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An ode to optimism

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Stef

When I began my postgraduate studies – in 2004 as an Honours in Economics – I had to choose a supervisor for my mini-dissertation. I wanted to work on infrastructure investments, and approached prof Stef Coetzee, then affiliated to the Stellenbosch Business School, because of his expertise in development economics and his proximity to the world of business. He agreed – and I eventually produced a mini-dissertation twice the length of what it should have been.

Prof Coetzee was a wonderful guide for a naive but enthusiastic student. He certainly had the academic expertise to dismiss most of my ideas; he had completed a Masters degree at Stellenbosch University’s Economics department in 1973, the department where I now work, and a PhD at the University of the Free State in 1980. In the above picture, taken on 2 February 2018, Coetzee (on the left) appears with three former Stellenbosch classmates, prof Eon Smit, Hannes le Roux and prof Philip Mohr, men who have all had a profound impact on the South African academic landscape.

Yet prof Coetzee were never dismissive of my attempts to think boldly about the infrastructure that was required to put South Africa on a higher growth trajectory. Perhaps that is because he had experience of leading big teams and organisations, and thinking outside the box. He was a former rector of the University of the Free State, director of the Centre for Policy Analysis at the Development Bank of Southern Africa, and would later be CEO of the Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut.

But I’d like to think that it was also his personality to be open to new ideas, and optimistic about putting them into practice. Because of social media like Facebook, we could reconnect the last few years. Even when things were going badly with the economy, he would be optimistic that things would turn around.

He expressed these views in a chapter he wrote for a book I edited on what students should know when they go to university. Written a decade ago, but still relevant today, here is a short summary:

What do the above challenges and opportunities mean for us as South Africans? Probably the most important is that it leaves the younger generation with a future full of opportunities! The opportunities may be different from in the past, but it will definitely be exciting. The general expectation is that the economic growth of developing economies will in the near future be higher than that of developing economies and will also provide bigger investment opportunities.

Secondly it is also clear that exceptional leadership will be required in order to position South Africa as one of the foremost developing economies. Insight on South Africa within the world and the African context will be necessary to develop the correct policies and strategies.

Thirdly it appears that the opportunities will stretch across a wide spectrum and be multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary. We are going to need scientists, academics, teachers, business people, farmers, doctors, nurses, and engineers to make South Africa a competitive country, but also one that can handle some the most important problems.

Fourthly new skills will be required in a fast-changing world: better flexibility, the ability to work in multi-cultural contexts, better language skills, excellent technological skills, innovation, creativity and the ability to work in teams on different continents, to name but a few.

Fifthly the future will place bigger demands on young people to achieve breakthroughs on political, economical, social, technological and environmental level. It will simultaneously provide exciting opportunities.

Prof Coetzee passed away on Saturday. Despite attempts to do so last year, we never had the chance to meet up again in person. His last few messages to me were, as always, optimistic, despite his illness and setbacks. He was optimistic about the South African economy, about my career, about the Springboks.

Now that I have my own students to supervise, I have a deeper appreciation of the role that supervisors can play in students’ lives. This, then, is a belated thank you to prof Stef Coetzee, my first supervisor who, unbeknownst to both of us, steered my own academic journey into a more optimistic future.

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Written by Johan Fourie

October 29, 2018 at 08:00

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