Newsmaker – Stats are my life

2011-11-05 18:33

Stats SA boss attributes Africa’s failures to its leaders’ inability to compile statistics properly

Statistician-General Pali Lehohla is in a meeting when we arrive for an interview at his 11th floor office in the Pretoria city centre. An elderly employee stands at the slightly open door and interrupts the meeting.

“I’ve just come to congratulate you on a successful Census 2011,” he says.

Lehohla’s roaring laughter echoes through the office as he rises to exchange pleasantries with the man. His employees refer to him as “SG”. Walking around the vast office, one gets a sense he hasn’t allowed his position to go to his head.

He greets everyone, including the security guard who opens the door leading to the roof-top, with his trademark roaring laughter and stops to joke with a colleague he apparently saw whizzing past in a German sedan earlier that morning.

It’s clear he’s a man who enjoys a good laugh. But his real passion is statistics.

“Statistics is my life,” he says, sitting on a wooden chair carved with images of Africa’s Big Five.

“It’s been what, 30 years? It has taken up so much time of my life. It’s the only thing I do, really. Statistics is like an iceberg. You only see the tip but the world underneath is full of interesting things you don’t see.”

He once remarked during the provincial launch of the Census 2011 in Bloemfontein: “Without numbers that are tested through quality and proper methods, you cannot run a country.

“For too long, Africans have misled Africa because they do not have the numbers or the intellectual capacity. Africa must get the basics right.”

He seems a little disappointed that none of his three sons has followed in his footsteps. But he takes comfort in the words of his late father, who was a teacher for 40 years.

“He used to say the best reward for a teacher is seeing children using you as a stepping stone to growth,” he says.

This week Statistics SA began winding down the groundwork for Census 2011. Lehohla seems satisfied with the work so far.

“A census is the biggest statistical operation. It mobilises on a much bigger scale than a war. When statisticians meet, they can’t finish talking without discussing a census,” he says.

He wanted to study geology but somehow ended up in this field. He has dates of important events at the tip of his fingers. One of these, in 1966, seems to have set him on the route to the career he later chose in life.

“It was the census in Lesotho. My father bought an ox which I named Census,” he says.

He holds a BA in economics and statistics, a post-graduate diploma in population studies, and a certificate in Toponymy, the scientific study of place names. He completed a senior leadership programme with the Wits and Harvard Business Schools.

Although he holds South African citizenship, having lived here for the better part of three decades, he insists he has strong ties with his land of birth, Lesotho.

“My umbilical cord is back there,” he says.

Earlier this week his office faced the challenge of dealing with a strike by about 100 enumerators in Durban.

It was apparently sparked by a report in the IsiZulu daily tabloid, Isolezwe, which said Durban enumerators were being paid R5 000 while their counterparts in Joburg were receiving R10 000 and those in Pietermaritzburg R7 500.

“That report was inaccurate. In fact, Isolezwe has apologised,” Lehohla says.

Police later confiscated 89 boxes of Census questionnaires from the striking workers and Stats SA suspended three fieldworkers after the raid.

Lehohla’s cellphone doesn’t stop ringing as we sit chatting in his office. He fields a call from a journalist requesting a three-minute interview.

When he’s done a secretary walks in to hand him a handwritten note. He excuses himself to make a call. It’s Trevor Manuel, the minister in the presidency.
“I think we are very fortunate to have a minister that understands the importance of statistics,” he says.

He’s worked with Manuel since his appointment 11 years ago – during his two tenures as finance minister and in his current position.

“But he can come down hard; absolutely no frills. You can add the frills once the basics are done to perfection,” says Lehohla with a hint of admiration.

Manuel’s picture hangs on the wall with that of President Jacob Zuma, his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe, and one of Lehohla wearing a yellow Census bib and chatting to former president Nelson Mandela.

Lehohla started his career in Lesotho in 1980 in the labour office as a statistician. But he fled the country, initially heading for political exile in Botswana, when word got around that he was on the wanted list of Leabua Jonathan’s security police. His parents were staunch members of the Basotho Congress Party, which opposed Jonathan’s rule, and were often harassed.

He ended up in Bophuthatswana in 1982 and helped conduct the second and third census in 1985 and 1991. He worked under the heavy hand of Lucas Mangope, the Bophuthatswana leader who had a reputation for summoning civil servants he considered troublesome to his Mmabatho office for a dressing down.

“I imagine he was a political technocrat. As long as you didn’t meddle with the politics it didn’t matter to him,” he says of Mangope.

His contract ends in December next year, but he has no future plans yet.

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