Pali Lehohla

JOHANNESBURG - On Wednesday, October 11, I awoke to see an article by Yonela Diko in the New Age, that was anti-science, anti-discovery and countered knowledge creation and application in every aspect of its arguments.

I thought I realised in it the Inquisition of 1615 that persecuted and prosecuted Galileo Galilei. Perhaps it’s not surprising in the era of fake news, alternative facts and own facts - the milieu of information deluge - that there is a serious re-emergence of fervent witchcraft-like claims to science.

First, to its credit, the title is indeed a very accurate interpretation of the content of the article itself. It reads: “Statistics can never reveal the essence of a people.”

Of course if, and only if, by statistics we refer to the number of people in a country at only one point in time, then those numbers are too scanty to say anything about the socio-economic, politico-cultural and ethnography of a people.

They, by themselves, only reflect a narrow and myopic view of the title. But if by statistics we mean spatio-temporal being of people and planet and, therefore, include but not limit ourselves to the distribution of the people by age and sex, their education level, their economic assets and means of livelihood, employment, filial relations, household dissolution and formation, including family formation, societal norms, practices and culture in relation to procreation and transitions to different stages in life and even death itself - then the title is terribly misplaced.

A death mask of Joseph Stalin, who executed a Russian statistician for returning a smaller population than Stalin “knew” or expected. Photos: AP

StatsSA produces 260 releases a year and thus its work output does not fit the title. Denying statistics this prime function of explicating human endeavour and placing it at the service of society as a mirror of their journey constitutes a barbaric annihilation of knowledge, understanding and, therefore, of social progress and history.

Value of statistics

The value of statistics and its scientific essence is in time series.

Our own ability to understand the functioning of society from time immemorial is etched in statistics. In fact, evidence abounds that the progress achieved by the Scandinavian countries over the years was founded in their ability to collate, analyse and interpret statistics.

The rapid development of the Soviet Union and its advancement to a world power of note was driven in large part by the compilation of statistics. Those who took the time to read Marx and Engels, Lenin and Stalin will know that the volumes of Kapital are driven by statistical evidence.

This is especially so in the foundational assertions of surplus value and its appropriation where Karl Marx makes this evidently clear even to Diko. Social theory was driven by statistical evidence. Lenin took on the works of Marx to elaborate in his volume on imperialism the highest stage of capitalism. Lenin used and applied tomes and tomes of statistics and continued to do so as he led the Soviet state in its nascent stage.

So statistical evidence had always been the endearment of these revolutionaries, including of course the sad events by Stalin who executed the Russian statistician for returning a smaller population than Stalin “knew” or expected. Statisticians can inflict political conscience - by delivering home truths that are difficult to swallow.


No doubt those Stalinist moments visited by Argentina and Greece more recently where politicians found it favourable to persecute statisticians when they drove uncomfortable home truths.

Argentina is on the mend. Greece is still pursuing cases against its statistician. I have been on the side and continue to be on the side of these statisticians. To my surprise - the South African Ambassador to Argentina in August sent a note of appreciation from the Argentinian government for my specifically persevering in standing for these home truths in the case of Argentina.

The Asian Tigers apply statistics vigorously in their work. On the other hand, and in contradistinction, ample evidence shows that African countries and governments do not use statistics.

Silencing stats

Diko advocates for perpetuation of this sad situation. Diko’s contribution in the New Age hopes to silence the contribution of the statistician-general to the development discourse of South African society.

What an unfortunate arrogation of authority by one who has not been schooled in the UN fundamental principles of official statistics, which is the rock-bed by which the South African legislators founded the Statistics Act, Act 6 of 1999.

Section 2 on Purpose of the Act says its purpose is to advance the planning, production, analysis, documentation, storage, dissemination and use of official and other statistics.

Principle 4 of the principles commands the statistician-general to call to order anyone who misinterprets statistics. So the unschooled Diko imagines that this authority should be captured by others and not the one who, by law and profession, is well recognised in the Statistics Act as his or her prime obligation. How do you analyse without interpretation and how do you call to order those who misinterpret if you do not interpret the numbers?

Diko hallucinates of a priest becoming an altar boy who should only read the word and not render a sermon for the benefit of the congregation to understand the intricate meaning of the word.

Galileo Galilei was persecuted by the papal cabinet for his scientific findings.

Statistician-general’s role

The fundamental function of the statistician-general is to interpret the numbers so that he or she can be capacitated to call to book those who choose by omission or commission to misrepresent the statistics.

So the first task is thus for the statistician-general to interpret the statistics and not leave that to altar boys. The statistician-general is dressed in enormous intellectual power as he/she possesses the crystal ball of the nation’s facts. I have dealt with the institution of the statistician-general.

I now wish to dispose with Diko’s whimsical and unfounded missives.

Stating the facts

In doing so, I will invite Diko to read the report I released four weeks ago titled “Whither a Demographic Dividend in South Africa: the Overton Window of Political Possibilities.” The title itself disputes with contempt the suggestion that Lehohla appears as someone who has just rocked up in South Africa - in common parlance - a Themba comes to town lately.

The report is a body of knowledge based on scientific facts and translates all these facts and evidence. The facts are first - blacks and coloureds are not going to attain a demographic dividend on current trends of educational attainment and skills outcomes represented in employment. But Indians and whites have and are consolidating the demographic dividend.

Diko says that by stating these facts I suggest that whites are the gold standard. By the way, quite the contrary - we know how whites achieved their pole position. It was this protracted process of advantaging them that led to black impoverishment.

However, black and coloured impoverishment and denial of demographic dividend is not going to be brought about by lame Malthusian-like excuses that there are fewer places at university.

Diko is like philosophers explaining the plight of black and coloured students and places their inability to enter the university at their own door step - just as Malthus in his theory portending to limits to development assigned misery to the preponderant lumpen proletariat and wanted to close the argument of what needed to be done.

Marx, in his retort, said: “What a mendacious clergymen who places the misery of the poor on their doorstep.” It is Marx who says the problem of philosophy is that they describe the world instead of changing it.”

Yes, as Diko says about university places - they are indeed fewer. So this God-given situation must be understood and why should statistics say so.

Statistics are about shining light to matters of public concern and if there is a single most crucial nightmare that South Africa is living through today it is a failed demographic dividend for blacks and coloureds.

Shedding light

As a statistician-general I have to shed light on this problem and not be an apologist for the cause of its existence. Some of the associated correlates and determinants that exacerbate this problem are the broken black and coloured households and families.

This is a matter I go into in greater detail that Diko dismisses as anti-science and as being in bad form.

Minister Angie Motshekga of Basic Education has heeded this input and she is weaving it into the strategy for addressing education, including sharing these analyses and insights with trade unions so they understand what is becoming of the future generations and what they choose to do about it.

The statistical discrepancies on matrimonial unions between fathers and mothers are a telling point of the state of parenting and responsibility to children in South Africa and these persistent problems.

In 1986, I conducted a survey in Bophuthatswana, where I was working in the statistics office. I enquired as to why the scandal of invisibility persisted where children were born into this world and died without a record or trace of their being. One of the reasons accounting significantly for this situation was that the magistrate’s office demanded that the father be identified for a registration to occur.

From this survey itself, I was able to advocate with the dawn of democracy that this condition be removed so that we could get up-to-date administrative records and stop children being punished for the irresponsible behaviour of their fathers.

Second, the registration occurred only on some days and there was a fee to be paid, and with the dawn of democracy (through this evidence) these barriers were removed. Now, alas, for Diko to imagine that I am Themba come-to-town-lately and should not interpret - please think again.

The approach founded the re-emergence of the Civil Registration and Vital Statistics Movement, which on another day I can write about - including the losses that Africa is incurring by not taking care of keeping the heights we once reached. The persistence of this contradiction of mothers to fathers matrimonial contracting has severe implications on who parents the children through their childhood, adolescent and youthful life.

Central to this is the state of children’s education. So our policies must be structured such that they know and understand the effects of our socio-biological being and the inherent contradictions.

Statistics gives this tapestry. In the recent release of births for 2016, up to 63percent of babies have their mothers only recorded on the register. There are no fathers and so, importantly, the children are registered only in the mother’s surname.

Diko would like us to believe that the essence of these statistics is trivia and that the statistician-general interprets it is outrageous and he should only be an altar boy.

By the way, Diko should know that Minister Lindiwe Sisulu of Human Settlements has taken this statistics thing to heart and is now working on ensuring that women should be bond holders because they experience the pain of a father who fathers and fails to parent.

Interesting stats

It is a fundamental duty of a statistician-general to interpret the statistics because, after all, it is these public statistics that reveal the essence of a people contrary to Diko’s assertion.

Another related statistics is on paternal orphans. Evidence shows that there are more fathers declared dead than indeed are biologically dead. Of course they are dead from their responsibility to parenting.

Diko does not want the statistician-general to interpret this significant macro-social being of South Africa.

I need, though, to lecture Diko on what the statistician-general is barred from doing. He/she cannot prescribe policy. But he/she is obliged to shed light on policy and its outcomes and this is what I have been doing without fear or favour. A statistician-general should never allow himself or herself to be reduced to an altar boy - he/she occupies the position of the priest and must interpret the word. The fundamental principles demand it and the statistics act compels this responsibility.

Lord Kevin is correct - Diko’s spurious thoughts hardly constitute science and have to dismiss his thinking that “Statistics can never reveal the essence of a people.” Diko’s article is at best inspired by ignorance, at worst arrogance, and if both, then it is a symptom of “infantile disorder.”

Pali Lehohla is the Statistician-General of South Africa and Head of Statistics SA.