Defend Truth


When Pali goes… who will stand in his shoes or indeed his colourful wardrobe?


Busani Ngcaweni is Director-General of the National School of Government, South Africa.

This month South Africans are in the departure lounge again, bidding farewell to the pioneering, effervescent and long-standing Pali Lehohla, Statistician-General and DG of Statistics South Africa. After two decades at this critical institution, his departure couldn’t go unnoticed – a bit like his trademark bright yellow suit.

While the gears of succession may turn at variable speeds, we are never immune to the constant refrains of “what a pity”, “good riddance” or “don’t tell me…. is next” that greet the departure of eminent or prominent figures in the public service.

In the days before social media, traditional headlines suggested sadness and calamity at the 1999 retirement from government of our founding president, Nelson Mandela. Similar interest greeted Governor Tito Mboweni’s departure from the South African Reserve Bank. Headlines went “When Mandela Goes!”

In this phuma singene era, pundits started painting post-2019 scenarios immediately after the 2012 inauguration.

This month South Africans are in the departure lounge again, bidding farewell to the pioneering, effervescent and long-standing Pali Lehohla, Statistician-General and DG of Statistics South Africa. After two decades at this critical institution, his departure couldn’t go unnoticed – a bit like his trademark bright yellow suit.

A few months ago, when the National Treasury Director-General (DG) left government, I opined in the pages of this newspaper that very few senior public servants leave the state with the honour of being celebrated publicly – not so much due to an ungrateful public, but because history teaches us about the precarious existence of those at the most senior echelon of the public service. This is due to the tenuous nature of our polity’s political-administrative interface; a phenomenon that has caused some to suggest that DGs are endangered species.

Before I offend some of my principals to whom the disposal of DGs has yet to be recognised as antithetical to the project of building a capable developmental state, let me confine myself to the “Yellow Man”, an odd suite colour that made an eye-opening impression on our national imagination when Pali Lehohla marketed the 2011 Census. He literarily became a mascot for the Census.

Lehohla is an esteemed member of the Talented Tenth – a true mandarin in the distinguished league of an advanced detachment of servant-leaders who have contributed significantly to the building of the democratic state we have today.

Lehohla is venerated not only for his studiousness and professional profile, individually and collectively with his colleagues at StatsSA, but more so because of his utter conviction and passion for advancing the creation of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic, united and prosperous South Africa. Those who read his weekly columns in the Business Report will agree: there goes a mandarin who shaped public opinion, making the work of StatsSA accessible to the reading public.

Without the critical insights that Lehohla and his colleagues have provided over two decades, South Africa would have had no evidence for claiming progressive achievement of the 1 Goal, 5 Priorities and 14 Outcomes as outlined in the electoral mandate.

This point is brought into stark relief by a flashback to a 2014 exchange when Lehohla invited me to address a forum of his middle and senior managers.

There was something different about that occasion, which came just days after the inauguration of the fifth democratic government and soon after the celebration of 20 years of democracy. A few weeks later South Africa would celebrate Youth Day, amid reflection on a StatsSA report that painted a bleak portrait of the state of youth development in the country.

To the shock of some, I argued at that forum that statistics are like make-up. They can either make you look good or achieve the precise opposite of what is intended, just as the youth labour market participation report had done, making South Africa look bad beneath (or with) the mask.

Yet, the youth unemployment report was invaluable to the extent that its results would influence public policy on youth skills development and employment-creation initiatives. This was not the first time that statistics had told policy makers what would make them uncomfortable – that policy outcomes ran counter to policy objectives.

Like make-up, statistics are a global enterprise not immune from the dynamics of the political economy. Unlike make-up, statistics can’t just be cleansed before bed time for you wake up with the same numbers. Statistics endure until new evidence alters them. Better still, they build the trendline, not just the engineered headline.

History is littered with stories of political parties that have lost elections against a backdrop of negative employment figures. In South Africa, it has been our experience that amid the deep structural problems inherited from the apartheid system, StatsSA’s often unpalatable assessments have been a dipstick measuring the extent of transformation.

Back in 2014, I felt like a lay preacher addressing Lehohla and his colleagues on the importance of statistical sciences as a branch of contemporary science that influence our endeavours to best organise life, refine human development and improve our socio-economic well being.

I ventured into the discussion very gingerly, given my realisation that mathematical analytical tools pre-date prominent European philosophers, dating as far back as the Indian and Greek mathematical texts that explored the concept of infinity as early as the 3rd to the 4th century BCE – not to mention the significant contribution of Africans to the development of applied mathematics from the age of the pyramids and into the ancient kingdoms of Mali and Mapungubwe. Cheikh Anta Diop elaborates on this in his archives.

While modern-day Pythagoreans will stand by their conviction that the principles of mathematics are the principles of all things, and that philosophers have long analysed the world, we have to answer the Marxist call to now change it, thus avoiding paralysis by analyses. Unlike philosophers, mathematicians are pragmatists.

Amilca Cabral teaches us that people fight to improve their well being, not just for abstract ideas. The very measurable idea of well being is predicated upon the abstract ideal which poses vital questions about the meaning of life outside material well being.

This assertion places StatsSA at the centre of advancing our understanding of the human condition, with statisticians providing intellectual and cognitive tools to better change the self-same conditions. Alternately, statistical analysis provides us public policy practitioners with the near-sure confirmation that our ideals and programmes are making a meaningful difference in the lives of citizens, irrespective of the direction of the trendline. 

As we say in African folklore indlela ibuzwa kwabaphambili (those who have travelled the path know better).

Statistical analysis is a science that supports the assertion that human institutions change over time through social evolution and not only through biological evolution.

As set out in StatsSA’s departmental charters, the use of statistics in South Africa has direct implications for the betterment of the lives of ordinary people. StatsSA has consistently distinguished itself as an institution where quantitative assessments are harnessed for qualitative intervention in building a better society. This is an organisation seized with appreciating the depth, breadth and geographic spread of its role as a strategic mirror that reflects our development blemishes but also highlights the progress we are making in The South Africa I Know, The Home I Understand, as the StatsSA pay-off line puts it.

StatsSA measures progress against government policies set out in the Medium Term Strategic Framework, the National Development Plan and other strategic policy and programmatic interventions. The private sector relies on StatsSA’s products to make investment decisions.

The post-1994 StatsSA has expanded its framework to measure the social, cultural and economic welfare of all South Africans, providing the lead in coordinating the provision of relevant, reliable and quality statistical information. Recently, it got the country talking when it released a report showing that black South Africans are decolonizing the naming of their children by reverting to African names – a departure from the “Christian” names that were routinely imposed as was the case with Nelson Mandela. Through the pioneering work of StatsSA, we now know that the Dlaminis made more babies in the last five years than the Molefes.

More recently StatsSA made significant inroads in reshaping and building regional science as a branch of national statistics. Pali Lehohla’s forays into economic modelling can only make things better, building the state’s capacity for effective evidence-based planning; a critical link in the implementation of the National Development Plan. This is a momentous advance in our mastery of statecraft.

The topic Lehohla had asked me to address at the 2014 forum – A century of official statistics in South Africa: a shared heritage or history divided – appeared to be beyond the realm of statistics as a mere exercise of calculating and publishing results.

The theme for the discussion presupposed that statistics as a science lent itself to the vulnerability of human manipulation and especially the manipulation of the authority of science to achieve narrow political ends.

As such I advanced my submission on the understanding that I saw this enterprise more as a socio-political-cum-philosophical discussion about the generation of knowledge and how science has been used in history to wrest the truth from facts and vice-versa. In other words, the reflection required a rigorous commitment to truth and a clear acknowledgement of the place of StatsSA in securing a better tomorrow – otherwise known as the future we chose.

In the book The Future we Chose Lehohla penned a colourful chapter telling stories of African politicians who bullied statistical agencies to change numbers when their reports gave conclusions they didn’t like. Fortunately never in South Africa.

The former point is important in as far as it relates to understanding abstract concepts such as political, religious and philosophical consciousness that inform our daily life.

In this regard I am indebted to the exploration of truth and knowledge by a post-Socrates philosopher, WK Clifford, who concluded that (paraphrased): “Inquiry into the evidence of a doctrine can never be made once and for all, and then taken as finally settled. It is never lawful to stifle a doubt; for either it can be honestly answered by means of the inquiry already made, or else it proves that the inquiry was not complete.”

He writes further: “If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it – the life of that man is one long sin against mankind; he should have no time to believe.”

Clifford’s cardinal point is that it is wrong, always, everywhere and for any one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence, whatever the purpose is. This is, however, better said than done, especially where there is ignorance and lack of technical know-how; or where political expediency trumps evidence. By this we mean, while statistics as a science may be trusted as a significant contributor to supplying evidence for development planning, it will have the opposite effect when manipulated for suspicious purposes.

As Lehohla reminds us, statistics is about evidence and politics is about decisions. He contends that the two must conjugate to produce effective national development plans. The former has two implications for understanding the role of statistics in South African history.

First, the statistics we generate must delineate the historical injustice of the exclusion of black people from socio-economic activity and the political mainstream – hence we continue to measure variables like race and gender. Up to the Census surveys of 1996 and 2001, information collected during apartheid was uneven and unreliable especially when relating to statistics on the socio-economic conditions of the African majority. Secondly, we must agree to the use of statistical tools to break the cycle of poverty, inequality and unemployment that pressingly confronts our country today.

For decades that ended with the dawn of democracy, statistics were abused to justify iniquitous policies such as the Group Areas Act that served the apartheid mission but turned a blind eye on the long lasting impact of these policies on migratory patterns of African labourers and the undermining of the nation’s social fabric at the level of the family.

For example Lehohla’s former counterpart at the HSRC, Olive Shisana long established the correlation between this phenomenon of labour migration and the Aids epidemic.

Apartheid as an ideology hinged on the notion of separate development and statistics were readily pulled out to fashion a semblance of normality by providing the number of schools, hospitals and other services, while conveniently hiding the ratios of, for example, the number of black learners in a class room vis-à-vis that of their white compatriots.

Today, we reap the spoiled fruits of this manipulation more glaringly in Gauteng where public infrastructure is teetering on the brink because of the gross underestimation of migration and population growth and as a result, poor planning of socio-economic infrastructure over decades. The situation remains dire in the former homelands.

Accumulated disabilities of poverty and underdevelopment remain too severe.

The times are forever changing but the only constant in evolution is change itself. We know too that everyone generally agrees with the need for change but readily retreats when change affects their imagined comforts.

In evaluating the past and the present of statistical analysis in South Africa we should be able to pause and look back at our existence in time to locate our life purpose in today’s terms. This is easier said than done because the victors in history have a natural affinity towards triumphalism which allows the exercise of power against the weak, whom, as a result of their weakness, necessarily suffer disproportionately. In our case some take comfort in the perception that the revolution ended in a draw, with an outright winner that can openly display triumphalism.

In embracing the past, in all its positive and negative dimensions, we must learn to guard jealously our country’s victory over apartheid injustices. We must, as a people united through our common past, seek to improve the socio-economic conditions of the black majority. Our break with the past holds promise of change by harnessing our diversity of languages, cultures, ethnicity and other socially constructed attributes to jive in unison for the orchestral crafting of a new future together.

Removing race from the questionnaires, as some neo-cons and apartheid denialists have suggested will retard development. Refusing to mark the centenary of official statistics since the formation of the Union of SA in 1910 will also tell half truths about our contemporary moment. These were burning issues at the StatsSA forum referred to above.

The noble task of balanced historical enquiry calls for rigour and an embrace of collective history in order to weave a better understanding of who we are as a people, collectively admitting past weakness in our quest of seeking knowledge and truth about our coexistence in a country with a deeply divided past. To do so we need not become prisoners of history, but employ it to better illuminate the path to a better future.

History need not be repeated nor should we reinvent the wheel. History is only relevant to the extent that we learn from it and out of it create an inclusive heritage. The success of this depends on our ability to find common human attributes that draw us closer.

History, like our families, is not a matter of choice. The choice has been made already; we can only save ourselves from prospective disaster by not throwing the good out with the bad, but by cultivating the reading of history in its totality.

One of the lessons that South African history teaches us is that when the Afrikaners finally escaped the horrors of murderous British domination and concentration camps, they became more vicious in institutionalising apartheid; victims became aggressors, to borrow from Mahmood Mamdani. 

Having overcome oppression by the British, the victim turned victimiser, dispossessing black people of their land, livestock, seeds, wagons and all forms of production, thus robbing them of their livelihoods, trampling on their dignity and violating their human rights. This history lives on in the legacy of poverty and under-development of the large section of our population today, which is largely reflected through racial inequalities, as Sampie Terreblanche has widely documented.

Having made this big diversion, the question remains, what is to be done? Does our shared history constitute heritage or a history of division? And why does this matter for statisticians like the outgoing DG of StatsSA?

History has already determined the answer to these vexed questions. 

Over the last couple of years we have commemorated, together as a nation aspiring to unite, the centenary of the Union of South Africa, the Union Buildings, the centenary of the Reserve Bank of South Africa, hundred years of the promulgation of the Natives Land Act as well as the centenary of the Public Investment Corporation which invests our pensions.

And alas, we have also merged the Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica, the rallying cry of the African liberation movements with Die Stem without the sun changing direction to rise from the west. Worst for some, we have rewritten history and characterised the Anglo-Boer War the South African War in recognition of the role played by and the suffering of Africans during white men’s wars of colonial aggression.

This emphasises the need to embrace the totality of our history – the good and the bad. This re-examination of the past has enabled us to moderate our emotions and clearly see the path dependency of the contemporary moment, that is, how the weight of history is imposing itself on the present. What history demands of us is that we use it to redress the injustices of the past and restore the dignity of those caught on the negative side of it. Statistics are therefore the best pathfinder for the task ahead in the search for the elusive national democratic revolution.

Feeling frustrated that there were officials and politicians who did not pay sufficient attention to facts and data, Lehohla increasingly made what was considered to be political statements. Some even questioned the timing of his releases which are actually regulated by law. It was his view in his last days as SG that we just seemed oblivious to data and hence the slow pace of fast-tracking reforms especially in areas like basic education.

He was there in media platforms explaining and defending the science. He was answerable to no one but to the people whose development was his passion. Before his departure, he was of the view that unlike many successful nations of the West and Asia, we seemed not to make best use of statistics to inform our programmes.

Besides these mechanical attributes, Lehohla is just a good human being who cares about the people, our development and the future of Africa. He is an epitome of black excellence and he makes us walk tall and proud as black people.

Lest I get carried away further, let me pause and dash back into the mountain where I ply my trade, where Mzilakazi once settled before he trekked across the great Limpopo River to finally settle in Great Zimbabwe. From my vantage point on the Meintjieskop, I am humbled by a glorious view of the new StatsSA campus adjoining Freedom Park. Under Pali Lehohla’s leadership, this choice of location assumed greater significance than the spatial and the architectural spectacle.

The choice links StatsSA to the enduring task of sustaining and expanding the freedom we enjoy and it reflects the enduring understanding that the institution’s core commodity is not numbers, but lives. Statistics as a measure of freedom!

Lehohla will be missed by many South Africans, readers of the Business Report where he contributed weekly articles, radio and TV audiences who liked his animated deconstruction of statistics for layman’s understanding. In the public service we will miss his enquiring mind which challenged our assumptions about the impact of our development efforts.

His well-deserved successor, Risenga Maluleke, another StatsSA veteran of 20 years, may exercise less adventurous choices of wardrobe, but StatsSA will remain true to the vision of enabling a better South Africa. He knows too well that the mandate of StatsSA is not playing marbles but mobilising credible evidence necessary for planning of all aspects of life.

When Lehohla goes, the yellow suite, as a signifier of the nation’s commitment to evidence-based planning and independent measurement of society’s progress will remain.

Maluleke may irritate fewer politicians with what was perceived to be the yellow man’s political overreach, but his numbers won’t lie for as long as he continues to protect the integrity of the institution and the science it produces. DM

Busani Ngcaweni is a public servant writing in his personal capacity. Parts of this tribute are drawn from the speech he delivered at the StatsSA Forum on the Centenary of Official Statistics in 2014


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