Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa. File Image: IOL
JOHANNESBURG - A census of the population reveals the socio-economic and political tapestry of a country.

It also unveils contestations that silently return to knock at our doors, and give substance to the legitimacy or otherwise of such claims, often leaving technocrats badly exposed in the shallowness of their so-called intellectual façade.

October 1996, the census is in Namaqualand, enumerating the Nama, the Khoi and the San. In the questionnaire is a column about race, our not-so-noble inheritance from our apartheid past, which remains a millstone around our collective neck.

I am reminded about how the man seated with only a loincloth on him sharpening a piece of stone on a rock showed how ridiculous the concept of race is and would sustain in logical ways the claim of first nations to rights.

Around him was a woman - thighs spread over the sand as young children walked across, the youngest breast feeding from her while upright. They were all looking at the census taker (an enumerator in common parlance). “What race are you?” asks the woman enumerator.

The man with his unkempt hair stares at her, continues to sharpen his instrument and then lifts his head more thoughtfully as the enumerator repeats the question.

He says “you can call me Khoi or San, you can call me a Bushman - call me whatever you wish” - then he takes a long pause. “But a human being I am,” he emphasises.

The question of labelling the Khoi, San and Nama as coloureds is such a sore point that they petitioned Census ’96 and threatened to boycott it if they, as an ethnic or national group, were not explicitly included - a requirement that could not be met given that census questionnaires were already printed and were in the field.

Dr Mark Orkin and I resolved that they could always write-in their known status by hand in the category labelled as “other”. This solution secured peace and the census continued. But the disquiet was threatening as it would unravel some of the unspoken fears that played out during the drafting of the questionnaire in 1995.

At the centenary celebrations of the ANC at its national conference in Mangaung in 2012, the King of the San accosted me about the issues of themselves both as a population and nation, as well as their language. I was due to release the Census 2011 results in October 2012. Here again, they asked how they had been accounted for in the recent census.


I realised that the moment of answering the implications were there and then and could no longer be postponed as in the concluded enumeration of 2012 I did not heed the request of 1996 from this community.

Last Tuesday, The Star newspaper screamed with the headline “Khoisan won’t budge until Zuma shows up”. The Khoisan authorities were depicted camping at the Union Buildings, asking for an audience with President Jacob Zuma or Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Among their claims are land and language rights and recognition. This claim is not different from the one they made at Census ’96. The chickens are coming home to roost with major implications on the drafting of the inquiries the censuses and surveys have to undertake in the country.

With the obligation of leaving no one behind and disaggregation of statistics, clearly the Khoisan are soon to have their last laugh as they parade some of us to answer for our past sins.

It is May 1995 and the advisory committee on preparations for what was hoped to be Census 1995 are taking place in earnest. We’re knuckling down to the questionnaire - the instrument by which household members are going to be asked about their lives.

Two sticky questions - which the UN Recommendations on Population and Housing Censuses are explicit on - are ethnicity and religion. The question on religion is unanimously agreed upon very quickly and included.


The ethnicity question goes through days of excruciating and painful debates with the context being a gruelling 300 years of colonial rule and 46 years of apartheid. Concerns are palpable across the table and the UN recommendation provides a clear way out, but not before some passionate pleas are made.

The regrettable limitation, however, in all these discussions is that the plight of South Africans, especially those who are black, is being decided and determined in their absence. The representative from civil society hardly makes three meetings to the committee before disappearing.

The only blacks around the table are myself - naturalised South African and representing the North West Province, and four months later Wole Adegboyega, a Nigerian who was a UN technical adviser to the South African census. The rest of the committee is overwhelmingly white, with a sprinkling of coloureds and Indians.

So what did we decide?

We considered the fact that the concept of ethnicity is complex - not that race as a concept is easy.

For instance, a Mosotho in South Africa would be a member of an ethnic group and yet in Lesotho the person is a member of a nation, so is a Motswana and a Swati who in Botswana and Swaziland are members of a nation.

A more profound issue was whether we could risk defining ethnic groups such as Mosotho, Xhosa, Zulu, Venda, Shangaan, English, Afrikaner, Swati, Ndebele, Pedi and Tswana in a census explicitly in the aftermath of a successful launching of a rainbow nation.

We were all petrified by the prospect of doing harm and the UN recommendations and the underlying reasons of ethnic cleansing with Rwanda fresh in our minds assisted in the choices we made.

As far as language was concerned, the constitutional imperatives guided the decisions based on the 11 official languages and the question on mother tongue was included.

The objection of the Khoi, the San, the Nama and indeed the Cape Malay from being referred to as coloureds has come back to haunt the census and the statistics system of South Africa.

These people are laying legitimate concerns and rightly argue that theirs cannot be entombed only in the Coat of Arms, but should be a lived experience of equals including in language.

But, more importantly, their refusal to be considered as coloureds forces the surveys and censuses to potentially enlist the ethnic groups of the nation.

Twenty three years into democracy an ethnic cleansing spectre is remote in South Africa and should allow the rainbow nation to be truly rainbow.

As the Khoi and the San representatives continue to spread themselves in protest at the Union Buildings, demanding that Zuma or Ramaphosa attend to their claim of being the first nation as well as recognition of rights to language and land, the bean counter of the nation, statistician-general Risenga Maluleke is next in line to ensure the Khoisan are not left behind.

This is the unfinished business that Mark Orkin and I, respectively, never fully concluded. Risenga Maluleke - the chickens have come home to roost.

Dr Pali Lehohla is former statistician-general of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa.

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