The last time South Africa held a census, government officials had to count the sprawling black township of Soweto from the air.
That was back in 1991, when hundreds of blacks died each week in fighting between the apartheid government and the black liberation movements. In places like Soweto, civic spirit became somewhat depleted, and government workers asking personal questions were as welcome as a toenail in a cream cake.
So government aircraft were sent to take photos, which the statisticians studied for clues to the population density below. It was like looking for life on other planets.
Five years later, much has changed. Earlier this month Nelson Mandela's government launched South Africa's "first democratic census," billing it as yet another rite of passage for the "new" South Africa.
About 80,000 census takers have been given yellow bibs and questionnaires and given until Oct. 31 to go forth and multiply, or at least count. Upbeat press releases from the Central Statistics Service carry the official slogan of "Count us in!" and report solid cooperation from all sections of the public. Another 18 months of computerized number crunching, they say, and the government will know what kind of people live where, why, and how - all the raw data it needs to plan the transformation of South Africa's racially skewed society.
The trouble is that compulsory censuses have been widely mistrusted ever since faceless Roman bureaucrats forced the Virgin Mary to give birth in a stable. Bearing this in mind, and given South Africa's recent history, it is not surprising that a lot of people here still think it is unwise to either stand up or be counted.
Take, for example, one small house on the edge of Johannesburg's privileged "white" northern suburbs. The head of the household is a white woman who has yet to return her census questionnaire, mainly because South Africa's apocalyptic crime rate prevents her opening her door to strangers.
Renting part of the house from her are two black men, educated young professionals. One, an illegal immigrant from Zimbabwe, has begged his landlady not to mention him on her form for fear that the information could be used to deport him. The other, a long-time ANC supporter, has a high-flying job with the government yet does not trust it to keep his secrets.
The country's privileged whites, for their part, are used to censuses but have yet to adjust to being counted with the common herd. At one recent dinner party the guests - all white - guffawed over the census form. Look at question 2.1, which asks whether you cook with animal dung as fuel! Or question 2.3, which asks whether your toilet is a bucket! And fancy counting live-in black servants as separate households, and giving them their own census forms to fill!
The detailed questions on household income cause giggles across the racial divide. Johannesburg is still very much a gold rush town, and most people here think it ludicrous that the government expects them to honestly write down how much money they earn.
In some rural areas the census is being blocked by threats of violence from tribal chiefs demanding the right to hand out the $70 per week enumerator jobs. In Soweto, a male census taker was arrested for raping an interviewee, and a female colleague has herself been assaulted. Near Johannesburg white suburbanites shot dead a burglar disguised as an enumerator. And a jealous husband chased off a census taker whom he considered too good looking.
Yet for such a chaotic society the census is going remarkably smoothly. Last year the government repeatedly had to reschedule the registration deadline for local elections because many black people were still reluctant to tell the authorities where they lived. This year the mistrust seems to have abated - thanks, in part, to the $220 fine or six months in prison for anybody who refuses to be counted.