Johan Fourie's blog

I'd rather be a comma than a fullstop

Archive for July 2013

How a love affair changed South African history

with 10 comments

Those endowed with the gift of storytelling, I realised again yesterday, have the power, much like a magician, to cast a spell on their audience. Abraham Lincoln conveyed many of his most important messages through stories; Walt Whitman, American poet and essayist, thought Lincoln’s stories were “a weapon which he employ’d with great skill.” Madiba also used storytelling to powerful effect. And yesterday those lucky few that happened to pass the tea room were enthralled by the spells cast by prof Sampie Terreblanche who, at 80, has a lifetime of stories to share.

Inevitably, the topic started with William and Kate’s newborn baby king. (I personally hoped for a Simba-moment, showing the baby to the world from Buckingham Palace’s balcony, but they decided for a more intimate event.) But the conversation diverged, and prof Terreblanche told of the almost incredulous events that lead to the National Party victory in 1948. I have not checked all the facts (I’m not sure they can be checked), but the story is simply too fabulous to be fabricated. Here goes:

The Greek Princess that inadvertently caused apartheid?

The Greek Princess that inadvertently caused apartheid? Frederica Louisa Thyra Victoria Margareta Sophie Olga Cécilie Isabelle Christa of Hanover (just call me Frederica), Queen consort of the Hellenes. Source:

Prince Paul, the Crown Prince of Greece, and Frederica of Hanover, his wife whom he married in January 1938, had to flee Greece during the Second World War. They first settled on the island of Crete, but when German forces invaded the island too, they moved to London and from there to South Africa. Here they met Jan Smuts, world-renowned statesman and leader of the ruling United Party. Smuts and Frederica became good friends – prof Sampie claims that this relationship was more than platonic – to the extent that Smuts was named the godfather of Princess Irene, born on 11 May 1942 in Cape Town. (Princess Irene, now Princess of Greece and Denmark, still lives in Madrid.) When the War ended, the Greek Royals returned to Greece, but Smuts kept in contact and hoped to visit them soon.

1948 was election year. The elections were scheduled for October, but Jan Smuts was confident of a United Party victory and had plans to travel abroad during the second half of the year. He was nominated to become Chancellor of Cambridge and was required to attend the graduation ceremony during July (which is, incidentally, also the first year women were accepted to Cambridge). His plan was to attend the ceremony, then travel to Israel to visit the new Jewish state and then to Greece to visit Princess Frederica. He thus requested his cabinet to shift the election to the first part of the year –  26 May – so that all would be done in time for him to leave for Cambridge. The shift left his party with little time to discuss election policy, canvass votes and, more importantly, to shift the electoral boundaries (as happens frequently in democracies) in favour of the ruling party. The Reunited National Party (Herenigde Nasionale Party) had a clear message: apartheid between black and white. The United Party’s policy on the ‘Native-problem’ was, at best, muddled.

The rushed election meant that the Reunited National Party won by 6 seats, even though they only gained 37.7% of the total votes compared to the 49% of the United Party. Had the election been in October, there would have been ample time to plan a better election strategy and redraw the electoral boundaries. Quite possibly there would have been no National Party victory.

Chaos theory’s butterfly effect suggests that a small change in the initial condition can have massive repercussions later. If Jan Smuts had not wanted to visit Princess Frederica in Greece, what would a history of South Africa look like today?


Written by Johan Fourie

July 24, 2013 at 07:50

Africa 2050

with 5 comments

I had the opportunity recently to talk to a group of local and international students about Africa’s past and current development trends; an economic history peep show of everything from the neolithic revolution and Jared Diamond, through slavery, colonialism, independence, and dictatorship, to the rapid growth of the last decade. As a final assignment, I asked the following question: This is the year 2050. Write a history of African development, 2010-2050.

Perhaps because we are an optimistic species (and because our generation believe that the future is malleable, that we have agency to affect change), the general impression I get from reading the students’ responses is that our children will live in a better Africa than the Africa of our parents and the Africa of us. This, I want to emphasise, is a remarkably different world than the one inhabited by our great great grandparents, who could wish for little more than that most of their offspring live to childbearing years. In good times, this happened. But when famine or war or disease struck, the best one could hope for was survival. This is certainly not the future of Africa that my students envisage, however. According to the sample of experts in my class, the Africa of 2050 will be an improved, more prosperous place to live.

Several themes appeared repeatedly: a more stable political environment, investments in power generation, better transport and telecommunications infrastructure and greater skill levels. US-student Matthew DeAngelis writes:

After access to electricity became essentially universal, high-speed Internet access was quick to follow. While much of Africa is still using slower broadband connections rather than the faster fibre optic technology which is the standard in most of the world, this access to information has quickly and cheaply revolutionized almost every aspect of African life. First, the Internet has changed education in Africa. Historically, rural Africa has faced a problem with its schools not being able to afford basic libraries or educational materials. As computers and Internet access became incredibly cheap in the 2020s, these schools now had access to knowledge which was simply unimaginable previously. This access to information allowed hundreds of millions of Africans to get the basic education necessary to pursue careers in skilled and semi-skilled industries, and was one of the most important factors in lifting rural Africa out of poverty.

Second, as more jobs were created in online companies, a lot of employment became decentralized, and many Africans began working online from home. This meant that people no longer had to move to the cities to find decent employment. With basic skills and a decent Internet connection, one could make a living practically anywhere in the world. This opportunity for employment meant that many rural families now had the education and the money to begin sending their children to receive tertiary educations. While the vast majority of students attending university are still urban and upper class or middle class, many more poor and rural students are receiving degrees from technical colleges. The employment prospects for individuals with these degrees have been very good since Africa’s technological revolution, as semi-skilled and skilled labour is necessary to maintain and upgrade the existing infrastructure.

While some of highlighted the rise of industries, Ama Serwaa Kusi of Ghana believes Africa’s success will be due to investments in agriculture:

The continent at this stage even though still remains agriculturally-oriented, has implemented the necessary technology to better assist production. Agriculture-tech schools have been established in many of the countries, where young men and women are taught how to operate on large scale of lands with complex and simple technology, which is effective. A larger percentage of other agricultural workers are those who have studied abroad in Scandinavian countries and have come back to successfully implement the ideas they have studied overseas. Due to this, brain drain has rapidly dropped in many of these African countries and has successfully contributed to production.

South Africa’s Nandipha Piliso believes Africa will also finally realise its comparative advantage in tourism:

Africa, has over the past forty years established itself as a major tourist destination, this has also influenced the continent’s economic growth. The tourism industry has led not only to economic growth but also a commitment to the establishment of infrastructure. Greater investment into infrastructure ensured that the continent was and still is capable of hosting tourists from across the world. After the 2010 Soccer World Cup that was hosted in South Africa, tourism increased not only in South Africa but on the continent as a whole. Many African leaders realised that hosting international sporting events was the best way to further increase tourism on the continent. In light of this, African leaders united and decided to help the city of Durban in South Africa bid for the 2024 Olympic Games. The games were hosted successfully; once again the continent experienced a boom in tourism. Other African countries were encouraged to bid, although Africa has not hosted another Olympic Games, countries such as Morocco and Kenya are hopeful that they will be hosting the upcoming Olympic Games on the continent.

Through private-public partnerships, says US-student Jorgia Hanlin, these economic gains will also translate into better living standards:

By 2030, many African nations could realistically say their populace had access to the most basic needs aforementioned. As stressed, no one approach was adopted by all; each country went about achieving this basic development depending on the structures already in place. For many countries, this required finding a balance between the private sector development and government intervention. For development to become a possibility, the government first had to reach out to these areas before the private sector could enter the market. The government first established health care, supplemented nutrition, and education systems that would help bring rural children into the world of health, literacy, and modern technology. To accomplish all of this, the government enlisted the help of the private sector to physically make these things possible. The government paid firms to construct buildings, provide food, create schools, build infrastructure, and also train and employ the people necessary for the upkeep of these facilities, which included teachers, custodians, cooks, doctors, nurses, and technicians. This allowed development to occur toward a specific goal—higher standards of living for everyone—while still allowing the market to operate efficiently and stimulate economic activity.

Luisa Wu of Taiwan argues that this progress in living standards was helped by innovation in health care:

In 2050, it is very possible that a treatment for wiping out HIV in the human body would have been found. Recent research have found that patients who accept stem-cell transplants unexpectedly get rid of the HIV virus in their bodies. Although stem-cell transplant will not directly become a treatment because of its extremely expensive cost, scientists will learn from these stem cell transplant cases and find a treatment.


And, finally, US-student Kristin Buhrow notes South Africa’s role in the future history of Africa:

Initiative in research and government policy has positioned South Africa as not only the “Gateway to Africa” but Africa’s gateway to the world through its progressive vision of continual development.  With careful action and a continued focus upon education, trade, and infrastructure, the growth exhibited in the past forty years will not stop for many years to come, and the goal of African development, equality, health, and economic growth will be reached by way of continual, gradual advancement in many fields.

Are these pipe-dreams or the blueprint of our future?

PS: I help coordinate a Doing Business in Southern Africa five-week course at Stellenbosch University every July. The course brings together academics from various fields and includes several field trips to companies and incubators. Visit our International Office Summer School page for more information.

Written by Johan Fourie

July 18, 2013 at 07:37

The seven pillars of highly effective freedom fighters

leave a comment »

Julius Malema, expelled ANC Youth League leader, released a ‘Central Command’ press statement today explaining his seven non-negotiable pillars for economic freedom in South Africa. These pillars will form the foundation of his new political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (a ‘radical, Left, and anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist Movement with an internationalist outlook anchored by popular grassroots formations and struggles’), and are:

  1. Expropriation of South Africa’s land without compensation for equal redistribution.
  2. Nationalisation of Mines, banks, and other strategic sectors of the economy, without compensation.
  3. Building State and government capacity, which will lead to abolishment of Tenders.
  4. Free quality education, healthcare, houses, and sanitation.
  5. Massive protected industrial development to create millions of sustainable jobs including Introduction of minimum wages in order to close the wage gap between the rich and the poor.
  6. Massive development of the African economy and advocating for a move from reconciliation to justice in the entire continent.
  7. Open, accountable, corrupt-free government and society without fear of victimisation by State agencies.

It is, or should be, evident to any reasonable individual that these policies are mutually exclusive. For example, if agriculture (land), mines, banks, and other strategic sectors are nationalised, they don’t pay tax. (They also don’t earn any income for the government, because their main objective is to employ, not to engage in the evil capitalist activity of earning profit.) If they don’t pay tax, the government cannot afford the free quality education, healthcare, houses and sanitation they hope to build. This is not economics, it is accounting.

Or, to use another example, introducing higher minimum wages will cause higher unemployment. This is not neo-liberal economic ideology. It is a basic supply and demand graph.

Or, as a final example, if State agencies can expropriate anything from anyone at any time, won’t society live in fear of ‘victimisation of State agencies’? Hello Stalin.

Yet I suspect that the ‘seven pillars’ is not a policy document. It is popular rhetoric to appeal to a group of people that the ANC has failed to empower: young, unemployed, black South Africans. And appeal it will. This is good; democracy is about voting for those politicians whose policies you believe will benefit you most, even if it is ‘Instant Nirvana’-type policies as Max du Preez called it on Twitter. A clear political option on the left will make South African politics easier to understand, as it moves voting from Luthuli House to the national ballot box. But it will also put pressure on politicians (and, frankly, all educated South Africans who are eager to improve this country) to explain clearly to those caught in the hype of ‘revolution’ why Malema’s dreams and aspirations will yield little more than pain and deeper poverty. Or let them see it for themselves: buy them a ticket to Latvia, or Cuba, or North Korea. In each of those cases, the State adhered to Malema’s seven pillars, with disastrous consequences. The poor of these countries did not escape poverty; the best they could hope for was to escape their miserable circumstances by fleeing to affluent, capitalist societies.

Julius Malema’s policies may score an EFF in logic, but they appeal to a large constituency frustrated by the failed promises of politicians past. Yet we need to spread the message that the only way to achieve our economic freedom is to give our economic fighters the tool to engage with our globalised world: quality education for all. This is an ideal which we should hope to live for, and to see realised. But, my friends, if needs be, it is an ideal for which we should be prepared to die. That is the revolution. Viva Economic Freedom Fighters, Viva!

Written by Johan Fourie

July 11, 2013 at 18:16

Empire and emigration

with one comment

The 1820 British settlers arrive in Algoa Bay, Port Elizabeth. Image courtesy of:

The 1820 British settlers arrive in Algoa Bay, Port Elizabeth. Image courtesy of:

22 million Brits left Britain between 1814 and 1913. Two-thirds of them went to America, the other spread out over the world: from Canada and the Caribbean, to India, Africa, and Australasia. About a third returned to Britain, only to leave again to some other corner of the globe. It was a time of empire building, of Britain conquering the globe.

Yet – so writes John Darwin in an excellent new book, Unfinished Empire – it was an empire built without a blueprint. The experiences of empire building were as varied as the diversity of the regions it engulfed, both for the colonizers and for the colonized. Rather than dividing chapters by region, the narrative follows more general themes: making contact, taking possession, settling in, warfare, traffic and trade, ruling, rebellion, and converts and culture. This global history makes for compelling reading: it points out the similarities but also the idiosyncrasies of the colonial experiences: the economic, political and ideological reasons why settlers could easily ‘grab’ Australia, to a lesser extent New Zealand, and to a much lesser extent South Africa.

South Africa was different. There exclusion (by wipe out) was practised against the San hunter-gatherers. But against the Xhosa, the Zulus and other pastoralist peoples (who also grew foodgrains), these tactics were useless. They were too numerous, too rooted, and in white eyes too useful, to be driven away. In a country too poor (before the finding of gold) to attract mass immigration from Europe (the British were always fewer in number than the local-born ‘Dutch’), black land and black labour were equally valuable. So the mode of exclusion was varied.

Darwin describes the trials and tribulations of the new settlers: how they struggled to survive in New Plymouth, New Zealand, or how they profited from land speculation in Canada. What surprised me the most, however, was the sheer scale of the emigration: 22 million people during the century when Britain is experiencing the greatest Revolution the world has ever seen, the Industrial Revolution. Darwin argues that it was exactly the economic pressures caused by the Industrial Revolution that fuelled the urge to migrate:

The gradual industrialization of many skilled trades through the rest of the century pushed men and women out of work or threatened a sharp decline in their wages (and thus of their status). As Britain imported more and more of its food, and especially its grain, many rural districts, not just in Scotland and Ireland, began to seem ‘marginal’. … It became the conventional view among English economists that the problem of Irish poverty could be solved only by large-scale migration – though preferably not to England. With the free sale of land and the consolidation of landholding, agriculture in Ireland might at last become profitable (p. 95).

But there was another ideology that fuelled emigration, not elitist but popular. While most people with influence had come to accept the idea that Britain was first and foremost a commercial and industrial state – the premise behind adopting free trade in corn – in the rest of society in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, a quite different set of beliefs survived. Notions of a ‘just’ wage, and of the respect owed to skilled work fuelled bitter resentment against ‘industrial’ employment and ‘factory discipline’. More rooted still was the idealization of property, of the right to cultivate a plot of land if not as a main income then as an insurance against old age and misfortune. The demand for ‘allotments’ – small plots of land to which urban workers could retreat – was a cry of the Chartists, the great working-class protest movement of the 1830s and 1840s. Even those who migrated abroad from Britain’s towns and cities were only a generation away from life in a village community, sometimes with rights to common or woodland. If migrants were pushed out by economic hardship or worse, they were also pulled out by the lure of free or cheap land, the huge social magnet that was dangled before them by rival destinations in America and Australasia. When settlers in New Zealand explained what they had gained from the change, it was the security of owning even a small plot of land that they most often referred to (p. 96).


It’s difficult to miss the striking similarities of the above sentiments with the demands of modern South Africa: the call for a ‘just’ wage for workers, the pressure for ‘land’ redistribution, the reproach of ‘industrial’ capitalism. But, different to nineteenth-century Britain, emigration for the poor South African is not an option. The best the poor can do in South Africa is to migrate to cities where they have a greater likelihood of finding a job and access to better (although not great) education, health and infrastructure services. (Remember, in South Africa the ‘poor’ are those living in rural areas, in female-headed households, with poor access to services (including education), and often affected by HIV/Aids.) But urbanization can create other economic and social challenges: crime, for example, or a greater (infectious) disease burden.

In industrializing Britain the poorest also moved to cities. But they had an alternative: to move abroad, find a job in the labour-scarce New World and, hopefully, acquire land of their own to cultivate and build a future. When, in 1819, the British government advertised for settlers to come to South Africa, 80 000 poor applied. Only 5000 1820 settlers were sponsored. Emigration provided an outlet for the economic and social pressures of the nineteenth-century English city.

Yet the inter-country movement of labour is today more restricted than it has ever been in history. Countries are most likely to accept high-skilled immigrants, but even then the process is expensive and cumbersome. For unskilled labour, there is virtually no hope of emigration except, for an (un)lucky few, as refugees. Opposition against further migration is gaining popularity; fences are being reinforced. Global apartheid is on the increase.

22 million poor could escape the poverty of industrializing Britain in the nineteenth century through emigration. Would England have continued along the path of industrial transformation if the pressure cooker poor could not be released through emigration?

Written by Johan Fourie

July 2, 2013 at 18:28