Interview with a former prominent chief statistician – Dr. Pali Lehohla, former Statistician General of South Africa and Chair of the UN Statistical Commission

Published on 12/2/2022



We are very glad to receive today for this interview, Dr Pali Lehohla, former Statistician General of South Africa and Chair of the UN Statistical Commission.

In fact, we are currently conducting a series of short interviews with former prominent chief statisticians on the continent. Through this interview we aim at recognizing and commending their contribution to the statistical development in Africa. Through this interview, we also ask them about their opinion on some current topics based on their experience in the field.


Question 1: Can you please introduce yourself? (Name, Nationality, Statistical experience, …)

I am Dr. Pali Jobo Lehohla, a former Statistician-General of South Africa, and Head of Statistics South Africa. I have forty years of experience in national statistics operations including five (5) years in junior and middle management, eight (8) years in senior management, 17 years in leadership, 3 years in executive mentoring and support and consultancy.


Question 2: How do you see the evolution in the field of official statistics on the continent during the last decades with regard to the production and dissemination of data?

The last two decades have been a game of three thirds, a decline in statistics, a rise and a decline. 

As of 2000, statistics in Africa was at its lowest ebb, recording one of the lowest participations in the population and housing programme and insignificance in major global programmes of statistics where in the 70s and 80s it played a significant role amongst which was the household survey capability programme.

By 2000, Africa had disappeared from the scene, notably because statistical leadership at the UNECA was dissipated and seen as unnecessary.   A coalition of leadership formed around 2006 building and joining the resilience force that AfDB led and successfully financed for statistical leadership. 

The force coalesced fully in 2006 with the formalisation of the African Symposium for Statistical Development (ASSD) which restored leadership in statistics to countries and strengthened the role of Pan African institutions in statistical development.  The results were a bolstered participation of African countries in the 2010 Round of Population and Housing Censuses. 

A massive participation in both the 2005 and much more improved participation in the 2011 International Comparisons Programme, a successful capacity building programme on national accounts and price statistics, a successful resuscitation of the agenda for Civil Registration and Vital Statistics, a creation of the ISIbalo Young African Statistician Movement, the institutionalisation and review of African Union statistical masterplan, the transformational agenda of statistics through the SHaSA and the African Charter on Statistics, the establishment of the African Statistics Centre, the continuing role of Statistics Centre at the African Development Bank and the creation of a statistics entity at the African Union.

In this period the statistics fraternity held thirteen summits of the ASSD as an in-country mobilisation for action in particular, in the 2010 Round of Censuses and in Civil Registration and Vital Statistics.

The African Symposium for Statistical Development (ASSD) was both the advocacy and the how of ensuring that these programmes are undertaken.  It became the to-go-to programme for those who needed to be successful in the statistics arena in Africa. 

The successes reached their peak in 2015 with the declaration of the next decade as one for CRVS and included was the generation of Africa SDG indicator programme which went beyond call of duty with the costing of the indicator programme.

However as from 2016, the engine of success had started to misfire, and the challenges mounted.  The last four years have been rather disappointing.  The reasons are not far to establish, the pan-African institutions lost the glue which the UNECA Statistics Centre provided because of the long period of paucity of leadership at the centre, the marginal role that the statistics centre at the AfDB came to occupy, the rather exaggerated role that the AU statistics unit wanted to play and the diminishing financial role that South Africa played.

All these forces converged and connived against the ten-year bull run of statistics in Africa.  These can be still recovered because of the institutionalisation pillars in the SHaSA and the African Statistics Charter as well as the statistics centres in the three pan African organizations (AfDB, AUC and UNECA).

So, the two decades have been a terminal decline from 2000-2005.  A speedy reconstruction and recovery of statistics from 2006 to 2015 and an onset of decline from 2016 to present.


Question 3: On November 18, African countries celebrated African Statistics Day 2020, the theme of which was: "Modernizing national statistical systems to provide data and statistics to support sustainable peace and development in Africa". What are your thoughts on this theme? What can the celebration of such a day help to achieve on the continent?

Africa has been resilient and innovative, particularly emboldened by information technology.  In this regard the adoption of technology has been a forward march.

Egypt released its Census results in less than six months and Kenya went to break the record by releasing its census results in less than four months.  The record will be broken by each subsequent country as statistics offices generate end-to-end mechanisms to collapse collection of data to dissemination to near real time. 

What Africans have not done though is to make this value created visible politically both in its dissemination and its use and useability.  

In the context of COVID-19 the Statistician-General of South Africa has used poverty mapping and applied weighted geographic regression and hotspot analysis to inform and guide policy on COVID-19 progression and evolution. 

This idea was developed by Colombia Statistics office (INDEC) which applied its most recent census to generate this useful information.  Kenya has used the mobile phone details of the enumerated population in 2019 to mount poverty and hunger vulnerability and evolution as a consequence of COVID-19. 


Question 4: What are the current main challenges of national statistical systems in Africa and what solutions do you propose?

What is crucial of course is to get to the resolutions of Libreville regarding information technology and financing whereby African Statisticians in 2015 put a petition up against the Secretary General Ba Ki Moon on these matters.  The petition unfortunately never reached him despite our best efforts to lodge it at the Statistics Commission in 2017.  The chickens have come home to roost as the dominance of the technology and its ubiquitous influence outside a democratic framework is disrupting sovereign systems.

The democracy project or the right to choose remains a major challenge because technology bosses have arrogated to themselves all data on all human beings without a democratic mandate to do so.  This places statistics offices in an important position to advance the contribution of the United Nations Fundamental Principles on Official Statistics and the Libreville resolution on data for Sustainable Development nailed this issue.

The newly elected President of the United States Biden made it his first task an implementation of the equivalent of the ASSD Libreville resolution on data which the African Statisticians advanced.  Where are the African leaders on this? 

We need to sensitize our political leadership to that especially because the resolution was specifically addressing the vulnerabilities Africa has and how the big data companies will monetize and abuse the commons. We still as Africa have no structured power to address this and that is what the Libreville resolutions address as regards data.  

We are faced with the collapse of the Civil Registration and Vital Statistics because its kernel which is the Home Affairs Department and Statistics Offices has been destroyed.  The kernel is now with ID4Africa, so the technical leadership that built this architecture from 2009 through 2012 with great political buy in has dissipated.  Value created by Africa has now been appropriated and expropriated by others.  The CRVS movement is a shell and ID4Africa is the kernel.  This is one of the clear weakening of the African system which the Libreville ASSD Resolutions were addressing.

Privacy remains primary especially as digitisation and digitalization can easily break the random rounding rule applied to small cells in censuses.


Question 5: There are many stakeholders in the field of strengthening statistical capacity on the continent; what mechanism should be put in place for better collaboration?

You require a framework like one adopted by South Africa when it led through the ASSD.  We funded the ASSD substantively.  This is not new because Nkrumah also funded any African at institutions of learning in Ghana.  My deputy, the current Statistician-General of South Africa and I were aware that we need lead countries that should take the baton and form a wall of resilience towards achieving our long-term objectives and resistance against capture.

In this space we had hoped that Cote’ d Ivoire, Nigeria, Angola, Egypt, Ghana and Senegal for instance would be the first cohort to come to the party to take the baton when tides turn against South Africa as bad days have befallen it today.

But we have not been able to institutionalise this wall of resilience.  These countries of course with the exception of Nigeria have hosted the ASSD and they should be that wall of resilience and of resistance against poaching of ideas such as has been done on CRVS where the genetic code and key on this no longer resides with Africans, but it is elsewhere and as Africans we are going to be monetized and now become food for others.

So we need to locate strategic statistical leadership at the top of the agenda especially in the context of Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement where the International Comparisons Programme (ICP) Africa should play a lead role.  AfDB should put resources through its smart statistics financing.  This provided the leverage with Dr. Charles Lufumpa leading the charge.  This method of statistical support was an envy to the world.   

Your final word.

Africa has always had a brighter future if only its leadership both political and technical and especially African statisticians in particular can lift their gaze from chasing the navel but mobilize society not against poverty but towards prosperity.

Statistical tools are central for defining and moving towards a prosperous Africa envisioned in Agenda 2063.  The statisticians and the profession have a massive leadership role to play.

Interview conducted in February 2021.