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Cities are the future

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MinasRuines

Photo by Marcia Valle

Brazil is a fascinating country to travel to as a South African. It is vibrant, slightly chaotic and mesmerizing all in one, and, beyond the airports and major tourist areas, quite a challenge for someone with no knowledge of Portuguese. I was invited to a rural university town in the state of Minas Gerais in May to deliver a series of talks. From the airport in Belo Horizonte my driver, hell bent on showing off his Grand Prix skills, took me on a five-hour rollercoaster ride through the hilly countryside. What was formerly a coffee and sugar plantations (and mining) region, were now mostly vacant, most of the land reclaimed by veld and forests. The language barrier prevented me from inquiring in detail what was happening, but from what I could gather, his answer was simple: People are moving to the cities. They want better lives.

Rapid migration to cities is a global phenomenon. People ‘vote with their feet’ for better economic opportunities, and in South Africa, as in Brazil, they vote for the bright lights of the cities. Poverty in South Africa is largely a rural phenomenon. Yes, townships on the periphery of cities house many poor residents, but these residents have better lives than those in the former homelands many of them come from. The search for a better life for them and their children is why they moved in the first place.

Those of us with a romantic view of life in the countryside may think that this flood to the cities can be reversed by, for example, policies that would expand land access or improve rural living standards. But lack of land is not the reason people migrate to cities in large numbers, not in South Africa and also not in Europe, China or Brazil. In several European countries, rural areas have been abandoned, taken over by forests (and returning wildlife). The European policy-makers have done their best to prevent this, by offering expensive agricultural subsidies to its farmers (at the cost of farmers in Latin America, India and Africa), but this has just slowed the inevitable. Farms are now being bought up by rich city-folk that want weekend getaways – cities are what creates wealth, the countryside is for spending it. In China, because of the disastrous policies of Mao, land was equally divided amongst the citizens. Yet with the onset of modern economic growth in China since the 1980s, millions of families have relocated to the cities, first to fill jobs in low-skilled, labour-intensive sectors, but as the economy has grown and wages have increased, to more skill-intensive sectors. Their children will attain much higher living standards than their parents and grandparents could ever dream of. Despite a history of severe inequality, the story is no different in Brazil. Rich and poor move to cities, because that is where their living standards are most likely to improve.

Trying to slow down urbanization is futile; in fact, it is likely to do more harm than good. Cities are where people prosper: they have access to employment opportunities, better schools and clinics, electricity, water and sanitation and access to a greater variety of social institutions and entertainment, like churches and sport clubs. But because cities are so attractive, that also results in higher levels of inequality, as new poor migrants from the countryside continually fill the gaps left by those that were formerly poor but have worked their way up. Inequality in cities should thus be interpreted with caution: it is a consequence, rather than a break, on progress. The poor care less about the Gini coefficient and much more about the possibility of social mobility – the possibility to escape poverty.

Evidence of how migrants’ living standards improve is provided in a new paper by Ivan Turok and Justin Visagie. They track rural migrants to South African cities between 2008 and 2014. Before their move to the city, 80% of these migrants were living below the poverty line. Six years later, they results show, ‘the level of income poverty for these migrants (now living in an urban environment) had more than halved to below 35%. Meanwhile, the poverty level for individuals who remained in the countryside stayed very high at 70%.’

It is for this reason that some economists are proposing a somewhat contentious poverty-alleviating policy: subsidies to help those in rural areas to migrate to cities. A new paper by David Lagakos, Ahmed Mobarak and Michael Waugh use an experimental programme of migration subsidies in Bangladesh to calculate the effect on migrant welfare. They find that for the poorest households, the welfare gains from migration subsidies are higher than unconditional cash transfers or a rural workfare program costing the same total amount. ‘This suggests that conditional migration transfers may be a useful way to raise the welfare of poor rural households in the developing world.’

The influx of migrants are and will continue to be difficult for cities, already suffering backlogs and scarce resources, to manage. But there are ways to support them. National and provincial governments can do more to give cities control over land and infrastructure they own, like Metrorail. Greater private sector involvement can speed the provision of basic services, notably in housing and internet connections. Political competition, like what has happened in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth, will help to push out bureaucratic incompetence (and corruption) and promote service delivery.

Urbanisation is the key to future prosperity, in South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere. Any policy to keep people in rural areas amounts to a policy to keep them poor. While city governments are battling to tackle existing infrastructure backlogs, they should recognise that they offer the best hope for people to escape poverty.

**An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 7 June edition of finweek.

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Written by Johan Fourie

June 30, 2018 at 06:54

The Autshumao and Krotoa International Airport of Cape Town: My letter to ACSA

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AutshumaoKrotoa

Renaming of Cape Town International Airport: A proposal

I would hereby like to submit a nomination for Cape Town International Airport’s new name.

Cape Town is an international, cosmopolitan city, a ‘melting pot of cultures’. Many individuals from Cape Town’s rich history deserve to be celebrated in the renaming of Cape Town International Airport. Yet I often find that little attention is given, in place names, traditions, and heritage symbols, to the indigenous inhabitants of the region before the arrival of European settlers in the mid-seventeenth century.

I therefore feel it is appropriate that Cape Town’s international airport should celebrate the people who had lived in the region for several centuries before European arrival, who had contributed to the economic and social development of the Cape, often in subordinate positions of indentured labour, and whose descendants still reside here, now mixed with more recent immigrants from Europe, Asia and Africa, a city that is, indeed, a ‘melting pot of cultures’.

My proposal is therefore to rename Cape Town International Airport to the Autshumao and Krotoa International Airport of Cape Town.

Autshumao was the first inhabitant of South Africa to travel abroad. In 1630, Autshumao was picked up by a British ship – called ‘King Harry’ on board – and travelled to the East. There he learned Dutch and English, and when he returned to the Cape, he would become postmaster on Robben Island. He would also act as the first translator and trader when the Dutch East India Company settlers established a refreshment station in 1652. Autshumao later fell into disfavour as trading partner, and was banned to Robben Island. Nelson Mandela would later call him the ‘first freedom fighter’.

His niece, Krotoa, was a translator in the household of Jan van Riebeeck, the first VOC commander of the Cape. She would marry a Danish surgeon and her progeny would include several South Africans of note, including Paul Kruger, Jan Smuts and FW de Klerk.

Naming Cape Town International Airport the Autshumao and Krotoa International Airport of Cape Town would signal recognition of the first inhabitants of Cape Town, and the ‘melting pot of cultures’ that Cape Town has become.

Kind regards,

Johan Fourie

A happy 28 September

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Drenched: An unexpected rain storm added to the fun of a memorable day

Drenched: An unexpected rain storm added to the fun of a memorable day

On this day six years ago, Helanya said ‘yes’. It was in Riverside park, New York, on a bench with the inscription ‘…forever…when the wind whispers…’. (A tip for future proposal-hopefuls: I asked her to marry me on that spot because I couldn’t find the place where Kathleen Kelly meets Joe Fox in You’ve Got Mail, although we found it immediately afterwards, of course. It worked out well, though, that place was pretty crowded.) Much of that day is a blur. I remember that as we were walking home to our illegally-rented room-stay apartment on the East Side (those were the days before Airbnb), we got absolutely soaked in an unexpected autumn rain storm. We hid out in a Central Park cabin until the worst had subsided. But I was happy, she seemed happy, and that made me even more happy.

Today is another day for celebration. Tonight, Helanya will become an alumna of Utrecht University. She graduates with a Masters in Economics and Law. I am told she did pretty well. #proudhusband

Now to figure out how this thing called a dishwasher works…

(Also: a shout-out to my brother who got engaged last week! Advice: buy a dishwasher with only one button.)

Written by Johan Fourie

September 28, 2016 at 07:10

Walking with my father

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Camino-28

For most of May, I walked in the footsteps of my father. Literally. Starting on the 6th of May, we hiked the Camino Primitivo, an ancient route from Oviedo in the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela on the west coast. 343 kilometres in 11 days. It was tough but beautiful. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

My father had turned sixty the previous year, and I decided to let him choose his birthday gift. (My gold standard for him is chocolate and I was unable to conjure up something more creative.) Sensing an opportunity, he mentioned that he has a short ‘bucket list’, and that hiking the Camino is at the top. Not knowing much about the Camino, I happily agreed. I would be in Europe in 2016 in any case, and we tentatively decided that May would be a good month to go to Spain.

His preparation started almost immediately after this conversation. He would put on his backpack and, almost daily, hike the 24km mountain route from our home in Paarl, South Africa. He would send me tonnes of emails of people who had done ‘the Camino’. Deciding to do some research of my own, I soon realised that there were many decisions to make long before arrival. What route? How many days? How to get there and back? Where and how to get a ‘Camino passport’? What shoes to wear? What to pack?

Camino-29We decided on the Camino Primitivo for mostly three reasons. The first was that it is a manageable length given our available time. The Primitivo is also, according to legend, the most ancient route. Fearing the Moors to the south, two bishops from Oviedo hiked the Primitivo around 800 CE to visit St James’ tomb. And, according to the few sites I could find, it was also a physical challenge. That sounded like something we would enjoy.

Our journey started on the morning of the 6th. We met in Bilbao the day before, and took an ALSA bus that arrived at 22h30 in Oviedo. We had brought no map of the city, and had to ask a few people before we managed to find our hotel. That is also when we realised the language barrier may be bigger than expected. The next morning we were up early, ready for our first day. We found the cathedral where we would start from, but were slightly disappointed that there were no signs pointing the way. We still had no map, and we thus walked, a bit less confidently, in a generally western direction. And then, after maybe half-an-hour and an increasing unease, a random woman stopped us and pointed to the street where we would see our first arrow – we had found the route to Santiago de Compostela!

It was a beautiful hike through the farms and small villages that dotted the hilly landscape. Our first night we spent in Grada in an overpriced, dodgy hotel because we could not find the albergue, the hostel for pilgrims. The second day we stayed with Micheal in his private albergue in Salas, although, looking back, we could probably have hiked a bit further. We paid for it on the third day, when we hiked a total of 40km to Campiello. The day was memorable for another reason too. Walking down a hill, my father in front, I slowed down a bit to enjoy the view. Thinking my father was still in front of me, I continued downhill only to realise, at the bottom, that he was not in front of me anymore. I could see the shells (pointing to Santiago), so I knew I was on the ‘right’ route, but what had happened to my father? I asked a farmer who was working in a neighbouring field whether he had seen anyone, but his English was as bad as my Spanish. He did point me to the actual correct route whence my father should come, and so I decided to run (with my 8kg backpack) back on this route. Needless to say, after about 1km of running (having already hiked about 25km), I was dead tired. I also realised I wasn’t on the actual correct route anymore: there weren’t any shells. So I turned around and ran the 1km back again, deciding that I would probably just walk on and hope to either catch up with him or wait at the next town. But fortunately, just before the ‘correct’ route intersects with my ‘wrong’ route, I could see him coming down a hill towards me. We had a few laughs afterwards, but it wasn’t so funny at the time. That evening, another 15km after my run, we found a wonderful albergue, Herminia’s in Campiello. That was also the first evening we would meet people that we would see throughout our journey, and ultimately in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

Camino-32The next day the path split in two, and we decided to choose Hospitales. Here is the recommendation in a booklet we (unfortunately) only purchased after our trip: ‘The Hospitales option leads into the mountains and away from civilisation for most of the day. While this is one of the most demanding walks on any Camino, made more so by the lack of resources, it is strikingly beautiful with expansive mountain vistas unfolding in all directions.’ That is spot on. The views are just incredible, and we were fortunate that we had clear skies for most of it. (It can be misty, but the route is very well marked, in contrast to what we were told beforehand.)

That night we also had our first experience of one of the hallmarks of any Camino: snoring. We ended up in a room with 12 people. One of them, a Spanish guy, which we would unfortunately meet later on the journey again, had a remarkable snore which no earplug in the world could keep out. I’m not sensitive to sound; you can’t be if you’ve spent four years in a university dormitory. But I think I didn’t sleep more than two hours that night, and judging by the other people’s faces the next morning, neither did they. That is what makes the Camino a physical challenge: hiking 30kms and then not sleeping, and not eating very well, and hiking another 30kms, and not sleeping. We did this for another five nights until we reached Lugo, a city with an incredible Roman wall, where we decided to stay in a hotel. By that stage we were tired and dirty, but in good spirits. Our feet miraculously had no blisters (in contrast to some of our companions on the journey), and the next morning, after circling the Roman wall, we decided that we could push through to Santiago de Compostela in three days. That, in hindsight, was maybe the wrong call.

Our first night of the last stretch we stayed in a very nice albergue. Some fantastic paella was served, and the Spanish snorer had decided to go to a different spot so we could at least enjoy a good night’s rest. The route from Lugo to Santiago is less hilly. You walk along tarred roads most of the time. My expectation was that this would be easier, but it turned out that the hard surface was tougher on our feet and knees. By the second evening, after a 38km walk, I had cramps in my right leg, and my feet were beginning to show signs of wear and tear. The next day would be our final stretch to Santiago and I hoped the legs would last for just one more day.

Camino-22They didn’t. With about 10km to go, my right leg could barely bend. Those last kilometres, when you could see Santiago in the distance but it would not get closer, was gruelling. The road into Santiago (the French route, which we joined two days earlier) descends steeply, and I had to shuffle sideways for most of it, keeping my leg straight. There were hundreds of other hikers on this stretch. Some had been on the road for weeks, even months. You could see it in their faces and the only thing you could do is to applaud their achievement. There were unfortunately also those, in larger numbers, that had just signed up for three days or even just one day of hiking, and were now crowding the route. That did make it feel a bit touristy.

After we entered the town, there were another three kilometres to endure before we finally reached, through the archway, the Cathedral square. It is difficult to describe the emotions at the ‘finish’. Elation, yes, but you’re mostly just dead tired. (Our last day was another 38km.) We took a few photos and then went to get our compostela (certificate), and then to find our hotel. The rest of the week we relaxed in Santiago and Finisterre, a small village on the western coast of Spain where the Camino reaches the ‘end of the world’.

Many have asked me since we’ve returned whether the Camino is what I expected. I envisaged a lot of time philosophising, thinking about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That did not really happen, because, and this is perhaps due to nature of the Camino Primitivo, most of your time is spent deciding where to step so that you don’t fall. It is a technical walk, especially because it is almost constantly wet and muddy underfoot (both of us fell twice, luckily without serious injury). Yes, there were times when you could let your thoughts wander, but often those thoughts just wondered about where the next shell indicating the route might be.

I did not come to any major new insights. And, actually, I am perfectly fine with that. I did something with my father which we both enjoyed. It was challenging – I lost 4kgs in 11 days – and that ‘intellectual break’ was perhaps exactly what I needed after an eight-month sabbatical. We did meet some fascinating people along the way, many with their own compelling (and sometimes heartbreaking) stories. But I also think the pilgrims that choose the Primitivo are slightly different than the rest: they are there because they want the physical challenge. And they are okay with walking for an entire day without seeing anyone else.

Will I do it again? Maybe, but there is no urge to return immediately. And yet, there are times that I miss the simplicity of it all. Only two sets of clothing. Only two choices of bocadillo (ham or cheese), only two types of coffee (with or without milk). Just me and my dad on a mountain path in a country where no-one speaks your language. And where it is sometimes good to get lost, so that you realise what it is you value most.

The Primitivo route I’d suggest (if you want to do it in 11 days):

Oviedo -> San Juan de Villapanada -> Bodenaya -> Campiello -> (via Hospitales) Berducedo -> Castro (bookings required) -> Padron -> Castroverde -> Lugo -> Ferreira -> Arzua -> Santiago

Written by Johan Fourie

June 18, 2016 at 16:30

On mystical discoveries

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The Trinity College Library Long Room is a must-see.

The Trinity College Library Long Room is a must-see in Dublin. Photo: Johan Fourie.

Our stay in Utrecht is quickly coming to an end. We’ve been here eights months, and it has been a wonderful time to be productive and also, sometimes, less productive. We traveled often, mostly to conferences and seminars, but occasionally just to explore new places. To Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, Belgium and, the past weekend, to Ireland, one of the few places in Europe South Africans can enter without a Schengen visa. We rented a car and stayed in a wonderfully nondescript farm cottage with thick walls, a fireplace and a few dozen cows browsing outside our window.

Rural Ireland is a mystical place, exuding a sense of wonder. North of Dublin is Brú na Bóinne, an ancient neolithic site that was built before Stonehenge or Egypt’s pyramids, around 3000BC. Evidence of long-distance trade suggests a sophisticated society, and entering the sacred tombs – where a beam of light only enters once a year during winter solstice – confirms an advanced knowledge of their environment and complex social rituals. This mystical aura lingers across Ireland, in the evergreen forests and tiny towns and black stone walls that dot the landscape, interspersed with more cows and sheep. We also visited the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of the island, a breathtaking sight I won’t recommend to anyone with a fear of heights. (At least, the fear of watching others take selfies precariously close to a 120m slippery ridge.) And then it was back to Dublin, for some whiskey and music and, of course, a visit to the world famous Trinity College Library with its splendid Long Room (pictured).

Although our time in Europe is sadly coming to an end, the prospect of returning home – good wine, food and friends (and sun!) – is certainly exciting. But first, I will be taking a technology hiatus in the next month as I travel to northern Spain to hike part of the Camino de Santiago, starting in Oviedo. It will be a physical challenge but certainly also a psychological one: I cannot remember a time when I did not have access to email for more than a few days. Away from the busyness of modern life, perhaps it will be good to rediscover something of that mystical world the ancients inhabited.

 

Written by Johan Fourie

April 22, 2016 at 09:15

The layers of history

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Granada1-2

Helanya and I flew to the south of Spain for a short Easter break last Thursday. We spent a day in Granada, another one in Córdoba and then took the train to Valencia where I’m currently attending the European Social Science History Congress.

Spain is an incredibly diverse country, and the South did not disappoint. Influenced by the conquest and settlement of Islamic Moors between 711 (when the Arab and Berber Moors of North Africa crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and conquered Christian Hispania) and 1492 (when the last Muslim stronghold surrendered), the old cities of Andalusia have a distinct architecture that reminds one of the deep layers of history. This is nowhere more apparent than the Mezquita-Catedral in Córdoba where a cathedral is built inside what was once a Grand Mosque. The incredibly impressive structure has 856 marble and granite columns, some of which date back to a Roman temple which had occupied the site previously. Layer upon layer upon layer.

Granada2-2Another highlight was the Easter festivities. The two nights we spent in Granada were filled with processions through the streets, which attracted what must have been almost the entire city of Granada. It’s difficult to say whether participants were in a reflective or festive mood – perhaps a bit of both – but the streets were still busy well into the early hours of the morning. The processions recreated scenes from the crucifixion of Christ, embedded within Catholic symbolism and, I suspect, many other customs that are unique to Andalusia. The layers of history are not only encapsulated in the built environment of southern Spain, but also in the beliefs, symbols and traditions of its people.

Of course, history never ends. Much as they have done for millennia, people continue to move in and out of Spain (the same year that the last Muslim ruler surrendered in Granada, Columbus ‘discovered’ America). Many North African migrants now cross the Mediterranean in the hope of a better life, while Syrian refugees flee their war-torn country. A visit to the south of Spain is therefore a timely reminder that Europe used to be far more integrated into their southern and eastern neighbours. Córdoba’s extraordinary Mezquita-Catedral was, lest we forget, designed by an 8th-century Syrian architect.

Written by Johan Fourie

March 31, 2016 at 13:43

Breaking in new shoes

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trekking

On Sunday, Helanya and I flew back to Utrecht after a wonderful few weeks in South Africa. I had time to catch up with friends and colleagues, meet with students, organise the final ERSA Economic History workshop in Cape Town, and even play a two-day game of cricket. And, of course, do some shopping for the wintery months ahead, including four bottles of blatjang and new hiking shoes to break in during the next three months for a Camino walk I plan to do in May.

I must admit, I was skeptical of the sentiment I would encounter on my return to South Africa. The end of 2015 was not a great time for the country, most directly (for those of us residing in foreign countries, at least) reflected in the rapidly-depreciating currency. The president’s expulsion of Finance Minister Nene, the prolonged protests at universities, and even the poor performance of the Proteas proliferated the pessimism. And the start of 2016, characterised by vitriolic social media slurs, seemed to not augur much hope that 2016 would be any better.

And then we returned and fell in love with our own people all over again. The food, the sun, the languages, the opportunities. Bright students with bright ideas. A we-are-the-change-we-want-to-see-in-this-world attitude. When I was a student, apathy in student affairs was the main issue of the day. Not anymore.

That is not to say that all is well. Even through our over-nostalgic senses, we could feel the disappointment in the status quo, the hunger for a better South Africa. Race is at the forefront of national debates again. As I wrote last year, the narrow focus on race distorts the ‘remarkable story of courage, determination, perseverance and triumph-against-all-odds’ that black South Africans have written since the end of apartheid. By focusing on race, whites are made a co-author of a story that is not theirs to tell. And this remarkable story of self-empowerment continues, although some would argue for more abbreviated chapters.

More can be done, of course, to increase opportunities for all South Africans. It would help if the patronage politics that have become so endemic are tempered – how, I don’t know. It would help if we can encourage South Africans to start businesses that can sell to an outside world now eager to buy cheap South African products. It would help if we can provide quality education to kids that are currently excluded. But we should not dismiss the incredible achievements we have made too easily.

Yesterday I attended a workshop in Amsterdam. Some of the participants were from Sweden and Finland, two countries I have long admired for their open and innovative policies, and over lunch we discussed the immigrant situation across Europe. I knew, of course, about the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, and the increase in right-wing activity, but I was surprised to hear about their own experiences: large anti-immigrant demonstrations that have strong racist undertones; academics receiving threats when they take a pro-immigrant stance; militias in the streets exercising mob justice.

It is easy to get pessimistic about South Africa when the State of the Nation is as fresh as a forgotten yogurt in a college dorm room. We have serious issues that need to be addressed fast. But we are not alone. Issues of exclusion, discrimination and repression exist in some of the world’s most enlightened (and educated) countries, issues that are unlikely to be resolved soon and may spill over into even worse forms of exclusion and violence.

Our walk to freedom and social justice may be long and winding, but at least our shoes are already broken in.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 13, 2016 at 11:29