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‘I will keep Stats SA free’

Nov 12 2017 06:00
Justin Brown

Risenga Maluleke started his tenure at the head of the organisation this month with a promise that it will remain independent of political forces.

New Statistician-General Risenga Maluleke this week said that he had the wherewithal to keep the agency independent and free of political influence, and that it would maintain the integrity of its statistics.

Stats SA is the key producer of official statistics and generates almost 260 reports on various subjects, including the country’s GDP, unemployment figures, consumer price inflation and produce inflation, as well as the national census, which is produced every 10 years.

It is vital that these figures are accurate for planning purposes as well as for use by government, business, trade unions, and other economic actors and ordinary people.

Maluleke started his term on November 1 and his tenure will last until the end of October 2022. He took over from Pali Lehohla, who served as the head of the organisation for 17 years.

“There has never been any attempt to want to interfere in the powers of the Statistician-General and the independence of Stats SA. We don’t foresee that ever happening,” Maluleke said.

Since 2014, Stats SA has fallen under Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe. The organisation employs about 3 100 people and has an annual budget of at least R2.1 billion.

Maluleke said any interference with the work of Stats SA could be disastrous.

“We have never seen any overtures whatsoever to try to subvert the independence of official numbers and the integrity of official statistics. If we allow that to happen, it would be dangerous – not only for Stats SA, but for our nation.

“It is like driving a vehicle with a dashboard. You don’t want your dashboard to tell you that you have a full tank when you are actually a quarter empty,” Maluleke explained.

“I was hired with full understanding that I will uphold the independence of Stats SA and protect the integrity of its statistics. The Statistics Act has built in all these checks and balances.

“Other than the Statistics Act, the UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics are more like a code for all official statisticians across the world. They provide us with a basis over which we can raise matters in the public space, whether it be the abuse of numbers or whatever.”

A key initiative that Maluleke wants to see come to fruition during his tenure is to make Stats SA digital.

“No one can resist technological changes in the world. The agility with which human beings and organisations adapt to technological change defines how they will survive.”

Maluleke said that, thanks to technological advances, Stats SA has been be able to produce better results much faster than before.

“In the previous censuses, we collected data on paper-based platforms. The results from the 1996 census took us two years to bring out. The 2001 census results came out in 2003. For the 2011 census, we had better scanning technology and, as a result, we released the results only a year later.

“Technology helps us to do our work. We are able to return from the field and provide the results to the nation much more timeously,” he said.

“Early next year, we will be starting with computer-assisted personal interviews [as opposed to paper-assisted personal interviews].

“I think our outreach to the users needs to be improved a lot. We need to start training our users to understand and appreciate [our work]. We have focused mainly on advanced users. We also need our general users to go on and deal with matters of data.”

Maluleke said that the Statistics Act was going under review.

“It is mainly to strengthen the role of coordination,” he explained.

“We still have to meet with the Statistics Council. Once that is finished, we need to discuss it [the review] with political authorities in the country so it can be presented in Parliament,” Maluleke said.

In the past, Lehohla raised the fact that there was risk associated with cuts to financial allocations to Stats SA by National Treasury, and he expressed concern that critical posts had not been filled since September last year.

“I’m terribly concerned about the state of resourcing in Stats SA. Even under the best leadership, Stats SA will not succeed if there is no urgent remedy for this parlous state of resourcing,” Lehohla said.

Maluleke agreed that Stats SA had challenges with regard to funding.

“Generally, government has moved into austerity measures in dealing with the public purse. We at Stats SA are not immune to that. This matter is being addressed – we are engaging with our minister.”

Who is Risenga Maluleke?

Maluleke is married and has four children – three daughters and a son.

He grew up in Limpopo in a small village about 200km from Polokwane and close to the Kruger National Park.

As a student, Maluleke turned his focus to statistics after he failed most of his subjects, including computer science, which was at that stage the focus of his degree, but passed mathematics in his first year at the University of Limpopo.

He started working for the Gazankulu Bantustan government’s statistics department in November 1992, before the country’s official statistics function was centralised in the form of Stats SA.

Maluleke has worked at Stats SA for 20 years – he joined the organisation as a manager at the Limpopo provincial office in 1997.

Prior to taking over from Lehohla as the head of the organisation, he was the deputy director-general for statistical collections and outreach.

Maluleke has completed a BSc in mathematical statistics and an MPhil in urban and regional science. He has also completed senior executive programmes with Wits and Harvard Business School.

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