Census 2011: Setting the record straight

This week, Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) kicked off the countdown to Census 2011, which will take place on October 9 and 10 next year, and unveiled the questionnaire that will be used to gather demographic information about those living in South Africa.

But news of the country’s third census since the end of apartheid was met with scepticism from online readers this week.

“This census always comes with incorrect information. I believe that even their estimation is far from the truth,” said one commenter on the Sowetan, while another asked: “What’s the use of this thing?” Others questioned whether census-takers could be relied on to capture information truthfully instead of making it up as they go along.

Questions were raised about the hefty price tag, which could reach almost R2-billion if Treasury approves the R700 000 in additional funds that Stats SA has requested for administering the national headcount.

Stats SA will also have to prove that it is up to the task of counting the country’s estimated 50-million citizens and untold numbers of migrants. The planned census of 2006 was delayed until next year because Stats SA did not have the capacity to complete the task.

In addition, the national census of 1996 had a 10% undercount of the population and in 2001 that figure went up to 17%, according to Stats SA. While there is always some margin of error in a census, the international standard for undercounting is 5%.

Read more about why undercounting happens and how the census works

Gathering accurate data
But Stats SA’s communications manager, Trevor Oosterwyk, said the success of the census depends largely on planning and that the organisation has been gearing up for the census for years.

He said that in preparation for the Community Survey of 2006, which covered 300 000 households, Stats SA trained a permanent group of people on leadership for census and employed a number of staff in project management and planning skills.

As for concerns that field workers — known as enumerators — would fake the census data, Oosterwyk said the fact that it is illegal to provide false information during a census is impressed on field workers during training. This law applies to everyone, whether they are the person being surveyed or the census-taker, and is punishable by six months in jail or a R10 000 fine

He said it would be difficult for field workers to make up answers because each team of five field workers is overseen by a supervisor, and the census form itself has its own checks and balances.

“Answers that make no sense will get eliminated during the processing. We also have a whole team of quality assurers trained in methodology and quality, and they make sure that the answers are integrated completely,” he said.

Why we need a census
Despite concerns from the general public, demographers agree that an accurate census is indispensable for any country.

The census offers a complete count of people in the country on a specified date. Tom Moultrie, associate professor of demography at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Actuarial Research, said this is important for administrative reasons, such as the equitable share formula used to allocate funds from central to provincial government. “Without a census we would not have a clear understanding of the provincial distribution of the South African population,” he said.

While researchers do extrapolate from census data as the years pass, this cannot be done indefinitely.

“Since 2001, fertility rates have fallen — probably by a quarter — and mortality rates have risen as a result of HIV/Aids. While extrapolatory techniques allow us to estimate and project the population and its demographic dynamics [between censuses], the only way to know that these estimates and projections are reasonable is to conduct a census,” said Moultrie.

The census also enables the government to cross-check administrative systems that register events such as births and deaths, and provides the basis for other important surveys that inform decision-making at government level, such as the labour force survey, demographic and health survey, and the general household survey.

Moultrie pointed out that South Africa is following international best practice by running a census at least once every 10 years and reiterated that it is an immensely complex undertaking.

“The scope of the exercise can be placed in context by noting that in the US, the decennial census is the single largest, most expensive and most logistically complex peacetime undertaking of the federal government,” he said.

However, according to Moultrie, it would be possible to improve the quality of our census data by shortening the length of the questionnaire, from the current 16 pages, to the bare minimum required to reconstruct the demographics of the country. This would allow statisticians to draw accurate samples for other, more detailed, inquiries.

He pointed out that in the US only one in 10 households is selected for an in-depth questionnaire; the remaining 90% complete a short-form questionnaire.

“A further benefit would be that the questionnaire would take much less time to administer, thereby improving participation, helping with logistics, be cheaper to run and process, and result in a faster production of statistics,” he said.

International standards
The United Nations strongly recommends that every country holds regular censuses every 10 years. Speaking on World Population Day earlier this year, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said access to good data is a component of good governance, transparency and accountability.

“Population data helps leaders and policy-makers to make informed decisions about policies and programmes to reduce poverty and hunger, and advance education, health and gender equality. Solid data is also needed to effectively respond to humanitarian crises,” he said.

According to the UN’s Statistics Division, 54 countries have planned a census for 2011. Only 10 countries have not yet scheduled a census for the period 2005 to2014; these include a number of politically unstable countries such as Somalia and Burma.

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