Pali Lehohla
Pali Lehohla

The real numbers: Politicians’ affinity for population numbers

By Opinion Time of article published Aug 14, 2020

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By Pali Lehohla

JOHANNESBURG - When time-lines trump methods then know that the end of democracy is nigh.

Late Lesotho Prime Minister Dr Ntsu Mokhehle used to define politics as how society agrees to organise itself. Nothing draws attention to politicians as the population numbers and their distribution across space.

These numbers are political currency and can be such an absurdity in gerrymandering of constituency delimitation. Part of the inhibition to densification programmes and persistent urban sprawl is driven by such numbers and can be converted into monetary currency.

They are also an important element in our array of drivers for corruption.

The most crucial source of information on human population numbers and their territorial distribution is a census of the population – part of the global UN convention driven by chief statisticians of countries.

Each decade ending in zero represents a census decade. For instance, the last decade of censuses was 2010. In the 2020 decade, our region, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique and Malawi have already undertaken their censuses. Fortunately, they did this well ahead of Covid-19. South Africa, Botswana and Namibia are scheduled to undertake theirs next year. Countries such as Korea and the Scandinavian region have done theirs online.

Technologically, the logistics can be challenging. By using electronic devices, the time it takes from the last enumeration to producing results could be as short as a month. Previously, it would take up to two years. Kenya released its data within a month of enumeration, while Egypt did so in two months for its population of over 100 million.

However, these censuses are still basically similar to paper driven systems, with the disadvantage of having nothing to leave for the household to feel. Logistically, that imposes waiting times until access is gained to the household. Of interest is the census of the largest western style of democracy in the world, the US, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Per Federal Law, President Donald Trump has to receive the numbers by December 31 for tabling in the house. But because of Covid-9, the Census Bureau proposed April 2021 for deliverance of the numbers. Trump is having none of it. He wants his numbers now.

Many are now arguing that such a rush will undermine the democratic pillars of the US. They fear that political minorities and unregistered immigrants could well be excluded from the count, a stance many say Trump would like to have because then he can reduce federal allocations. Each time I ran a census in South Africa, the Bafokeng of Phokeng would always be keen to know who are those that are not the citizens of Phokeng.

They are in good company with Trump. Unfortunately for all of them, collation of statistics is premised on 10 UN Fundamental Principles which are aligned to Human Rights and confidentiality of information prohibits any intention of harm. May Trump’s time-lines not trump methods.

Dr Lehohla is the former statisticiangeneral of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa.

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