Dismantling racist mathematics

Words: Ray Mwareya and Nyasha Bhobo

In 1982, Pali Lehohla left Lesotho, his country of birth, to escape murderous politics, and went into exile in the British-colonial enclave of Boputswanaland. Never in his wildest dreams did he predict that seventeen years later, Nelson Mandela would task him with dismantling the racist Apartheid data-collection system and building South Africa’s new non-racial statistics collection agency. 

“South Africa was merely a transit country,” Dr. Lehohla says in an interview. Nonetheless, Lehohla became the first Black Statistician-General in South Africa when 100 years of racist apartheid rule was halted in 1994. “Apartheid harmed the potential for producing Black statisticians. The harm was where it counts most – denying Black people a chance at mathematics. My task was to rebuild.” 

Growing up, it dawned upon Lehohla that blocking black South Africans from accessing mathematical sciences was a tactic that helped to maintain the colonial apartheid repression structure. As Hendrik Verwoerd, the apartheid minister of education and later prime minister of South Africa said in 1953: “What is the use of teaching a Bantu (Black) child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?” That practice would have helped Black people to empirically critique the inequalities of the apartheid system – and therefore could not be allowed.

As a young Black mathematician, Lehohla’s prospects bloomed in the early 1990s, when bitter unrest in Black townships and sustained international sanctions cajoled the white apartheid establishment to start negotiating with the imprisoned Nelson Mandela.  

“[From] 1991 to 1995 [as a civil servant] in the colonial homeland statistics office, I had two professors supporting me on envisioning the future of statistics in the [coming] new South Africa. These were one Professor Akiiki John Kahimbaara [who was Black], and one Professor Herman Geyer [who was white],” he recalls. So when, following independence, Nelson Mandela appointed Dr Lehohla the country’s inaugural Black Statistician General, it marked a historic moment not only for Lehohla, but for the country and the world. But challenges lurked ahead.

Immediately, statisticians in the new South Africa were tasked with tracking and recording data about three terrible realities: widespread Black unemployment, violent crime, and world-topping HIV and AIDS infections. His premier position in recording these numbers was therefore both a source of optimism and deep depression.

“Recording HIV [infections data] was controversial, not so much from the statistics office, but rather from what medical doctors [under-]reported as the cause of death,” says Lehohla. “Unemployment numbers also remained uncomfortable.” Spiralling violent crime statistics were difficult to note, since there were vast differences between what was reported and what actually took place. “80 murders per day over the last four years – South Africa experiences an unreasonable levels of murder. However, households report higher numbers for certain categories of crime like theft and rape,” he says.  

Around the world, suspicion arose that the Black government was underplaying statistics about disease or murder to maintain a positive image of the new country. Lehohla sharply denies this. “No politician has ventured changing the numbers. South Africa’s data infrastructure is amongst the best in the world. Statistics is a serious matter in South Africa.”

But bottlenecks laid by the former racist colonial economy continued to affect – and still, today, affect – the statistical infrastructure. For example, the way apartheid mapped Black housing settlements still makes counting populations and households difficult. “[Black] mothers and fathers leave home early to go and work in far-off, wealthier white places as domestic helpers,” Lehohla says. “Which means that no-one is at home at the optimal times of undertaking an in-person statistics count. So pervasive was apartheid: it managed every facet of life. In its path has been just destruction.”

Now, twenty-six years into independence, the history of racist exclusion continues to plague South Africa’s educational system. In 2010, the Economist ran a report that claimed that despite South Africa spending a bigger share of its GDP on education than any other country in sub-Sahara Africa, the education system is a ‘national disaster’; last year, the same magazine additionally revealed that South Africa lags at bottom of tables in international numeracy and science scores. Not a single student was able to attain the accepted international standard for mathematics in forty-nine percent of high schools surveyed.

Dr Lehohla retired in 2017, and now undertakes statistical research at the University of Oxford. Despite the educational challenges facing his country, he remains optimistic about the difference maths can make to South Africa and to the rest of the world – if we give it the attention it deserves.

“[South Africa’s Black students] have to study those subjects because they are the future,” he insists. “The fourth industrial revolution will be driven by maths. Language will be driven by maths. Statecraft will be about measurement.” In this, Lehohla shows his continuing admiration for the subject that made him a pioneer – and for those who know how to use it for the global good.

Ray Mwareya is a freelance tech journalist whose work is published in Al Jazeera. Nyasha Bhobo, co-writer, is a freelance journalist whose work appears in the Africa Report.