Alarm that’s crucial to a country’s well-being

JOHANNESBURG – An alarm most of the time is an irritant, but a public alarm is not only an irritant, but a threat to power. 

Statistical systems serve as essential alarms to political systems, and they are as disruptive to slumber as well as to inflamed and fluid political environments. It so happened that I had a long trip from Beijing, Geneva and then to Luanda, AngoIa, where I learnt a simple lesson from my alarm clock. 

The then minister of planning and now the first lady of Angola had invited me to brief local government authorities on the importance of a census. Angola had not had a census in almost four decades. 

The rapid changes, among others the sharp growth of Luanda due to migration, required detailed information in order to know and understand what Angola was up against. 

I had a morning meeting with the minister and went to bed early. But by about 3am my alarm went off accidentally. As I fiddled with the buttons, the alarm stopped. But after a few minutes it went off again and for another three rounds I engaged in the same madness before unplugging it, and silencing it for good. 

However, after struggling to go back to sleep I then overslept and then was almost an hour late for the meeting with the Angolan minister. What is the moral of the story? 

Life in general, and public life in particular is very sensitive and at its weakest during transitions when the new replaces the old. 

Depending on the nature of the transitions, new entrants at best do not know what the alarm dials are,  where they are located or how they are operated. 

At worst, they do not even know whether or not there are alarms. When the alarm goes off, in panic they unplug them. 

Many political systems get irritated, and are averse to the public alarm – public statistics. 

Argentina decided to expel its competent price statisticians from office, and for almost a decade the country plunged into one crisis after the other. In 2012, I was a panellist on the subject of violations of the UN’s Fundamental Principles for Official Statistics. 

My offender’s list besides myself being one and as mentioned Argentina and Greece topped the list followed by the UK, Canada and Indonesia. Greece, in particular, has been a vexatious litigant and has not ceased to date to persecute its former statistician despite his numerous acquittals. 

Ambassador Baso Sangqu, then South Africa’s representative of the Permanent Mission to the UN, was accosted by his Argentinian counterpart, protesting my presentation. 

Of course I was summoned to the South Africa mission and the alarm became the alarm, only interpreting the principles and acting accordingly. We reminisce with Baso about that instance. 

Three years ago, the South African ambassador to Argentina, through Dirco, sent me a message of appreciation from the Argentinian government on how the South Africa Statistics had stood the course, and assisted Argentinia as it began to traverse the bend on the mend. 

However, to our north, unfortunately the statistics on the consumer price index (CPI) are now barred from being published. 

Zimbabwe has pulled the plug on the CPI. Even in the darkest hour, when the CPI was four digits and counting, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe did not interfere with the statistics authority of Zimbabwe. They published uninhibited. 

The lack of statistics anywhere is its absence everywhere. We need the alarm… 

In South Africa during my predecessor’s and my 17-year tenure, there has never been an attempt to unplug the alarm, although robust discussions with regard to what the alarm says and means have occurred both publicly and in scheduled meetings. 

The alarm with all its dials are now with the Statistician-General Risenga Maluleke. 

He is on top of his game of no prejudice, no fear and no favour. He delivers high-quality statistics, whatever economic and social difficulties they may foretell. 

South African legislators have provided a world-class statistics law prohibiting potential and real delinquents from making the public alarm a toy thing. 

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa and former head of Statistics SA. Meet him on www.pie.or.za and on @PaliLehohla.

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