Census 2011: The man in the yellow suit

2012-11-03 18:30

Statistician-general Pali Lehohla hates procrastinating.

This would explain why the Census 2011 results were released five months ahead of schedule.

When I approach him to set up an interview, he suggests we do it “right now”.

“I don’t take long to make a decision, not that I don’t consider the decision,” says the 54-year-old as we talk on the lawns of the presidential guesthouse in Pretoria.

Inside, meanwhile, his number crunchers from Stats SA are busy explaining the census results to the media.

Born in the border town of Wepener near the Qibing Mountain in Lesotho, Lehohla dreamed of becoming a geologist.

When he got to varsity though, there was no geology course on offer in Lesotho and so he double-majored in economics and statistics, and began working as a statistician in the labour sector.

But in 1982, he was forced to flee his home to escape political attacks from the army of Lesotho’s then prime minister Chief Leabua Jonathan after having helped a friend escape into exile in Swaziland.

“I was fleeing to Botswana, but when I got to Mafikeng, a friend of mine convinced me to settle there. That’s how I got to Mmabatho and found a job at the statistics office.”

The father of three boys says the days of Stats SA being seen as the “ugly duckling” of state institutions are behind the organisation, which is also tasked with gathering regular economic and labour data.

His contract is coming to an end next month and he clearly wants to stay on in the organisation he has headed since 2000. But he won’t say so in so many words.

“There’s a lot that needs to be done and we can spare neither energy nor effort,” says Lehohla, who is unhappy with the undercount rate (people missed during the counting process) of 14.6%.

In fact, he wants South Africa to conduct a census every five years to monitor progress made and gauge how government responds to the National Planning Commission’s diagnostic overview.

He says: “We need to monitor that national plan, which has a horizon of about 20 years from now, very tightly. A 10-yearly census is too far apart.”

According to him, “a census is very expensive and very tiring”, but the exhaustion of having counted everyone in the country only set in “a few days ago”, once he knew the task was complete.

He says: “The team at Stats SA is remarkable. They worked 24 hours, no rest. It was very painful on families.”

For Lehohla, the biggest surprise in the census was that Gauteng overtook KwaZulu-Natal as the most populous province.

“But you could see that Gauteng was growing and this is caused by its neighbours, North West and Mpumalanga,” he says, adding that these provinces, along with Limpopo, will become the next economic nodes.

“With the discovery of minerals in Limpopo, it looks like the country will grow towards the north. But our knowledge of economic development is that port cities are the drivers and engines of growth because of exports.

“South Africa poses a different model of development because the growth has actually been from the inside,” he says.

Lehohla wants individuals, schools and municipalities to use the census results for future planning and research.

He believes that “this information should be the nexus of discussion about solving problems in business, communities and municipalities”, and that improvements in the education system will turn the tide on the numbers showing “black people are still at the bottom rung of the ladder”.

Next time you see Lehohla, don’t expect him to be wearing his trademark yellow suit.

He says he’ll wear it only until the publication of the results in every province and then he’ll put it away.

» Have you checked out our Census 2011 digital tool? Go here to explore key census data yourself.

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