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Archive for July 2014

A bright or dark future?

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One of the fun things I do as an academic is to teach groups of visiting students about the economic history of my country and continent. This year I was again involved in our International Office’s Summer (Winter) School. Similar to last year, the assignment at the end of my part of the course asked each student to write a history of the African continent in 2050, i.e. to predict what will happen in the next 40 years. Or, to make it applicable to myself: If I happen to still be around in 2050, what will be the economic history of Africa that I teach to the students born in 2030?

What surprised me while marking their essays was their optimism. (I mentioned this last time too, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised.) Yet the world today is very different than the world of a year ago. The current crises globally like the Air Malaysia plane shot down over Ukraine that might spill over into what Time Magazine calls Cold War II, the deadly conflict in Syria that seems to have no end, and the exchange of rockets between Israel and Palestine – the crises on the African continent like the disappearance of hundreds of Nigerian girls, the Ebola virus that is spreading fast, and an Air Algerie plane crash – and even the crises in South Africa like the wave of nationalism that seems to turn parliament into a circus and the continued crime that plague our beautiful land should be enough evidence that the future is not necessarily bright, nor that the path towards a better future is necessarily linear.

Yet, despite all these troubles, according to my students, the Africa of the future seems like a much nicer place to live. Here are their suggestions on how we’ll get there:

Nearly all students mentioned the role of better education. Stellenbosch University student Yonwaba Mfengwana noted that “Africa has invested considerable amounts of money and time in developing and training its youth and this has been evident in the increase in the number of skilled individuals who have entered the work force and have been studying abroad. This has assisted Africa into developing into a productive economy as the youth have become innovative, involved and educated.” Clemson University student Amanda Farthing ascribed the better education to “a minimum requirement of a bachelor’s degree that was implemented for all teachers of grades 1-12, with an additional requirement of a supervised practicum or student teaching internship.” Almero Coetzee of Stellenbosch University argued that better education was due to better technologies: “The availability of cheap, high speed internet connections as provided by satellites sent into space in the early 2020s and the drastic fall of the price in computing power with the release of graphene (sic) computing chips allowed for more widespread education.”

Katlyn Pauvlik of the University of Alabama emphasised that “Africa both strengthened current infrastructure and built new infrastructure. Bella Choo Su Leng of NUS in Singapore suggested that Africa’s success was due to the opening of borders: “In the span of forty years, Africa has become a lot more open to the world.” According to Sydney Pettit of the West Virginia Wesleyan College, “the advance in health care has allowed people to live longer and healthier lives”. And, says Carla Kroon of Stellenbosch University, the first ever African Olympics, held when South Africa hosted the 2028 Olympic Games, was a turning point in the fortunes of African countries.

Some students did mention setbacks. Stellenbosch University student Chris Reeders noted that “towards the end of the 2030s, other challenges started to arise, most notably a severe shortage of clean water.” Hudson Corbett of the University of Vermont noted the crippling effect of extremist wars in the Niger Delta and Kenya. University of Wisconsin student Jade Goetz noted that “fracking was a monumental and devastating setback”. (In contrast, Kensli Rollman of the University of Wisconsin saw fracking as the “most pivotal moment” in Africa’s post-millennial history: “After the initiation of shale gas projects throughout Africa in 2017, Africa witnessed a tremendous growth miracle until 2045.”) And several students mentioned the high fertility rates that continues to create a large pool of poor people in Africa’s mega-cities and results in persistent inequality.

I have no idea what the future will look like. No one has. As the American management consultant Peter Drucker once said: “The only thing we know about the future is that it will be different.” But despite the recent events that have caused global alarm, the African future, at least if you believe my students, will be a better kind of different.


Written by Johan Fourie

July 30, 2014 at 20:57

Make trade, not war: A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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KissAs a general rule, don’t build a wall. Walls leave scars, not only on the landscape but, more importantly, in the mind of those on both sides of it. They are seeds of exclusivity, of ignorance, of arrogance. They provoke anger, destroy trust, and impede any attempts at conciliation between disputing factions. Building walls is never a sustainable solution.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the current conflict between Israel and Palestine. A wall of separation – called the anti-terrorist barrier if you ask the Israelis and the anti-apartheid wall if you ask the Palestinians – has kept the two groups apart, and has prevented any possibility of peaceful co-existence. In fact, it has spawned greater antagonism on both sides: the current conflict has claimed the lives of countless people, mostly Palestinians, owing to the superior defensive and offensive capabilities of the Israelis. (For an excellent, quick and somewhat violent overview of the history of the region, watch this.) What is clear is that the wall has not solved anything. It was built with the purpose to lessen the ‘frictions between people’; in truth, it has only prolonged (and perhaps deepened) the conflict.

Surprisingly, South Africa never had an anti-apartheid wall of its own. While government policy dictated that certain areas were designated for certain race groups, permanent walls separating districts or cities were never constructed to keep people out, or in. I suspect an important reason for this was economic: white South Africans were too dependent on black South Africans to afford complete isolation. In fact, the realisation that both groups depended on another for a better life was one of the key reasons the apartheid policies eventually failed, and which made a peaceful transition possible. Had South Africa had walled-off regions of white and black exclusivity with little interaction between them, a full-scale civil war would have been far more likely.

Another example comes from twentieth-century Europe. After World War I, Western Europe failed to integrate economically. The heavy debt imposed on Germany devastated their economy, and the Great Depression of the 1930s increased trade barriers between countries, reducing cross-border European trade further, hurting the already struggling German economy and giving rise to the radical nationalism of Hitler. The only consequence was another war. After World War II and its incredible suffering which must have created an immense urge for retribution on both sides, European leaders acknowledged that further isolation will only sow the seeds of future unrest. Instead, the foundations of the European Union was formed, relaxing and later removing trade barriers between France and Germany, the two largest countries of Western Europe and on opposite sides of the war. Today, only 60 years later, because of the dense economic integration in Europe, the idea of war in Western Europe is utterly implausible.

Better leadership is often mentioned as the only way to solve the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And it is true that in the case of South Africa, Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk played an immense role in ending the period of apartheid and creating the conditions for a smooth transition to democracy. But I doubt whether talks between Khaled Mashaal of Hamas and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel would yield any positives without an understanding that the survival, and indeed the prosperity, of the other depends on their sustained cooperation and integration. The distrust, enmity and racism on both sides cannot be eradicated without their interaction, and there is no better way to halt interaction than by building a wall.

Axe has a new advert – #KissForPeace – which tells us, much like the hippies of the 1970s, to ‘make love, not war’. But love and peace won’t happen if there is no incentive for it. If South African (and twentieth-century European) history has taught us anything it is that centuries of racial prejudice (and the threat of conflict) can only be solved with deeper economic integration and repeated human interaction. Only once people realise how much they stand to lose if they hate, will they begin to accept peace. And once they realise that the ‘other’ is not all that different, in fact, that life is better with greater diversity, they may also begin to love.

The wall of separation between Israel and Palestine has only exacerbated the tension. As difficult as it may seem currently (and perhaps this conflict has moved the struggle beyond the point of no return?), tearing down the wall and allowing the movement of goods, services and people across the border is the only enduring solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Make love peace trade, not war.

Who would want to work three hours a day?

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Hard work: John McEnroe, Novak Djokovic and Richard Branson enjoying the lives of the leisure class

Hard work: John McEnroe, Novak Djokovic and Richard Branson enjoying the lives of the leisure class

I find holidays paradoxical. The thought of sitting on a beach, staring over the ocean and watching the sun set seems like a great way to spend a Friday evening after a productive week of work, but to do so for a week or two – or even a month – seems, to me at least, a frightening prospect. And do what? Listen to the waves. Oh okay, I’m listening. And then? No, listen. Switch off. Think of nothing but the waves. Hmm, okay. Tik tok. And now? As soon as I’m on holiday, there’s an urge to want to be productive.

I’m being unfair to beach holidays, of course. Every December I spend at least a few days on the beach, soaking in the southern sun, and reading my too long list of books. It is paradise. But I do sometimes wonder about the idea of leisure: what is its purpose and how to best use ‘free’ time, i.e. time not spent working? I’m not only thinking about it because I’ve just been on holiday (which made me think about the value of leisure time) but because I’m reading a book in which a couple of leading economists predict the future. Their predictions are fascinating and not all positive, but one of them, the idea of more leisure time, had me thinking: do we really want a 3-day work-week? What would we do with all our free time? Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, suggested the same thing in a post yesterday:

New innovations will drive industries forward, but they will also reduce our reliance on people power. Ideas such as driverless cars and drones are becoming a reality, and machines will be used for more and more jobs in the future. Who knows, maybe even pilot-less planes, could become reality one day! On the face of it, this sounds like bad news for people. However, if governments and businesses are clever, the advance of technology could actually be really positive for people all over the world. It could help accelerate the marketplace to much smarter working practices. The idea of working five days a week with two day weekends and a few weeks of annual holiday is just something people accept. For some reason, it is considered set in stone by most companies. There is no reason this can’t change. In fact, it would benefit everyone if it did.

The trade-off seems straightforward: More work means higher incomes, which in turn means a greater ability to consume. Better technologies would mean that we can do the same work faster, so instead of working five days a week, we can get the same work done in three days. More time for leisure, right? Well, not exactly. What if ‘work’ provides some utility? What if you have a job that you actually enjoy: not always, of course, but a job which brings success and a sense of self-worth. (Just consider someone that is unemployed. It is not only the fact that they do not have an income that matters; it is that their skills are unwanted by anyone else.) In addition, leisure – let’s think of travelling, for example – is costly. So having a long weekend every weekend may not sound so appetising if you think about what it might do to your wallet. More importantly, what if what we do is not about maximising our absolute utility – i.e. obtaining a certain level of income that would satisfy our basic needs – but instead maximising our relative utility, in other words, keeping up with the Joneses (or the Kardashians). In this case we would be forced to spend more hours working harder to reach the top of the status ladder.

It is for this reason that John Maynard Keynes’s prediction, made a century ago, has not been realised. While he correctly predicted that living standards would vastly improve, he believed that we would spend a considerable larger amount of our time on leisure. (In technical terms, he overestimated the backward-bending labour supply curve.)

Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.

Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes today in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard-those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me – those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties – to solve the problem which has been set them.

I feel sure that with a little more experience we shall use the new-found bounty of nature quite differently from the way in which the rich use it today, and will map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs.

For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich today, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter – to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!

The decision to switch to a more leisure-filled life would presumably have important consequences for society too. Richer individuals would substitute income for leisure, meaning that inequality would fall. The poorer part of society will work harder until they attain a certain level of wealth, and then also begin to substitute income for leisure. But I just don’t see this happening. Perhaps we’ll leave the dull, mind-numbing tasks for computers and robots, but we’ll certainly continue to work. Look at the richest individuals: do they work any less than us normal folk? Not really. Yes, they certainly enjoy a higher standard of living, with access to better medical services and larger houses and more travel and better education for their kids. But they don’t actually work less. The backward-bending supply curve only really kicks in once people reach retirement age.

The paradox of leisure is that we want to have the freedom to afford it, but when we do we choose more work instead. Even if we can ensure a minimum income to all citizens, either through something like a basic income grant or because a lot of things are now free as Michael Jordaan has argued, the truth is that ‘the old Adam in most of us’ (or is that Eve whispering in our ear?) will want us to work harder so that we can move up the social ladder (or at least avoid moving down). While we all need a holiday once in a while (or something besides doing what we normally do), I don’t see us working three hours a day and spending the rest sipping cocktails and watching the sunset over the horizon. Not even Richard Branson, who owns his own beach on his own island, does that.


Written by Johan Fourie

July 15, 2014 at 09:59

The second tragedy of Russel Botman’s death

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Dignitaries at the funeral of Prof Russel Botman. Photo: Denvor de Wee / City Press

Dignitaries at the funeral of prof Russel Botman. Photo: Denvor de Wee, City Press

The unexpected death of prof Russel Botman on Friday, 27 June came as a shock to the faculty and students of Stellenbosch University. I was on my first day of leave in the Kruger National Park, and with the little cellphone reception I had, I could see the hundreds of messages on Facebook and Twitter. Messages of thanks and support. Messages of hope that his legacy will be carried forward.

After a week in the Park, I returned yesterday and could finally read through the several obituaries written about prof Botman. Those written immediately after his death highlighted, as expected, his exceptional achievements in his fight against the apartheid structures, his rise as a leading theologian and his success at continuing the transformation process at Stellenbosch University. As one commentator mentioned, Botman often had to straddle two (or even three) worlds: balancing the diverse demands on Stellenbosch’s first black rector and vice-chancellor was no easy task even for someone as capable as him.

Yet what saddened me even more on my return was the clumsy and, in my reading at least, cynical attempts to link prof Botman’s passing to the apparent persistence of white nationalism. Here, for example, is the blurb to a recent article by Marianne Tham:

While family, friends, colleagues and dignitaries paid tribute to Stellenbosch Rector and Vice Chancellor Russel Botman at the weekend, Afrikaans singer and self-proclaimed activist, Steve Hofmeyr, triumphantly tweeted that he had just sung Die Stem to a crowd of 45,000 gathered at the “Innibos National Cultural Festival” in Nelspruit. While the two events may appear random and unconnected, they offer an entry point into an increasingly necessary national debate about the meaning of transformation in a constitutional democracy.

No, they don’t. They appear ‘random and unconnected’ because that is exactly what they are. Steve Hofmeyr and his Mbombela stadium of fans (in Mpumalanga) singing Die Stem is as representative of events at Stellenbosch University as Julius Malema and his cheering crowds in Marikana are of transformation debates at UCT. (The latter may actually be more representative, seeing that the EFF won a million votes in the recent elections, and 2.5% of the ward where UCT is located. Hofmeyr, remember, is a singer, not a politician.) Thamm, though, sees a correlation: “The hardening of attitudes among some Afrikaans speakers can be evidenced in the type of ‘activism’ popular [of] Afrikaans figures like Steve Hofmeyr’. No evidence is provided for this ‘hardening of attitudes’ at Stellenbosch. The best Thamm can do is to cite the report on initiation practices at North-West University. And a quote by an unidentified individual more than a decade ago.

Pierre de Vos, in his blog Constitutionally Speaking, makes exactly the same unfortunate generalisations. Fascinatingly, he starts with an anecdote of his experience at Stellenbosch in the late 1980s. His inability to register his religious affiliation as atheist in the late 1980s somehow has a bearing on initiation practices at North-West today. He then continues to argue that white, Afrikaans universities are unconstitutional because the exclude black students. Let me restrict my remarks to three short points: 1) As a good friend notes, Afrikaans != white, especially in the Western Cape. Check the census. 2) The Stellenbosch of De Vos in the 1980s is vastly different from the Stellenbosch of today. As I wrote a few weeks ago, Stellenbosch is transforming rapidly. Check the numbers. 3) The comparison with North-West and Stellenbosch is problematic. North-West has three campuses with one, Potchefstroom, teaching almost entirely in Afrikaans at the undergraduate level. Translation services are successfully used to accommodate non-Afrikaans speakers. In my faculty at Stellenbosch, all courses are offered in English and Afrikaans. At the graduate level in Economics, all instruction is in English. In that sense, Stellenbosch approximates Pretoria and Bloemfontein, two other universities where Afrikaans is taught (and which Pierre fails to mention). Check the facts.

Both authors disregard the transformation of the Stellenbosch campus over the last decade, much of it due to the work of prof Botman. Neither authors cite any statistics, which are readily available from the university website. Instead, they choose to use anecdotes and tweets to say something about the apparent unwillingness of Stellenbosch to transform. As with bad science, they seem to want to prove a point before they consider the evidence. At a time when we are supposed to celebrate the contribution of a fine leader, their sloppy journalism only leads to discord based on disinformation. That is exactly the antithesis of what Russel Botman stood for.

Written by Johan Fourie

July 8, 2014 at 07:46