Statistics are not about what they reveal, but what they conceal

Former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa Pali Lehohla. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi, Independent Newspapers.

Former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa Pali Lehohla. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi, Independent Newspapers.

Published Dec 4, 2023


Let us remove the oft-quoted facade of South Africa being food secure. It is a lived-experience lie, albeit a statistical reality.

Peeling off the cover of food security and piercing the reality of stunting among children takes us to the truth and the heart of the matter.

South Africa is food secure, according to successive agriculture censuses carried out by Statistics SA, the 2017 census of commercial agriculture being the most recent.

Yet despite this admirable food security record, South Africa’s children are stunted. The 2016 SA Demographic and Health Survey (SADHS) shows that 27% of South Africans under five-year-olds are stunted. This is a consequence of malnutrition. Wasting and underweight rates for children under five are substantially lower, at 2.5% and 5.9% respectively.

As regards the question of a comprehensive agricultural census, I had the benefit of being confronted by the directors-general of agriculture, demanding that a comprehensive agriculture census be mounted. This happened during my tenure at both the Central Statistical Service for five years, as a chief director, and for 17 years at Statistics SA as the Statistician General.

But to date such has not happened, despite the willingness of the number cruncher of the nation, Statistics SA, accepting the mounting of such as part and parcel of its responsibility.

The blockage has always been funding of such an undertaking. I successfully mounted a census of agriculture in 1987, after successfully running the 1985 census of population in Bophuthatswana.

The 1987 one was perhaps the only comprehensive census of all agriculture, commercial and non-commercial, in any geographic space in South Africa.

So, skill has never been a constraint. The consequences of this neglect and knowledge deficit reflects in the conspicuous and continuous effects of this on the under five-year old children who remain stunted, year in, year out.

On Tuesday, November 28 this year, I attended two related sessions on matters of food.

The first was the inauguration of the Black Agriculture Commodities Federation, held at the Agricultural Research Council, where I delivered a keynote address; the second was at the Swiss Embassy, where we discussed confronting scarcity, with specific emphasis on food. These topics are related.

The Swiss Embassy holds a St. Gallen Symposium based on the principle that ideas emerge from everywhere, and open the space up to the youth and the world allowing for discussion across generations.

Through this programme they have an alumni that propagates ideas, which culminate in an annual session to deliberate on these ideas. South African youth also participate in the fora.

The topic on this occasion was on how to confront food scarcity. Dr Chantell Witten (a food nutrition expert and social justice advocate) was the key speaker.

Statistics SA mounted a commercial census of agriculture that shows that in 2017, the number of farms/farming units involved in the commercial agriculture sector in that year totalled 40 122.

The largest proportion of them were involved in livestock farming (13 639 or 33,9% of the total), followed by mixed farming (12 458 or 31,1%) and field crops (8 559 or 21,3%). This generates a total turnover of R330 billion and employs 780 000 people.

Annually, Statistics SA, as part of its short-term statistical series, runs a sample survey of commercial agriculture. So, the surveys of commercial agriculture confirm that South Africa as a country does not have food security threats.

Yet its children are stunted.

An attempt aimed at an agricultural census was ultimately made in 2011. In this census, questions were asked relating to households engaged in agricultural activities. Such would inform the mounting of a full agricultural census, targeting specifically those households.

According to the 2011 Census, 2.9 million such households were engaged in agricultural activities. The aim then was to visit 2.5 million households to take a deep dive into agricultural census questions that would elicit the extent of agricultural activities.

But in 2013 the plan was aborted because of lack of money. We then aimed at undertaking the agricultural survey based on the 2016 Community Survey, which estimated households engaged in agricultural activities to be 2.3 million.

The design was aimed at targeting this for at least a modestly reasonable agricultural census, but again there was no money to undertake the census. As part of the census schedule, a limited number of questions relating to agriculture have become a common feature of the population and housing census in South Africa, in the hope that one day a comprehensive census of agriculture will be mounted.

In the 2022 Census of the population, the number of households engaged in agricultural activities stood at 2.5 million. If South Africa wants to move away from food security to food access and food affordability, and thus confront stunting of 27% of its under five children, then it needs to undertake a comprehensive census that should unlock our knowledge base to removing food concentration-based scarcity reflected in commercial agriculture.

Its mirror is the 27% stunting. Scaling up, through support to the 2.5 million households, fifty-three per cent of whom say they are engaged in agriculture for food security, can deal a deadly blow to the devastating stunting. Perhaps like a Population Census, which is mandatory in terms of the Statistics Act, an Agricultural Census should be included in the current amendment discussion, to reflect true commitment to ultimately doing a deadly blow to malnutrition and ultimately prevent stunting of 27% of South Africa’s children under the age of five.

Such massive proportions of stunting are a serious security risk to the state as a well-functioning entity. The St. Gallen Symposium and my keynote address at the Black Agriculture Commodities Federation peeled off the cover of food security and pierced the reality of stunting and took us to the truth and the heart of the matter through statistics.

Dr Pali Lehohla is director of the Economic Modelling Academy, a Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, a Research Associate at Oxford University, a board member of the Institute for Economic Justice at Wits, and a distinguished alumni of the University of Ghana. He is the former Statistician- General of South Africa.