Pali Lehohla Phtoto: Thobile Mathonsi
Pali Lehohla Phtoto: Thobile Mathonsi

The real numbers: Crucial pillars that hold up society being pulled down

By Pali Lehohla Time of article published Jul 20, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - Data are observations, and statistics are processed observations. 

The museum value of statistics and its beauty is revealed by its time series. Cross-sectional census data is a time machine. It generates a time series for specific attributes that are age dependent and have a level of universal participation. 

As then statistician-general, I generated the time plots on education from the census in 2011 and revealed the explanatory value of statistics on the history of South Africa over the past six decades. 

I prospected on the emergent trends which pointed to the limitations of addressing human resources. I laid a critique into Nick Spaul’s illusive illustration of black people doing better in higher education. Wednesday was another fantastic day of revealing the beauty of statistics. Spaul said he co-ordinated a team of researchers from various universities to study the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic. 

From a time-series longitudinal survey of National Income Dynamis Survey (Nids), the academics displayed what South Africa at its best can achieve within a short time. Through a choreographed and well co-ordinated symphony of presenters and discussants, Spaul revealed the beauty and power of statistics. Professor Murray Leibbrandt’s trembling voice brought the message home on how poverty deepened and drove people to death. The power of longitudinal data was indisputable and sources of unexplained variation mitigated. 

However, to get to such rich longitudinal data or statistics, there are hurdles to resolve in creating a virtuous eco-system: biomarkers of data items against which observations are 


One of those is the physical addresses which Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng chided the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) in 2014 for not keeping. The IEC is a user of such infrastructure but has no primary responsibility to produce it. That responsibility falls on local government. The second is the population register and Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma outdid herself in ensuring that she laid the best foundation for South Africa to have the dataset. The third is mobile devices and who they attach to for purposes of sampling, and the fourth is the sampling master frames designs which the fact finder of the nation, Statistics SA, prides itself on. 

The Nids-Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Cram) 2020 surveys play an important complementary role. Yet there is a dismembering and underfunding of Stats SA as the rights holder of the crucial pillars. There is a Samson pulling the pillars in order for the walls to collapse. Unless civil society, business and legislature realises the destruction impugned on the nation by not funding Stats SA in favour of rescuing vanity projects such as the delinquent addict SAA and their kiln, the more I remain unconvinced that the political leadership has a clear vision for the country. The Nids-Cram report must be at the elbow of every corporate board room and must replace the ministerial handbook. 

It is the conscience of the nation to face the trying times ahead. Dr Lehohla is the former statisticiangeneral of South Africa and the former head of Statistics SA.


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