JOHANNESBURG - I am not superstitious. I am actually anchored in factualness. But when coincidences occur in ways that are difficult to explain, imagination floats in the sphere of fate and superstition.

On October 11 I was in China at the International Conference Centre, attending a conference on multidimensional poverty measurement where Statistics South Africa is part of the leading institutions in this sphere of measurement. This was the venue for the 24th International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP) which was held in China 20 years ago. The year was 1997. As I stepped into the conference centre, I thought to myself that indeed dreams can turn into reality.

I could not imagine that this august scientific function would be hosted in South Africa then, although I certainly had liked that it should happen one day.

What captivated my thoughts were two papers - one was on postponing death and the other on vintage cars. The first paper was on how death rates amongst elderly Chinese spike after a particular year. The other was about our observations that in human populations some people live much longer than others, and applying these longevity principles on cars and why some vehicles live to be vintages.

These two papers blew my mind.

So when four years ago we placed our bid in Busan to host the 28th IUSSP, high on my mind was postponement of death and vintage cars. When we won the bid I was jubilant. I had requested Dr Odimego of Wits to represent me at the bidding session, an event that I luckily partially joined by phone.

This was because I was at the 59th Session of the International Statistics Institute in Hong Kong, which set smack on the IUSSP. I should thank Dr Odimego for representing South Africa well and having brought results home.

This year Africa hosts two world cups in the field of numbers. The 61st Session of the ISI was hosted in Marrakech, Morocco, in July and the 28th Session of the IUSSP is hosted here in Cape Town today. These programmes represent the highest level of global intellect in demography and statistics.

The question is, are these accidents of yearning for science?

Or are these movements pointing to a particular paradigm towards which Africa is moving and an affirmation that it is doing so deliberately? If these were accidents or matters driven by fate, how is Africa reorganising itself not to waste a good accident? But if these are not accidents and in fact they are a reflection of programmes etched in deliberateness and come by design, the question is then where is the blueprint that points us to this act of scientific deliberateness?

I would like to offer some pointers, as I speculate to answer these questions of whether this is an accident or a matter of design.

First in 1996, I was encouraged by two Afro-American scholars, one Antonio McDaniels and his PhD student Akil Khalfani, who came to see me at StatsSA to discuss how census data could be used. Census data, a time machine of note, is underutilised in Africa.

This discourse took place in the middle of my running the first post-apartheid census. But by 1998 we had established the African Census Analysis Project (Acap) launched in South Africa.

This was launched with Tukufu Zuberi, who had abandoned his Antonio MacDaniels label. Professor Zuberi of Penn University addressed us on the principle of demography of race at the opening of the 28th Session of the IUSSP.

Acap was an important forerunner to the African Symposium for Statistical Development which we launched in Cape Town in 2006.

Through this programme Africa saw an unmatched performance in participation in the 2010 Round of Censuses. As it were another stream of thought was the International Conference on the Teaching of Statistics (Icots6) in 2002 hosted in Cape Town. This served as an important platform for bidding for the hosting of the 57th Session of the ISI in 2009.

As we navigated this complex road, we asked ourselves some fundamental questions on why we should host these two conferences and what difference they will make to South Africa and its people.

We noted with regret that apartheid delivered a scourge to our South African society and at the heart of it was hurting the education system and family life. This was especially so among people who were classified as not being white - Indians, coloureds and blacks. Our focus then for bidding for Icots6 or in welcoming the hosting for Icots6 was to elevate the plight of our society, which was at the margins, and address what afflicts it.

Many who attended the 57th Session of the ISI paid specific attention to what we punted as the legacy of Icots6 which consolidated into the 57th Session of the ISI. Two programmes emerged out of Icots6 and the 57th Session of the ISI.

One of this was the Young African Statisticians and the other which consolidated the [email protected] a legacy programme of Icots6, which focused on the teaching of maths and statistics at schools and introducing public statistics in communities.

It is still too early to judge how successful or otherwise these legacy programmes are performing and what the journey is.

But for certain we know our consciousness on what afflicts us has been elevated and we know these are important challenges that require our attention especially should draw a pan-African attention.

As we convene today for the IUSSP here in South Africa we can therefore be sure that Statistics South Africa has spearheaded these intellectual engagements with a deep sense of urgency to set the African child in South Africa and on the continent of Africa free.

We are happy that the South African government has supported the programmes that Statistics South Africa is leading and has brought to bear the necessary encouragement for us to do so.

We are pleased that the world has heeded the call that we as Africans are taking a hard look at the facts and at what they are telling us. These facts portend a world that should take seriously the plight of its future generations. In doing so we have to use the gift of thinking and problem solving which hitherto such endowments to our knowledge resides in abundance with the human species.

Let us not waste the moment for it is a moment too precious and whose consequences when wasted will leave no one in comfort. We are the scientists and we have to advise appropriately through science. We have to act appropriately and we have to be aware that we carry the consequences of our inactions, especially when we know that we know.

Therefore let us not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do so. The world will judge us harshly. So the time is now.

Dr Pali Lehohla is former statistician-general of South Africa and head of Statistics SA. He was addressing the 28th Session of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population taking place at the ICC in Cape Town.

- BUSINESS REPORT