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Archive for October 2013

The most famous South Africans

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Who is the most famous South African? This seems quite obvious, right? No doubt if this question was asked in a local or international poll, the answer would be Nelson Mandela, crusader against apartheid and our first democratically-elected president. But who would be next? Desmond Tutu, surely, and maybe Mbeki… or Zuma? More interestingly, what would happen if you could go back in history and ask the same question – Name the most famous South African – annually to an English-speaking world.

Google’s Ngram Reader allows us to do exactly that: it measures the number of times per year a word or phrase has appeared in all English-language books printed globally. So I’ve searched for what I believe are the best candidates for ‘The Most Famous South African’-title. The figure below plots the results; the y-axis reflects the percentage of English-language books that includes the name.


The results provide much food for thought. As predicted, Nelson Mandela currently has the largest global reach. His name appeared in slightly more than 0.000065% of all English-language books published globally in 2012. He is far beyond our second most famous leader, Thabo Mbeki, who by 2012 was appearing less than a quarter as frequently as Madiba in books. Just behind Mbeki is Desmond Tutu. Again, the the popularity of this Nobel Peace Prize winner should not be surprising.

But some will certainly be surprised to see Cecil Rhodes in fourth spot. A mining magnate (Chairperson of De Beers when it was founded in 1888), businessman and politician at the end of the nineteenth century, Rhodes was the most famous South African from 1890 to 1983, when he was surpassed by Mandela. Even today, more than a century after his death, his name continues to appear in books with remarkable frequency. Why would that be? It does perhaps help that Rhodes was born in England and educated at Oxford, as most English books of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century would have been written by British authors. Yet Rhodes gave them ample opportunity to make him the subject of their books; not only did Rhodes leave an immense legacy, for good or bad, in South Africa, but so too in Zimbabwe (formerly known as Rhodesia), where he is buried. The Rhodes scholarships, awarded annually, continue this legacy. It is therefore a bit ironic that Rhodes was only included at number 56 on the Greatest South Africans television series which aired on SABC in 2004.

Jan Smuts, soldier during the Second South African War and international statesman, also continues to be frequently mentioned. I’ve written about Smuts’ legacy before, and it is interesting to see how Smuts’ familiarity has continued to rise, even after his death in 1950. Shaka Zulu surely also warrants inclusion, but because the word ‘Shaka’ has many different uses (including a sign used in Hawaiian surf culture!), its usage patterns are not comparable. Instead, I’ve included Zulu chief Dingane, who became King of the Zulus in 1828. Surprisingly, Dingane is found frequently in books, most ironically during the mid-twentieth century at the height of South Africa’s apartheid regime. In fact, Dingane was the second most-famous South African during apartheid (after Rhodes). Paul Kruger makes his appearance during the end of the nineteenth century, and then again during the rise of Afrikaner nationalism during the 1930s and 1940s. It is worth noting that both Dingane and Paul Kruger’s names appeared more frequently in books than Jacob Zuma’s in 2012. Finally, Hendrik Verwoerd, seen by many as the charismatic father of apartheid, performs relatively poorly, even during the height of his reign. (Other Afrikaner leaders, like Piet Retief, or even the Dutch commander Jan van Riebeeck, registers even fewer appearances.)

Other leaders (not included in the figure) like Steve Biko, Winnie Mandela and FW de Klerk can all claim some recognizability. De Klerk may be underrepresented, because his name can be spelt F.W. or FW. Steve Biko is the most interesting: by 1977, the year he died, he had the same recognizability as Nelson Mandela. How different history would have remembered him had he not died in prison? In contrast, when I try to include Julius Malema, Google just says: Not Found.

And then there are the non-political figures. I included Gary Player (golf), Miriam Makeba (music), Anton Rupert (business), Christiaan Barnard (medicine), Hansie Cronje (cricket), and Charlize Theron (Hollywood celebrity). Of those, Player is the most recognizable, but in 2012 still had fewer mentions than Jan Smuts.


Finally, there is of course one leader with strong South African connections that outperforms everyone else: Mahatma Gandhi. The above figure shows how his recognizability is far superior to any other South African leader. This is, of course, unsurprising, given that Gandhi led India, one of the most populous nations on earth, to independence and inspired civil rights movements across the globe. Should Gandhi be considered the most famous South African? There is no doubt that he profoundly influenced South African history; a new book, Gandhi before India, explains how. But it is perhaps more appropriate to divide his total recognizability by the share of his adult life spent in South Africa.

And how do our most famous leaders weigh up against the world’s most famous? Not great. The figure below compares Nelson Mandela to my very subjective choice of leaders in history. The results show that it helps to be an American president: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and even Bill Clinton sits at the top, followed by several of history’s most illustrious characters. Of course, Madiba is still ‘young’ in historical terms.


Based on Google’s Ngram Reader (and weighing the most recent period slightly more), my list of Top Ten Most Famous South Africans of All Time would be:

  1. Nelson Mandela
  2. Cecil Rhodes
  3. Desmond Tutu
  4. Mahatma Gandhi
  5. Thabo Mbeki
  6. Paul Kruger
  7. Dingane (shared with Shaka, if we could measure him accurately)
  8. Jan Smuts
  9. Steve Biko
  10. Winnie Mandela

This list is available here. Who would be on your list?


Written by Johan Fourie

October 28, 2013 at 05:46

Food for all?

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Recipe to disaster? Higher chicken prices will hurt the poorest. Photo:

Recipe for disaster? Higher chicken prices will hurt South Africa’s poorest. Photo:

On 30 September South Africa imposed higher tariffs on chicken imports. One important reason for the imposition of tariffs, according to Minister Rob Davies, was that South Africa needs to ensure its own food security. We cannot allow international food producers, the argument goes, to dictate the prices we pay for our food.

I’ve written about the higher chicken tariffs before, and the negative consequences it’s imposition would have for South Africa’s poorest consumers. Other economists agreed. (Economic consultancy Econex contributed this excellent summary. Full disclosure: it was written by my wife.) Nevertheless Mr Davies imposed the tariffs. The government has been so kind as to post a YouTube clip of the full press conference. Three questions: 1) Are we really employing 48 000 workers in the chicken industry? Really? 2) If chicken producers suffered injury because of foreign competition, we would expect to see it in a drop in earnings, right? So what happened to chicken producers’ share prices over the last two years? Any signs of serious injury? Here’s a clue, and 3) Can the journalists at the press conference look like they care any less?

So the predictable has happened. The sugar industry has asked for higher protection, claiming they can’t compete against cheap imports and that South Africa will suffer because of lower food security. And what prevents the dairy or wheat industries from filing their own applications in the near future?

The reason the government gets away with this is because, as I’ve said before, food security is misunderstood by the general public (as reflected in a recent debate on the topic on Afrikaans radio station RSG). Food security is not about producing your own food, but about consuming it at the lowest price. We do not need to produce all of South Africa’s food in South Africa. The richest countries in the world don’t do it, so why should we? Instead, what we should aim for is to provide South Africans with the cheapest food we can find. Perhaps some of it is grown locally, but most of it will come from countries that are really good at growing food, like Brazil (where they can harvest twice a year and where rainfall reduces the need to irrigate). Or it will come from countries that subsidise their farmers which, in other words, mean that their tax payers are willing to pay parts of their salary so that we in South Africa can buy cheap food. This is a pretty sweet deal, except that our government is hell-bent on restricting these benefits.

Here is some more evidence to support my claim that that food security is not about producing your own food. The International Food Policy Research Institute has published a new Global Hunger Index, which measures the degree to which people go hungry across the world. I’ve correlated this measure with the share of agriculture in GDP for each of these countries. In short: countries with a high Agriculture/GDP ratio should, if food security is about producers, result in low rates of hunger. Surely a country that produces a larger share of its GDP as food should be able feed its citizens to a greater degree in comparison to countries where agriculture is only a tiny share of GDP? Well, no. In fact, I find a correlation coefficient of 0.6 for 1990, meaning that countries with a higher Agric/GDP ratio also has a much higher likelihood of going hungry. This correlation increases to 0.65 for 2010. (Both sets of data are available online, here and here.) Incidentally, The Economist also shows that South Africa is one of the countries where hunger has increased the most since 1990, meaning that all our ‘food security’ has had little effect for the poorest.

Keeping people well-fed is not only a humanitarian goal; there are also good economic reasons to do so. As Agnes Binagwaho, Minister of Health of Rwanda (and Senior Lecturer at Harvard Medical School) argues, one in three preventable deaths among young children worldwide – up to 2.5 million each year – are the result of inadequate nutrition. Malnutrition limits children’s ability to learn in school, reducing the returns on education and GDP growth. Last year, Minister Binagwaho notes, “the Copenhagen Consensus – an esteemed panel of economists including several Nobel Laureates – ranked child nutrition as the top priority on its list of cost-effective investments that would improve global welfare”.

Min Davies’ higher chicken tariffs impose, I believe, what will be one of South Africa’s most harmful economic policies since the turn of the century, not only for its direct impact on consumers but for the door it opens for other industries to ask for similar protectionist benefits. More shockingly, it’s a policy largely ignored by the media. Of course we can produce our own food. Of course there is a need to make farmers more efficient global competitors. With a rising Africa on our doorstep, with better infrastructure that connects our farmers to this growing market, and farmers’ willingness to invest in new technologies, this will happen.

But if we want to reduce the poorest South Africans’ vulnerability to hunger and malnutrition – if we want food for all – we should eliminate efforts to build walls against imports. Given the government’s recent policy decisions, however, it is highly probable that the hunger pains will further intensify for South Africa’s poorest over the next few years, with incalculably dire consequences for our society and economy.

Written by Johan Fourie

October 24, 2013 at 17:12

The renaissance of African economic history

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The ancient texts housed in Timbuktu. Photo: Candace Feit

Much like the continent’s rapidly growing economies, the study of Africa’s economic past is gaining momentum. But this was not always the case. After much interest during the 1960s and 1970s, African economic history had largely disappeared from the scholarly radar by the 1980s, aside from a few monumental contributions by people like Tony Hopkins and Gareth Austin. This was not entirely coincidental: the fortunes of many African countries were wavering on the back of large debts and several supply-side shocks. Just like the Cold War and colonisation created political factions that resulted in devastating civil wars on the continent, an intellectual war between liberals and Marxists was brewing, suffocating the lasts gasps of a dying scholarly field. When The Economist labeled Africa ‘The Hopeless Continent’ in 2000, it wouldn’t have been unfair to ascribe a similar adjective to the study of African economic history.

Yet the high rates of economic growth achieved by many African countries in the 2000s have been mirrored by a revival in the quest to understand Africa’s economic past. Rekindled by a new enthusiasm for the long-term impact of historical events, leading scholars began to explore the root causes of Africa’s stagnation. These contributions, like Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson’s The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development (the 38th most cited paper in Economics) and Nathan Nunn’s work on slavery, led a new generation of economic historians, using large datasets and the economist’s standard tool set, to explore colonial records and, increasingly, long-neglected African archives. Several economic historians are busy constructing new series from these records, including African population numbers, prices, real wages and GDP statistics.

Morten Jerven, for example, recently wrote ‘Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It’. He shows how historical African statistics, because of incompetence, weak resources and political interference, rarely reflected reality, which have had serious implications for development policies. Ewout Frankema and Marlous van Waijenburg calculate real wages in nine British colonies to show that the populations of several African countries, notably in West Africa, attained real wages at the end of the nineteenth century higher than those of Asia. Ewout and Marlous’ efforts were recently rewarded with the prestigious Arthur H. Cole Prize for the best article in The Journal of Economic History (June 2012- June 2013).

As African countries continue to grow, the interest in its economic past will grow too. This is why the African Economic History Network (funded generously by Sweden’s Riksbank) has decided to put together a beginner’s textbook that will invite future generations of economists and historians into the field: the textbook – The History of African Development – is available for free on their website. The book provides a simple introduction to the economic changes that has happened in African history, with special chapters on the slave trade, the Scramble for Africa, and urbanisation, for example. It is currently being trialled at the Mountains of the Moon University in west Uganda.

I’ve written the chapter on the history of education in Africa. It begins with the very basics of economics: how education allows us to specialise. Instead of using thousands of workers to build the pyramids of Ancient Egypt, we can build similar structures with fewer but more skilled workers. Education makes each individual more productive. I then plot how formal education in Africa can be traced back to the influence of Islam and the later Christian missionaries. I also highlight how important education is for the future success of the continent. The chapter is available here.

It’s not inevitable that all African countries will continue to prosper. But as we unearth more of the continent’s rich economic histories, the belief that Africa is destined to be poor looks increasingly implausible. The more we look to the future, the more we will want to understand our past.

Why visit South Africa

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When visiting South Africa's famous Kruger National Park, you are sure to spot an iconic Bosloerie, one of the many treasures of this diverse country.

When visiting South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park, you are sure to spot the iconic Bosloerie, one of the many treasures of this diverse country. © Johan Fourie

It’s only when you get to travel in other countries that you realise how fortunate visitors to South Africa are. Make no mistake, there are many parts of the world worth seeing, not least the rural towns and landscapes of the US where Helanya and I recently travelled. But a list released October 16 by Condé Nast Traveler shows just how much South Africa has to offer: three of the world’s top four hotels and restaurants are found in South Africa. La Residence in Franschhoek, a scenic town in the Cape’s winelands, shares first prize with a hotel in New Zealand. Singita Sabi Sand, a game reserve bordering the Kruger National Park, and Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Resort outside Clanwilliam on South Africa’s west coast, are joint third. Three other South African hotels and resorts are also included in the Top 30, while Cape Town is ranked 11th of all cities/towns in the world. (San Miguel de Allende in Mexico is first.)

Why could so many South African hotels and resorts do so well, even ones that are not familiar in South Africa? The sceptic may say that it’s due to small sample sizes. The list is based on a Condé Nast Reader Choice survey. They claim to have received more than 1.3 million votes from 80 000 readers. I’m not sure how many of these 80 000 voted for La Residence. Nevertheless, these hotels and resorts are not one-shot wonders; they’ve performed admirably over the last few years (the survey has been running since 1986). Even if only a few voted, these visitors have been sufficiently impressed by the service, food, architecture, activities and other characteristics required for a high ranking; remember, in small samples, an outlier at the bottom can have devastating consequences.

No, this is not a statistical fluke but is, instead, a remarkable achievement, and one that we should be rightly proud of. (It’s akin to winning the Nobel Travel prize; the owners and employees of La Residence should be revered!) Two factors, I believe, are pivotal to South Africa’s competitive advantage in these awards: our rich endowment of natural and cultural diversity (necessary but not sufficient for success), and its relative affordability, owing, perhaps, to the high share of wages in the total cost bundle of this labour-intensive industry. And because wages are relatively low in South Africa (and wages are unregulated in the tourism industry), hotels and resorts can splash the luxury without straining clients’ budgets (which also makes the tourism industry one of the leading employers in South Africa, notably employing mostly unskilled workers). More importantly, it is nearly impossible to replace friendly personnel with computers or other machinery. This has an important lesson for countries at lower levels of development: focus on those export industries where labour is irreplaceable. Tourism is one of those.

I have yet to meet a visitor to South Africa who have not enjoyed their visit. If you believe these are just selection effects in my sample, read here and here and here for the opinions of established travel bloggers. So if you’re planning your next holiday and are unsure of where to go, South Africa is calling.

Written by Johan Fourie

October 17, 2013 at 05:39

Why you should not get married before you’re 25

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Wedding“When a girl stays in secondary school, she is 6 times less likely to marry young,” UNICEF tweeted on Thursday evening. Education, and especially female education, is one of the pillars of development, with countless positive externalities for society, including, as the UNICEF tweet notes, an older age at marriage. Getting married at an older age may seem inconsequential, but a recent literature has shown that it may partly explain why Western Europe first escaped the Malthusian trap and led to the Industrial Revolution.

During the early-modern period, women in Western European countries began to marry at an older age. While this observation was first made by John Hajnal in 1965, it is only recently that scholars have begun to consider the causes and consequences of this shift. Tine de Moor and Jan Luiten van Zanden in ‘Girl Power‘ argued that because of the preachings of the Catholic Church which promoted marriage based on consensus, the rise of labour markets, and institutions of property rights that encouraged women to work before they marry, Western European women changed the average age at which women married from around 20 to around 25 years. A higher age at marriage meant a shorter period of fertility for women, meaning fewer children were born and a shift thus occurred from having a higher number of children to having fewer children but investing more in them by, for example, sending them to school.

This is a compelling thesis, but the causal direction is not clear. Did women not simply react to the development of labour markets and, if so, what caused such development? Investigating this, Jeanne Cilliers and I considered the Dutch Cape Colony marriage pattern (the paper is only available in Afrikaans). In South Africa, Dutch immigrants (obviously of Western European origin) settled, bringing along their own institutions, like property rights. Yet the Cape did not have a wage labour market similar to Holland, which, we argue, provides a nice experiment to test their theory. We find that the Cape did not exhibit a European marriage pattern throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries. It was only after the shift to a wage economy, helped by the discovery of minerals in the interior of the country, that a marriage pattern similar to Europe emerges. This suggests that it is labour markets that causes marriage patterns, and not the other way round.

So here’s some marriage advice from Dr Phourie. Unsure about when to get married? Don’t do it before you’re 25. You may not start an industrial revolution, but, on average, you will have fewer but more educated kids (which is what society needs more of).

The real shutdown

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Closing National Parks = closing rural towns: The entry road into Bryce Canyon National Park are blocked by Park Rangers on October 2, 2013.

Closing National Parks = closing rural towns: The entry road into Bryce Canyon National Park are blocked by Park Rangers on October 2.

The US government has now been (partially) shut down for more than a week. Most people in the US seem unaffected: only those unfortunate to have scheduled a vacation to one of the national parks would feel its immediate consequences as all National Parks and Monuments have closed. And of course the tourists, like me and my wife, who travelled far distances to see some of the world’s most amazing natural wonders. (We missed Bryce Canyon, but did manage to sneak into Grand Canyon for a brief but worthwhile view of the magnificent panorama.)

Yet many Americans are struggling. More than 800 000 employees are on furlough, meaning they have to stay at home unsure of whether they will be paid. (When Congress eventually does sign the budget, they will probably receive back-payments.) But this official number of government employees doesn’t include the thousands of owners and employees of private hotels, motels, restaurants, shops, vendors and tour operators relying on a steady supply of visitors to National Parks. Take, for example, Moab, a small, touristy town close to Arches National Park. We were there on October 1st, the day the park closed its roads. When we checked out, the receptionist at the motel we stayed in had already fielded several calls that morning cancelling future reservations. But she didn’t expect it to affect business in the short-run. “As long as the shutdown is over quickly”, she told us. It’s been a week. I suspect Moab is now little more than a ghost town.

So, too, Panguitch, a cowboy town on the border of Bryce Canyon National Park. Nearly entirely depended on tourists, restaurants and souvenir shops in Panguitch probably benefited in the intermediate aftermath of the shutdown as many visitors that would have spent an afternoon in the canyon decided to rather drink away their bad luck. Or they visited the other attractions in the region, like the Red Canyon State Park or privately-owned Bryce Canyon Animal Sanctuary. But by now, Panguitch would have run empty, it’s motels and bars and souvenir shops deserted. And those motel owners, and receptionists, and cleaners, and waitresses and shopkeepers won’t get back-payment. In fact, even if an agreement is signed tomorrow, they will have to wait for several weeks for a return to business-as-usual.

We next arrived in Tusayan on the border of the Grand Canyon National Park. Even though it was less than 48 hours after the shutdown, the town was already quiet. Our hotel was emptying (we also decided to cut our stay from a planned two to one night). The massive IMAX cinema (which could probably fit 500 people) screened the National Geographic film for a handful of tourists. A line of pink Jeeps that usually provide guided tours in the park, stood neglected in an empty car park, its employees probably sent home on unpaid leave.

The US shutdown may not be that expensive in terms of its impact on GDP (The Economist predicts a 0.1 to 0.2% fall in the final quarter). And it’s true that a failure to raise the debt ceiling by October 17 would have far more severe consequences for the US (and world) economy. But for the residents of Moab, Panguitch, Tusayan, those that are at the lower end of the income distribution with few alternative job opportunities outside the tourism industry, the shutdown and its consequences is as real as it gets.

Written by Johan Fourie

October 8, 2013 at 07:07