Census 2011: Counting My Tears

Sibongile Mafu

Pictures have been dethroned. A number speaks a thousand words.

The Census 2011 results were revealed yesterday, third only to election results and crime statistics in terms of numbers fanfare and fascination. This was the third population and housing count in post-apartheid South Africa, and 10 years have passed since the last one. A lot can change in 10 years, and a worrying amount can stay the same.

I don’t know what it is about numbers that make things just a bit starker. Words can embellish and deceive, words can sugar-coat. Numbers, accuracy aside, are stripped and naked, words have a cardigan on.

National Planning Minister Trevor Manuel posed the question of what to do with these figures. The standard response of ensuring better and more efficient service delivery to the people of South Africa was ticked. A large number of the 52 million people who live within South Africa's borders are living in conditions that need serious attention, conditions that have needed attention at every census.

What Census 2011 confirmed, or at least put in percentage form, is that if you're living comfortably, you'll continue to live comfortably, if you're living in abject poverty the government will "look into it" and if you’re floating somewhere in between, your odds are better if you’re a man.

A lot of work needs to be done

Maybe the problem is the Census is seen as an informative tool rather than a challenge to do better. President Jacob Zuma recognised that a lot of work still needed to be done, but more tellingly, chose to put most of his energy into describing the Census as a "tale of pride". This surprised me a little bit seeing as the strides that had been made between Census 2001 and Census 2011 were looking more like shuffles.

German poet Heinrich Heine once wrote: "You cannot feed the hungry on statistics." Statistics are perhaps a more romantic side of fact. These two cannot be completely separated from one another. Statistics cannot feed the hungry. They're too busy counting how many people need to be fed. It seems to be taking a lot longer than expected. Do we continue being angry at the process or maybe the people we've entrusted with the process? From current statistics and numbers, one can draw predictions as to what future trends will be. In 2061, the average black people will be catching up with what the average white family is earning. I’ll be 63. If you take that into account, the real born frees will be my children’s children.

Yes, white people still earn significantly more than everyone else (we use the term “earn” because the English language is so limited) and the number of orphans in South Africa is increasing. Among children under the age of 18, the data shows 3.7% of them are orphans, and 22% are either without a mother or father.

I think this has huge bearings on the messages that are sent out about the link between vulnerability and education. Charity begins at home. Learning begins at home. This becomes somewhat tricky when the home is broken or non-existent. Traditional ways of repairing the education crisis perhaps cannot be looked at through the view of traditional families anymore when, for many of our young people, that is simply not their reality.

A call to action

The Census is not a report card, and should probably not be seen as such. It should perhaps be seen as a call to action - a call to do things differently. Take a bit of a risk. That’s what numbers do. Percentages are provocative. Percentages make one competitive. Percentages make you better. Black people are seeing very little of the pie (chart), let alone getting a piece of it.

Many people weren't counted but if you look around, the only thing that can trump numbers is seeing for yourself. The truth of the matter is many of the people living in South Africa are living in conditions that a Census could not begin to comprehend. Things are getting better, but the things that aren’t, really aren’t.

When the crime statistics are released a wave of shock and horror descends upon the country. When the census results are released, the same bit of horror needs to be observed, since it’s injustice by another name.

Let’s chat again in 2061.

- Sibongile is a videographer, blogger and social media enthusiast who would be nothing without her thumbs.
Follow her on Twitter: @SboshMafu.

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