Tshepiso Mshuqwana, 11, herds cattle. The writer says bulls understand the risk of locking horns.Photo: Matthews Baloyi
At the end of March 2017, I am reminded of the time 25 years ago, when the battle lines were drawn for the soul of statistics in South Africa. To foreground this, I draw on my village life which has increasingly become very exciting, especially in revealing the basic elements of strategy and tactics.

The book and literature on strategy here is the experience of attending to livestock, especially cattle.

When I was introduced to the phenomena of environmental scanning in strategy 25 years ago, I realised that this was not new, as I have observed that cattle do this very well when new pastures are opened to them. On the first day they unleash themselves in the pasture with such thrust, speed and greed as they swing their tongue around the foliage with amazing rhythm to cover the entirety of the new pasture.

However, watch them on the next day and subsequent days They will be measured. They will be very steady because they now know what is in store for them. And they display a much more organised and planned conquest of the pasture. Another lesson in strategy, and one I will focus on is the art of the bullfight.

We trained bulls on how to challenge one another. By generating specific sounds we would send signals that would cause bulls to go for one another and then from there we would cheer lead.

This phenomenon is not unrelated because this largely occurred on the occasion of opening new pastures, which allowed many herds to converge on this new space and bulls from different villages and kraals would like to claim the space.

Bullfighting is very dangerous and can be fatal. Bulls know this danger of mortality and work very skilfully in their fight. The area they protect are the ribcage and largely the stomach.

Once they lock horns then the situation becomes pretty scary because anyone that gets defeated has to surrender by running away and being chased, but with its tail up and spurts of diarrheal dung thrown in the face of the chasing victor.

Escape route

What is crucial is how to escape from a situation of locked horns. A turn to run away risks the victor goring the vanquished in the rib cage or the stomach, thus heralding a case of sure death.

For the vanquished the art is how it unlocks its horns, turns and runs away without the ribcage or stomach being gored. The goring on hind legs is not so serious.

But back to the soul of statistics in South Africa in 1993, a new pasture was opened with bulls from different villages wishing to claim the space of numerals.

The protagonists were on the one hand, the head of the Central Statistical Services (CSS) and his management and on the other Bophuthatswana Statistics. I led the charge supported by a core team of three people, Professor John Kahimbaara, then my technical director at BopStats, Professor Herman Geyer of Potchefstroom University and a year later, Risenga Maluleke of Gazankulu Statistics based in Giyani.

As democracy dawned, Professor Job Mokgoro was back in Mmabatho as the director-general and I reported to him. And that made our war for the soul of statistics manageable.

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He facilitated that we present the strategy for post-apartheid South Africa in the forum of provincial directors-general. Within a short space of time our presence was felt and the approaching census of 1995 provided momentum.

Benny Mokaba, who had just joined the RDP office, followed and supported our cause and course with keen interest. Having mobilised through all provinces except KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape, the stage was set for the locking of horns. This occurred in October, 1994, when we convened a national summit for statistics in the new South Africa in Rooigrond, outside Mahikeng.

I had invited the head of the CSS to address us on his vision on statistics in the new South Africa. The session was very successful as it drew the RDP offices across the country.

Mokgoro opened and left the task to Kahimbaara, while Geyer and I had to run with the four-day programme.

Unfortunately, the then head of the CSS decided not to accept the invitation and instead advised us not to hold the maiden summit.

My retort was that I had simply invited him and did not invite his opinion on whether or not the summit should be held, and his advice was thus unwelcome.

More importantly, I pointed out to him that as an important stakeholder he would get the resolutions of the summit.

Three important themes stood out throughout the discussion.

First, filling an urgent and serious data gap by running a national population census; second, counsel on municipality demarcation and technical considerations to be made to transform the space economy of apartheid through statistical evidence; and third, transforming the CSS.

The first two themes were the main drivers of transforming the CSS.

Our meeting was successful in causing the locking of horns with the CSS. A major resolution related to first spatially reconfigure the CSS and second, having the position of the head of the CSS advertised.

After I communicated the resolutions in writing to the head, as I had initially promised, the head of the CSS saw red and declared me persona non grata in relation to the CSS, and threatened disciplinary action.

The horns locked further, and in March, 1995 the then head of the CSS blocked me from entering the CSS building to attend the national steering committee meeting for census planning, thus undermining North West representation.


Howard Gabriels, the special adviser to then minister without portfolio, Jay Naidoo, approached the head and told him that North West will be represented in the planning meeting otherwise the meeting would not proceed. He further alerted the minister of the developments. The post of the head of the CSS was advertised in April and interviews held in May, 1995.

Dr Mark Orkin and Dr Andries Treurnicht, Du Toit, the incumbent and I competed for the job. Orkin was appointed the first head of the CSS in post-apartheid South Africa from July 1, 1995. He went to North West to negotiate with Mokgoro for part of my time to prepare for census 1996, the first post-apartheid census.

Mokgoro agreed on condition that this was for three days a week in Pretoria and two days in Mmabatho. The arrangement was honoured for only the first week, after which I disappeared to Pretoria from Mmabatho to date.

I took over from Orkin in November, 2000. We had built a formidable partnership and he handed me a modern statistics act, Act 6 of 1999, which I continue to use, although it is now in need of serious repair.

This is the tale of how the bullfight played itself out at the CSS and the timing of the turn as the bulls unlock determined which bull was to be gored.

Transformation of society and political movements are replete with bullfight strategies and tactics. Also, in statistics we have what is crucial in order not to gore social progress and protect gains in mastering the tactic of the turn from a locked horn position.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the statistician-general of South Africa and head of Statistics SA.