Pretoria.”

I know first-hand how Statomet benefited my office. Professor Kahimbaara and I sat and prepared the curriculum for the BopStats office early in 1991, with Dion Herbst of Statomet, and now the current manager of Enterprises University of Pretoria.

For the following four years the Pretoria University team of “grey suits and grey shoes” as we would giggle behind their backs would camp in Mmabatho for a week every month to ensure that the staff of BopStats were equipped.

Armed with their input we adopted an electronic inbuilt questionnaire design system through a venture software called Merlyn as early as then. Each of our staff members had a personal computer.

Empowered

We were advancing into GIS technology. Staff were so empowered through this training that the RSA-homeland customs collections, calculations, analysis and discussions were based on information that my staff now could stand firm on. They were driven by data.

I had refused any assistance from CSS in the preparations for Census 1985, as it was intellectually barren, we needed none for Census 1991 and we would lead in preparations for Census 1996 and this was at the back of what Professor Crowther had infused in my team at BopStats.

We were too advanced for the CSS. Testimony to this is borne out by the fundamental instrument for censuses - the questionnaire. This instrument has remained exactly the same to the one I created in 1985 for the Bophuthatswana census - this was very much to the disapproval of the CSS, who declared that they would not help us because our instruments were different.

I said to Dr Gouws then - be my guest - as I stepped out from the CSS headquarters in Pretoria. That is what created the parting of ways and strengthened my resolve for human resource development for the BopStats staff - a commitment I pursued with the passion of an addict.

Not surprising and not by accident, therefore, that as 1994 ushered in the new era, BopStats staff featured significantly at the leadership level in the Central Statistical Services programmes and activities.

They were skilled and have progressed since, because Nico Crowther had grounded them. We were to reconnect later in the late 80s and early 90s with Dr Gouws, when he was part of the leadership of the newly formed department of population development. A subject deserving separate attention.

Nico Crowther obtained his BSc and BSc honours in mathematical statistics from the University of the Free State, an MSc in mathematical statistics from Unisa in 1968, followed by a DSc at the University of Free State in 1972.

SASA says: “At the HSRC his research focused on categorical data modelling, and he also succeeded to assemble a strong team of statistical researchers. During his time as director, the HSRC participated in the census, income and expenditure and other surveys.

"During his tenure at UP Statomet he developed a reputation as a highly efficient entity, rendering multidisciplinary service to public and private organisations. His contribution to the field of propensity modelling is still visible in the insurance industry in Africa, the UK and Europe.

"With this Nico implemented statistical theory successfully in industry.”

I will never forget his sense of humour. He possessed a lethal one in his quiet mannerism.

Keba Moloi, one of the BopStats staff handled probability theory in Setswana. Nico would be excited in boyishly shy laughter as he shared and encouraged Keba’s intellectual adventures.

May the soul of Professor Nico Crowther rest In peace and may his family find comfort in the contribution of the race he ran for humanity.

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