The census consensus

South Africa’s population has been counted twice since the first democratic elections, and Statistics South Africa has announced that next year a new, more accurate count will take place.

The idea of a population census is something that few people question. I mean, it makes sense to know how many people there are in a country, so the government can work out how many people need feeding, housing, policing and, rather annoyingly for most, taxing.

But the idea of what constitutes an accurate head count certainly has shifted over the centuries, and, in some cases, barely seems to have mattered at all.

Not that we should be throwing stones from our precarious glass house — even with modern technology at our disposal, we can’t seem to hold a census that doesn’t result in a wide margin of error. In 1996 the margin was 10%, and in 2001 it shot up to 17%. Maybe there really is something to be said for taking lessons from history.

The Palermo Stone
The Palermo Stone is a fragment of wall from an Ancient Egyptian monument, dating from the third millennium BC, inscribed with hieroglyphs showing that stock-taking of the kingdom’s assets and population were already being performed. It contains information about what was owned, and owed, and by whom. Other manuscripts and monuments confirm that Egypt has been counting and recounting its population for about 5 000 years. But, despite all that practice, it still hasn’t found a way to avoid the same inaccuracies that seem to plague any count performed in any country.

Chinese checkers
The oldest existing official census data comes from China and dates from the Han Dynasty. It records the population of China as being about 57-million people in 2AD. It is generally considered by academics to be a comprehensive and fairly accurate count, as it includes information about households, suggesting that extensive fieldwork was undertaken. And if there was one thing this dynasty was good at, it was counting — huge leaps were made in mathematical knowledge at this time, including such innovations as negative numbers, which were regularly being used by clever mathematicians in China long before they caught on anywhere else.

Friends, Romans, and 7 187 245 countrymen
The Romans invented the word, so you’d think they get to do it first, but, alas, it seems history was not on their side. The Roman Empire, in all its incarnations, was a messy beast, with bits and pieces all over Europe and beyond. The Romans, however, were notorious for their obsession with bureaucracy and record-taking, so they weren’t going to let irritating geographic difficulties get in their way, and counts were carried out every five years (when not interrupted by war) both in Rome and in the provinces. Like our own modern census, it relied on the honesty of the citizens (a term restricted to men of voting age). When the census was announced, citizens would have to report to the city centre and declare their families and assets, including property, cattle, household items and slaves. If you were wondering (which I’m sure you were), the words censor and census are related; the censor was the official in charge of the census. The word itself comes from the Latin censere, meaning to estimate. OK, I’ll stop now.

The Domesday Book
The 1086 census commissioned by William the Conqueror was nicknamed the Domesday (Doomsday) Book, because it was said that, like the Biblical Day of Judgment (Doomsday), no man, pig or cow could avoid being counted, and the information that went into the book was final and irreversible. The record was a way to let William know what everyone owned, how much he could expect in taxes, and, more importantly, how much tax could be raised. The head of every household had to declare assets to a jury, who wrote it all down (in Latin) and, on return to London, handed it over to the single scribe who, all by himself, compiled the whole, enormous tome. Despite its reputation and historical significance, it does not provide accurate population information. Major cities, like London itself, were considered too much of a bother to count, so there are important pieces missing from the puzzle. Not that this ultimately worried William, who died waiting for it to be completed.

Ask a stupid question …
One of the criticisms of modern population counts, besides margins of error that can never be satisfactorily explained to a demanding public, is that in trying to obtain information other than mere population figures, individuals are asked to answer questions that could seem intrusive or irrelevant, such as questions about income and ethnicity. The answers obtained from such questions are usually best taken with a pinch of salt. Unless you really want to believe that “Jedi” is the second-largest religion in New Zealand.

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