THE REAL NUMBERS: Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa
JOHANNESBURG - The who’s who in South African politics, be it politicians, analysts or ordinary bean counters, enjoy following how voting results come through.

The results can always be observed in the comfort of one’s home on TV or an app as the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) continues to delight its customers.

But nothing can substitute the buzz at the National Elections Centre.

In 2009, Risenga Maluleke, the current statistician-general of South Africa, and I were browsing through the centre towards the end of the vote count. The UDM’s leader, General Bantu Holomisa, was there and he greeted us.

He then queried us about the current numbers as they closed and asked how many seats the results entitled the UDM in the National Assembly.

We said: “General, given the norm, you would qualify for this number of seats in Parliament.”

The general was satisfied and quickly pulled out a piece of paper as he started to walk away from us. Our sell-by-date had expired.

Maluleke and I laughed as we simultaneously remarked in jest that we had hoped that the general was going to consult us not only on the number of seats, but also on what was on that piece of paper.

This reminded me of Statistics Norway.

Statistics Norway presents a unique practice and I had an intimate discussion with its then chief statistician, Olav Ljones, who told me something that was so surprising, my jaw dropped.

Olav said one of their responsibilities as an agency was to read all political manifestos with which politicians canvassed elections.

This was not much of a surprise, as most statistics offices do this to gain knowledge and insight about what relevant information should be put in to place to advise planning and delivery on mandates.

What was surprising is he said Statistics Norway also pronounced on which manifesto was more likely to deliver on the results.

Vote counting

I said: “Olav, you cannot. By that action you may skew and influence the way votes are cast.”

I shared this experience with my executive committee (exco), and we were quite stunned by this practice.

So back to General Holomisa, who I met in the business lounge at OR Tambo International Airport just before the local government elections of 2016.

He always pulls an unexpected and interesting one. I asked if the general had been speaking to Olav.

He replied: “SG, you see, your numbers are so credible, and if you wrote in your column that the UDM is the party that is most likely to win the elections on the basis of predictions, then you may deliver a victory to me in the elections.”

I was in stitches with laughter at this said-in-jest proposition by the general.

I again shared this experience with my exco as an endorsement of their good work and asked that they share the credibility assessment with their staff and keep it up. But I also realised that in fact Statistics Norway could in practice be very close to what General Holomisa was in jest proposing.

Norway has a long-standing tradition of producing good and high-quality statistics. It has a long history of using administrative records, like all the Scandinavian countries.

In fact, when it comes to environmental statistics, Norway is in its own league. It has an economic modelling capability and capacity, including models used in ministries, parliament, business interests, media and the general public.

This capacity is unparalleled in statistics institutions. In terms of practice modelling, it can be problematic for statistics institutions as this would directly lead to policy prescription - a no-no for a statistics office. But this is practice in Norway, and they are comfortable with it.

Over dinner in New York last week, I was seated next to an elderly Norwegian lady who, upon learning that I was a former statistician-general, remarked with amazement that Norway for almost three weeks had been gripped by the unceremonious departure of their chief statistician.

She asked with glee whether statistics had the capacity to feature in a sustained way on the national news.

I said: “Well, in my country, though not for similar reasons surrounding your chief statistician, statistics is celebrated by society, although how well it is used leaves a lot to be desired.”

Olav retired about two years back, shortly after the UN Fundamental Principles for Official Statistics were approved by the UN General Assembly.

He was a stickler for the principle of both professional and administrative independence of official statistics.

A new chief statistician was appointed 18 months back at Statistics Norway, and now Norway is searching for a new chief statistician.

The firing of a chief statistician shocks us as the statistics community.

I am not suggesting that chief statisticians are not fallible, but the fall of Christine Meyer from high office adds to the weaknesses that are beginning to show even in the most advanced democracies as regards the evolving and tenuous relationship between systems of evidence and decision systems - statistics and politics.

We witnessed one of executive overreach in the case of Canada, whereby a technical census-taking decision was encroached.

This was followed by an incredible public outcry. The new prime minister of Canada reversed that decision, and serious legislative reform is afoot in Canada.

Greece, with its modern legislation, has shown how fallible and destructive the executive can be when faced with the consequences of poor policies.

Statistics and statisticians become sacrificial lambs, which was the case in Argentina.

Margaret Thatcher is known to have dabbled in the statistics of employment in the UK, destroying trust in systems of evidence. And in order to build trust in numbers, the UK had to recruit Bill McLennan, the former Australian statistician, who was followed by Len Cook, the former statistician of New Zealand.

Finally, the UK seems to be on the right track, and John Pullinger, who followed after Jill Mathieson, no doubt put the UK stats on the map.

What caused Meyer to lose her job? She is said to have refused to publish modelled immigration statistics, which, to the best of professions, she found the assumptions difficult to support.

Illegal immigrants

In fact Meyer wanted to dismantle the modelling capability at Statistics Norway.

A question that every chief statistician is asked in South Africa is always how many illegal immigrants there are.

Indeed it’s a question which is simply impossible to answer, because once qualified as illegal, you then cannot count them.

Meyer’s plight was said to be as a result of her conflict with Norway’s Finance Minister, Siv Jensen, who declared that Meyer no longer enjoyed his support.

This is really astounding when you imagine that in South Africa there is a law that prescribes the appointment and termination of the services of a statistician-general.

Terminating the services of South Africa’s statistician-general is quite elaborate and involves the president having to seek counsel with the Statistics Council.

What is more startling is that Meyer had to enter into a separate agreement to disclose what the discussions were with the minister.

In South Africa, the minister may make a decision in terms of powers in law, but the statistician-general has an obligation to divulge to the public what the discussions with the minister were, and furthermore, the Statistics Council has the power to embarrass the minister should he or she act irrationally.

Anyway, the minister in South Africa has no powers to appoint or terminate the services of a statistician-general.

Those powers in law are vested in the president.

In Canada there is a non-disclosure clause, so when Munir Sheikh, the Canadian chief-statistician, resigned in the census debacle, the public were left in the dark on the specific circumstances that led to his resignation.

Did he accept the minister’s ruling on a technical matter over which a politician has no authority, or did he make an erratic decision as a statistician?

The truth will never be known under such opaque and outdated laws that still exist in the most modern of democracies.

A remote in jest statement by General Holomisa resonates with tectonic consequences in this unfortunate statistical discordance gripping Norway.

Having asserted that South Africa’s statistics law is modern, it is in need of major review in several areas, but especially on administrative independence, if we have to sustain good practice.

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

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

- BUSINESS REPORT