Pali Lehohla, former Statistics South Africa head. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA)
JOHANNESBURG - Systems always bring with systemic risks.

That is why changes, when they need to occur, require care. 

The absence of care decimates the accumulation and application of knowledge thus ascendency of human capability to undertake the development work. 

Statistical systems in particular reflect the development endeavor of a nation. 

They remain key to informing transition, yet it is at such times when they confront their greatest risks.  This is because they are so deeply woven in society’s impulse that they can act passively and respond or become visible or present only by their demise. 

In 1998, the United Nations asked the South African government to release me to lead an advisory mission on the Cambodian Census. 

Cambodia was reeling in fear of Pol Pot’s guerilla warfare and he had a mighty omnipresence in the psyche of its citizens. 

Societal discontinuities were visible everywhere and the dismembered limbs of humans epitomised the system discontinuities. 

More worrisome were the timeless statues which by design had amputated limbs and their combination with the lived human tragedy tended to suggest a people’s destiny.

Confucius would have advised Pol Pot differently. He would have suggested that systems change requires care and that “it is only when a mosquito lands on your balls that you realise that there is a way to solve problems without using violence”. 

Pol Pot’s violence had destroyed the greatness of culture and architecture that could be witnessed in the monumental temples of Angkor Wat, Bayon, Banteay Samre and other cultural artifacts that echoed this greatness of River Mekong. 

There was no semblance of systems and the last census was undertaken in 1963.

Mine was to assess the readiness of Cambodian society’s readiness for such an undertaking given the trauma they suffered. 

Just as South Africa undertook the 1996 Census as a nation building exercise Cambodians were also rebuilding their country.

In South Africa some of the systems that got broken was the Regional Services Levy which used to be a rich statistical source of regional economies. Another occurred with the privatisation of health facilities - 95 percent of births occur in health facilities. These facilities are custodians of birth notification systems, a crucial input in identity management that the department of home affairs administers. Another data loss occurs in tourism statistics when

machine readable passports are introduced. Landing and exit forms are eliminated by many a home affairs. 

Advocate Cawe Mahalthi, a former National University of Lesotho colleague, lamented the dismembering accommodation statistics. This important administrative requirement for hotels to submit occupancy data  everyday left the tourism statistics vulnerable. In my census mission in Sudan from 2007 to 2008, the hotel would take possession of my passport to be recorded at the local authority in Khartoum. I always felt that my security was breached by this action, but this was an administrative system that is a rich source of statistics on visitors. 

One should always be wary of using a hammer to change systems. It can do a lot of harm. Not all parts of the body need an indiscriminate slap to get rid of an irritating mosquito. Others, as Confucius advises, require friendly fingers to carefully pick this pestilential lowly character.

Managing this art is the excellence in building a robust data and statistical system for a nation.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa.

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