The fourth national census in South Africa’s democratic history began on February 2, 2022. For the first time, and partly as response to complications related to the Covid-19 pandemicthe 2022 census contains a large-scale online component, with South African residents having the option to register online and complete the census questionnaire remotely without the presence of a field worker.
The census provides a comprehensive count of all people living within South Africa’s borders, regardless of age, place of residence and nationality. The questionnaire also collects key information on income levels, living conditions, age profiles and people’s access to essential basic services such as water, electricity and functioning sewage systems. . The information gathered during this process plays a crucial role in planning at the national, provincial and municipal levels, providing decision makers with the information needed to formulate sound policies and implement service delivery, build and maintain critical infrastructure. such as hospitals and schools, and determine budget allocations for different spheres of government.
South Africa has one of the best statistical capacity and data collection infrastructure of any developing country. The cornerstone is Statistics South Africa (SA Statistics). Although the national statistics office predates democratization, the origin and mandate of the contemporary institution derives from the Statistics Act (Act 6 of 1999). This legislation mandates the organization to collect, produce and disseminate official statistics, including periodic national population censuses. The act also established a Statistics Council representing a variety of interests in the statistical community.
Beyond this, Stats SA also collects data and produces vital publications such as quarterly employment statistics, quarterly financial statistics, industry breakdowns and mid-year population estimates. These publications provide valuable information for entities such as ministries, international organizations, researchers, universities and the private sector. The graph visualizes the mid-year population estimates for each year from 1994 to 2021.
A story of stagnation
However, the quality of South Africa’s data infrastructure and statistical capacity is truly the exception and not the norm on the African continent. This is partly a consequence of the relationship between better governance, economic development and improved statistical capacities. Countries like Egypt, South Africa and Mauritius, which are better resourced and have achieved higher levels of economic development than many of their counterparts, have superior data infrastructure and statistical capacity.
African countries with weaker state capacity and fewer resources, such as Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have lower data infrastructure and statistical capacity. States such as Somalia will have limited ability to improve their statistical capacity as long as they continue to be plagued by fragilitywhich makes ground-level data collection itself difficult, due to the risk posed to the life and well-being of the data collectors themselves.
And yet, while not all African countries have such problems, statistical capacity across the continent has stagnated over the past decade. The figure below shows the performance of Sub-Saharan African countries for the period between 2010 and 2020, according to World Bank Statistical Capacity Indicator.
As the graph visualization shows, the region’s statistical capacity has seen little improvement over this period, consistently ranking worse than other countries classified as “developing”, according to the International Development Association (IDA). African countries, on average, need to improve from a lower baseline capacity compared to other developing regions such as Southeast Asia and South America. Thus, their stagnation is a primary concern in a world where data plays an increasingly important role in issues of trade, conflict, development, education, governance and health.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for critical data infrastructures and improved statistical capabilities. Access to reliable data has been essential in help countries monitor infection, hospitalization and death rates, determine the virulence of variants through statistical sampling and modelling, and use location-based data to distribute essential medical equipment such as as treatments, vaccines and ventilators in areas that need them.
However, our ability to understand all the consequences of the virus in African countries is incomplete due to this stagnant capacity. The lack of reliable death registration systems is one of the clearest ways in which this dearth of information has affected our understanding of the consequences of the pandemic, as there is little information on critical indicators such as ‘excess deaths’. To help improve the statistical capacity to collect and analyze these vital statistics across the continent, statistical communities that have these resources and skills should play a more active role.
South Africa’s role in capacity building
The South African statistical community has shown leadership in this regard, primarily through the ISIbalo Capacity Building Program. SA Statistics launched the program in 2009 coincide with South Africa’s hosting of the 57and session of the Congress of the International Statistical Institute (ISI). ISIbalo had five main initiatives:
- the development of Africa’s research and statistical capacities;
- the establishment of a research program for young statisticians in Africa;
- encouraging the participation of young girls in the teaching of mathematics and statistics;
- the formulation of an international program of statistical education;
- and an initiative on African Women in Statistics designed to foster the participation of professional women within the formal statistical community in Africa.
For much of the 2010s, Stats SA, through ISIbalo, played a leading role in improving critical data infrastructure and statistical capacity on the continent, being the main funder of events such as the Conference of Young African Statisticians. However, by 2018, the initiative was facing significant spending cuts due to austerity measures imposed on Stats SA, which forced the institution to divert spending from its capacity building initiatives on the continent to other priorities. As a result, ISIbalo’s initiatives have had look elsewhere for continued funding, a particularly difficult task in the aftermath of the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on public and private finances.
Not only has statistical capacity in many African countries continued to stagnate over the past decade, but one of the few well-resourced statistical communities now plays a lesser role in capacity building in the rest of the continent. To improve these trends, it is essential that the South African government adequately funds vital institutions such as Stats SA, enabling them to revive and expand their efforts to build data infrastructure and statistical capacity in the rest of Africa.
At the grassroots level, this funding must be sufficient to build the capacity of the ISIbalo program and the five main initiatives it describes. And while these initiatives will go a long way to improving statistical knowledge on the continent, areas of statistical innovation also require greater investment. This is particularly important when dealing with geospatial data, which plays a an increasingly important role in policy-making in both developed and developing countries.
Such collaborative approaches will not only improve statistical capacity and innovation on the continent, as well as South Africa’s reputation with other African countries, but will also help achieve South Africa’s aspirations facilitate Africa’s development and increase regional cooperation.
A signal of intent that the South African government can use to confirm its serious commitment to improving statistical capacity on the continent is to complete the ratification process required to sign the African Charter on Statistics. Despite continued advocacy by Stats SA, this process has moved too slowly since the charter was received initial cabinet approval in September 2015.
The path to follow
South Africa’s ability to administer its census amid the pandemic further bolsters the reputation of its statistical community as being at the forefront of the developing world. However, to help reverse continental trends of stagnating capacity, South Africa needs to play a greater role in building statistical capacity across the continent. This can be done by reviving and properly funding initiatives such as the ISIbalo capacity building program, and also by providing greater investments to help the continent keep up with data innovations in areas such as geospatial data. . The first way the South African government can send a strong signal of intent to help improve the state of statistical capacity on the continent is to streamline the ratification process for the inclusion of South Africa. South in the African Charter on Statistics.