South Africa

Arrests, damn arrests and StatsSA

By Paul Berkowitz 4 June 2013

On Friday afternoon Professor Jairo Arrow, a former deputy director-general of Statistics South Africa (StatsSA), was arrested at his Pretoria home on a charge of theft. Professor Arrow stands accused, by the statistician-general Pali Lehohla himself, of stealing a ‘confidential’ document from StatsSA. This may be further evidence of political interference in the institution. By PAUL BERKOWITZ.

This publication has written previously about the material concerns with the latest census numbers (here and here). Professor Arrow has had a role to play in this story; he and a former colleague at StatsSA, Marlize Pistorius, were part of the team analysing the census numbers.

Earlier this year, Arrow and Pistorius faced disciplinary charges for “dereliction of duty and gross incompetence”. The statistician-general himself, Pali Lehohla, accused the pair of making a hash of the post-enumeration survey (PES) and of refusing to fix the problem to Lehohla’s satisfaction. Arrow took normal retirement in February this year and Pistorius’s disciplinary hearing is still in progress.

The high census undercount is the biggest bone of contention in the story. According to Arrow, the statistician-general was unhappy with the high undercount (initially 18.3% of the population, revised downward to a final 14.6%). The persistently high undercount across the last few censuses has been a cause for concern. The latest figure is politically embarrassing for the department, given both the resources devoted to the budget and the publicly-made forecasts of a low undercount.

Whether the history between the two men is linked to the events of Friday is not clear at this point. The document in question appears to be a sensitive one. It is titled “Forensic investigation into the appointment of service providers for the Census 2011 Campaign” and was a report issued in November 2012.

The report was compiled by Morar Incorporated, an accounting firm, on behalf of the accountant-general in the National Treasury, as requested by the GCIS and StatsSA. It was subsequently distributed to the accountant-general, the CEO of the GCIS and the statistician-general. In a statement sent by his lawyer, Arrow “emphatically denies having stolen the document.”

Arrow was arrested at his home on Friday afternoon by two senior police officers and the StatsSA head of security. He was detained at Pretoria Central police station and released on warning at approximately 1:30 on Saturday morning after two senior police officials (a brigadier and a general) interfered with and attempted to prevent his release. He will appear in the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court on Monday.

Further details of this story should present themselves over the course of this week, but the initial whiff of politics and intrigue has grown into an unavoidable odour. The arrest of a leading dissenter on Friday afternoon, and the alleged pressure by senior police officials to keep him behind bars over the weekend, is suspicious. If Arrow is not a flight risk then the timing of the arrest and the subsequent events stink of a plan to intimidate the professor.

Intrigue and interference are more normally associated with larger government departments with bigger budgets. The stakes are still high; it’s not just the prestige and fidelity of StatsSA that are in question, but the whole planning and spending apparatus of the government. The events of the past weekend can only result in the bad smells lingering. DM

At the time of going to press, Daily Maverick was unable to contact the office of the statistician-general or any of the other related parties and could not obtain their comment.

Photo: Statistician-General Pali Lehohla releases South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP) for the first quarter at a news conference in Johannesburg on Tuesday, 28 May 2013. The GDP increased by 0.9 percent in the first quarter of 2013. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA



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