Pali Lehohla's yellow suit will not be seen in the corridors of the Stats SA headquarters anymore. Picture: DAYLIN PAUL
Pali Lehohla's yellow suit will not be seen in the corridors of the Stats SA headquarters anymore. Picture: DAYLIN PAUL

Statistics South Africa head Pali Lehohla is stepping down and will leave the organisation at the end of October.

Lehohla is the longest-serving statistician-general in the country's history since the demise of apartheid and he departs after 34 years with the organisation, of which 17 years were at the helm.

Recently there have been concerns about his tenure, with speculation that he had been unable to secure an extension on his contract and was operating without one.

On Friday, after breaking the news of his departure to staff in an e-mail, he said: "My contract is coming to an end. I'm not resigning, time is up."

A recruitment process has begun.

Credibility of data

His latest contract was for 22 months ending in October this year after his previous five-year contract expired in 2015.

Lehohla was the director of statistics in the former homeland Bophuthatswana during the apartheid era.

In the e-mail to staff, he said: "The search for a new SG begins this Sunday and in time I should be able to brief the organisation."

Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe said Lehohla's departure was not linked to concerns about the "credibility of the data obtained from Stats SA" .

Lehohla did not confirm whether or not he was headed for another position in government. "Well, we are discussing. I'm sure I still have a lot of poison in my head."

My contract is coming to an end. I'm not resigning
Pali Lehohla, Statistics South Africa head

He would spend time in Lesotho, he said.

His departure comes at a time when the organisation is battling with critical staff shortages and needs to fill at least 230 posts. Its budget was cut by 13% in May by the Treasury, which has embarked on belt-tightening measures.

It was necessary to ensure the administrative and professional autonomy of Statistics SA, Lehohla said.

"We do have authority as Stats SA but I doubt it is adequate ... there's a maturing process on accountability and statistics is coming of age and in that way it cannot play the same role it played like when it reported to Home Affairs. The institution has gone through a lot of changes. It reported to home affairs in the '70s and '80s and was in the thick of politics," he said.

Legislative reform

However, he said, legislative reform was under way to amend the Statistics Act.

"You can see accountability of evidence coming under fire in Argentina and elsewhere because they get close to politics," Lehohla said.

"They need to be given, in addition to their professional autonomy, the administrative autonomy and stature that makes them have the ability to provide those things that citizens and the state in its broadest form [require, which is] accountability."

Under Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's presidency, Argentina started doctoring its inflation figures in 2007, costing the country's inflation-linked bondholders billions of dollars.

Asked if Statistics SA was in danger of losing its independence, Lehohla said: "Until it gets administrative authority it will be in danger anyway.

"Countries that are improving their statistics systems are moving in [the] direction of professional and administrative autonomy."

Lehohla's tenure has been chequered, with achievements and embarrassments such as the 2003 blunder, when Statistics SA misreported inflation for 14 months.

Nicky Weimar, senior economist at Nedbank Group Economic Unit, said: "He's done relatively well. It does appear in all fairness as if they've learnt from those mistakes."

Lesiba Mothata, chief economist at Investment Solutions, said under Lehohla's leadership the organisation had increasingly become a consultant to countries on the continent and internationally in calculating economic growth and other variables.

Lehohla's biggest milestone was transferring the calculation of the expenditure side of GDP from the Reserve Bank to Statistics SA last year.

"It created questions of uniformity because at some point the SARB was spitting out different numbers to Stats SA and there was this difference and when that happens you don't get a full sense of the economy and where it's going," Mothata said.

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