Archive for May 2015
This week is conference week. From Monday to Tuesday, STIAS hosts an ERSA Workshop on the ‘Fiscal history of Africa’. With additional funding by the British Academy, we have been able to invite a stellar list of international visitors: Noel Johnson (George Mason), Christian Makgala (Botswana), Leigh Gardner (LSE), and Jutta Bolt (Groningen). And from Wednesday to Friday, another ERSA workshop, this time on ‘Longitudinal data in African history’, will be held at STIAS. Here, too, we have an exciting list of international presenters: Marcella Alsan (Stanford), Bill Collins (Vanderbilt), Jason Long (Wheaton), Ellen Hillbom and Erik Green (Lund), Neil Cummins (LSE) and several PhD-students. More than 30 local participants will be able to share their research and interact with the visitors. Hosting the workshops back-to-back mean that many can stay for both.
The international and local interest in the two workshops shows that African Economic History is in good health. The rise, or renaissance, of African economic history is evident in the popularity of the annual African economic history meetings, rising from a small group of regulars to, as last year in London showed, a wide circle of scholars from diverse disciplines interested in the African past. Word on the street is that this year’s meeting – from 30-31 October in Wageningen, Netherlands – will be the largest yet.
It’s this momentum that has been a catalyst for the creation of a new Economic History research unit in the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University. And so, this Wednesday we will launch the new identity of this research group: LEAP – the Laboratory for the Economics of Africa’s Past. LEAP (see website) is dedicated to the quantitative study of African economic history, bringing together scholars and students interested in understanding and explaining the long-term economic development of Africa’s diverse societies.
The aim of any research institution is, of course, to produce high-quality research output. This, I believe, can only be achieved through 1) access to funding and 2) recruiting high-quality students (from Africa and elsewhere) to exploit those resources. Both require us to nurture deeper networks across Africa, the US and Europe, and build research partnerships through collaborative projects. I am happy to say that this is already happening, as projects on the fiscal history of South Africa (with Leigh Gardner at the LSE), or the impact of railways in Africa (with Alfonso Herranz at Barcelona), or early South African living standards (with Martine Mariotti at Australian National University, Kris Inwood at Guelph University and Alex Moradi at Sussex) demonstrate.
But more can be done. African archives still hold vast quantities of historical records, of which we’ve only scratched the surface, and too few students are exposed to an expanding Economic History literature. It’s now time to take the leap.
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Two weeks ago, Helanya and I turned off our phones, folded away our laptops, locked up the house, and headed north for a visit to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. We are fortunate to visit frequently and, without exception, these visits remain some of my favourite memories of the last decade. Exactly why that is I don’t quite understand. Perhaps it is the thrill of the chase; hours of driving in search of the elusive leopard (we caught a glimpse of one, but only for a few seconds before it disappeared into the bush), or that moment of awe when a herd of elephant races towards a watering hole evidently upsetting a sleeping hippo, or the Mozambican spitting cobra that silently passes in front of the car, raising its head as a warning to not try anything stupid (and close the windows).
But, in truth, the thrill can quickly wither away, especially when travelling slowly along a bumpy gravel road in the hot, midday sun. When minutes turn into hours since the last ‘spotting’, your thoughts easily drift into the distance, away from the veld, before you suddenly realise you’ve completely neglected your job as animal spotter. You focus again, concentrating on the veld, on the trees and bushes and grass that take the shape of animals but are anything but. It’s not long, though, before you’re lost in your own world again.
For the first few days after your arrival, your thoughts automatically jump back to work. You fail to get away from the daily buzz, to lose track of the immediate newsflashes, the tweets, the facebook posts, the emails, the sounds of urgency that surround our everyday. It’s tough to willingly slow down, zoom out, to take the longer view. To relax without thinking about tomorrow.
But one fine day when the animals are hiding deep in the underbush and when you’ve once again forgotten to look for them, you stumble upon something magical: out of the nothingness, an idea emerges into the open, hoping to entertain. A day-dream. A vision of the future that captivates you, that exhilarates, that awes. It moves into sight, so real you take a mental picture of it to preserve it in memory before it moves on, off to the land of Creativity where all such animal spirits retire. It’s only later, on the plane back to Cape Town, when you recall the flash of brilliance and begin to plot your plans for future fulfilment.
None of those pictures would have been possible in the daily buzz of everyday life. Too many distractions, noise, pollution. The ‘urgent’ must sometimes be set aside, in the hope that the ‘important’ will show itself.
There be Dragons in the Kruger Park. And animals too.