Pali Lehohla

BRUCE Kannemeyer, an ANC backbencher, mastered the language and caused you to visualise meanings beyond words. The Statistics Act compels the minister to instruct the Statistician-General (SG) to cause a census of the population every five years.

It is 2004 and the discussion in Parliament is about whether or not to undertake a census and I had argued fervently about our experiences and the organisation’s state of readiness to tackle the next big one in 2006.

Minister Trevor Manuel is cautious and he is weary of the corrosive effects of each wave of the census on the organisation. We have had four successive audit qualifications and each of these gets worse and Attorney-General (A-G) Shauket Fakie has just slapped us with a disclaimer.

The key disclaimer is for R330million over which the A-G says they cannot prove the purpose of payment. This money was paid to a hundred thousand enumerators or census takers, with each receiving R3000 and transport allowance. The A-G needs evidence.

At the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) we promise that within three months we shall mount the evidence. We could, because all documents, 120 million of them, were scanned and each had the name and signature of the census taker. Three months later we are at Scopa, with large arch lever files for each MP and a spreadsheet of 102000 names, IDs, and enumeration areas in which they worked as well as the associated amounts paid.

This evidence though is not going to change the A-Gs opinion but serves at Scopa to condone the expenditure. Two issues are at stake, condonation and whether we can run the next census. MPs seem less concerned with the evidence we had brought, possibly because it is clear and convincing that the money was well spent, and after all, I had released the results in July already and I am disappointed that this effort of bringing evidence is not appreciated.

But Kannemeyer’s “evil eye” sports one and only one oddity in the 102000 records and he takes the floor. “Not only SG were you not able to account last year and now you have brought this crucial record to prove that you can account, but late only, to keep on breaking the law. This time the labour law. You have employed an under-age person of 14 years. This is really serious.”

He says as he gets his huge frame to sink in his seat. We are all caught unawares and completely off guard. So it was true. An ID of a person born in 1987 popped up in the works and caused amusement as I got castigated.

This set the stage for a more entertaining summation ridicule of my passionate plea to the MPs to influence the minister in compelling the SG to cause a census in 2006. I had pointed out to the tribulations of 1996 and made a metaphor of falling into a grave and how in 2006 we were working our way out of it.

When Kannemeyer took the stage again emboldened by the earlier discovery, he was devastating and conclusive. He said: “In 1996 you dug your grave, in 2001 you fell into it and Census 2006 will bury you. Do not try it.”

Backbenchers

So the advice to Manuel from the backbenchers won the day. The census was not to be and we worked on a large-scale community survey instead. This was a very important advice, as it gave us respite to build systems and create a real mighty organisation. Then the MPs had just visited our headquarters in Pretoria, and MP Rene Taljaard of the DA did not have comforting words for us about our building.

She could feel claustrophobia take a better part of her from the low ceilings in the building, a matter Manuel had complained about that an organisation driven by intellect cannot have a ceiling that is that low.

So the search for a new building was sparked. At the Memorial Service of Madiba in December 2013, I met the retired from politics Taljaard and with excitement I informed her that we finally will have a new good home and we reminisced about those difficult times.

Before he left office in 2014, Manuel had ensured that funding was secured for a home for Statistics South Africa.

Minister Jeff Radebe’s immediate and important task as he became responsible for StatsSA was to ensure that the sod turning is done and the building is concluded fastest and occupied. Back to the problem of a disclaimer outcome from Shauket Fakie.

StatsSA runs massive projects that are cyclical, and the census of the population is one of these that come with a slow build-up, then suddenly a massive rapid Tsunami that no sooner has it started recedes with the same tempo of starting.

The government systems are not geared up for such emergency-like operations. This is what massively confronted StatsSA. So as we recruited for Census 2001, we were aware that our systems were now collapsing on us, yet the date for the census was fast coming.

We chose to outsource payments of the more than 100000 field workers as the 1996 experience and lessons learnt pointed us in a direction of a vendor. But the vendor I chose was woefully under-prepared for the task. For weeks on end we could not get the data base to contend with more than 40000 names.

I had to pull the plug on the system and move with a different approach. When it came to payments only through the intervention of Standard Bank were we able to print the cheques and pay enumerators.

Failed dismally

The system of payment promised by the vendor that would use the Post Office failed dismally as we tried to pay shoe allowances for the enumerators a week before they could go into enumeration.

Theory had it that the Post Office is the most well-distributed and networked institution. It would have a database of all those who are supposed to be paid and upon producing their IDs, any post office in the country will issue payment to them. So the day of reckoning for payments arrived. Jairo and I tested it with several enumerators and the tests were all but negative.

Then we knew there was bigger trouble lurking in the next four weeks. This massive failure helped us to change gear and Ros Hirschowitz approached me and said Pali, now we need Manuel to intervene and negotiate with Standard Bank to rescue an eminent crisis that was surely going to collapse the 2001 Census.

This was the genesis of the disclaimer and the colourful descriptions Kannemeyer lampooned on us. Manuel often berates me publicly for what he terms his premature ageing. He argues that he is a young man in a body of an old man - all of these blamed on me. Indeed the process of building institutions is anchored in courage.

Dr Pali Lehohla is Statistician-General of South Africa and Head of StatsSA.

- BUSINESS REPORT