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Posts Tagged ‘Afrikaans

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

Why I travel

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A recent column in the Mail & Guardian suggested a number of reasons why Afrikaners should travel more. These included, and mostly with reference to Europe, 1) to appreciate our (presumably good quality and inexpensive) meat, 2) to learn to be on time, 3) to rediscover our cultural roots, 4) to understand how language can bind people together, 5) to realise that one can have more than one cultural identity. Although I’m sure the column was well-intended (and was perhaps filled with some nostalgia after a few weeks away from home), there are simply too many generalisations to take it seriously: “Europe is essentially individualistic and the downfall of one individual or family rarely affects the rest of a community. Ask someone what the surname of their neighbour is and they would not be able to tell you.” Here’s my confession: I’ve lived in South Africa all my life and I cannot name one of my many neighbours’ surnames.

McGregor, South Africa

McGregor, South Africa

But the piece did get me thinking about why I travel. I am fortunate to travel relatively frequently, mostly to attend some economic history congress somewhere in Europe. I usually manage to take a day or two after a conference to see the sights. So, apart from attending conferences, why do I do it? I guess we all have our own reasons for travelling (and, I should add, ways of travelling), but I think it boils down to this:

Travelling is a conversation with yourself. It is a way to take stock, to reflect, to reassess, to change course. To adopt what is good and to discard the bad. Destinations become beacons – Uganda 2003, Utrecht 2010 – the value of which only become apparent much later in life. Travelling is a conversation with friends. About shared dreams and desires. About shared hopes and disappointments. About plans for the future. About the good old times. It is laughing together, fighting together, being-late-for-the-train together. It is about writing new stories – together (New York 2010). Travelling is also a conversation with strangers. Stef Bos, the Dutch-Afrikaans word maestro, sings: ‘Ek wil praat met ‘n vreemde om myself te verstaan’ (I want to chat with a stranger to understand myself.) Travel allows us to define who we are (Afrikaans? South African? African?). It is a way to define what we believe (in), and what we do not. Travelling forces us to confront our own prejudices and stereotypes. It is also about changing perceptions. (Nearly every South African travelling abroad will have a story about stranger’s ignorance about Africa. Mine was on a train with a Belgian student. She asked me where I was from. I said South Africa. She responded that her brother had been to North Africa. I said ‘South Africa’ is a country, not a region. And it’s about as far away from North Africa as Brussels is from Vladivostok on the east coast of Russia. The remainder of the three hour journey was awkwardly quiet.)

Positano, Italy

Positano, Italy

Travelling is an education. Much like in Night at the Museum, it brings history alive: I would have known very little of the Moorish invasion of Spain had I not been to the Alhambra (Granada, Spain), or little of the devastating impact of communism had I not walked through the streets of Riga (Latvia). The slave trade and its many atrocities only fully manifests on a visit to Goreé, an island off the coast of Dakar (Senegal), and the plight of the early Christians is evident in the catacombs of Rome (Italy). Travelling is also about geography, of course: Where is is the origin of the Nile? (Answer: Jinja, Uganda. But don’t swim in those waters – I did, only to discover crocodiles on the opposite bank.) What is the highest mountain in Western Europe? (Answer: Mont Blanc, France. But don’t forget your gloves. Ever.) And it teaches ethics (should I pay the bribe?), arithmetic (try the 14 (English Pound), 25 (Hungarian Forint) or 55 (West African Franc) multiplication table to get to Rand), negotiation (‘Welcome to Istanbul. This is my lowest price.’ The best response: ‘Okay, let’s begin at half of that.’), and music (Who knew the Germans are stuck in the 80s?).

Brown bear, Finland

Brown bear, Finland

Travelling activates the senses. The smells of port in the Porto (Portugal) caves, of home-brewed beer in Talinn (Estonia), of meat on the braais in the Kgalagadi (South Africa), of gluhwein at the Christmas markets of Budapest (Hungary). The tastes of deep-dish pizzas in Chicago, of pastries in Holland, of chocolate cake in New York, of a brie and fig steak in a guest house next to Augrabies Falls (South Africa). The sounds of Mozart in Vienna (Austria), of the US national anthem (sung by the Chicago Gay Choir) before a baseball game at Wrigley Field (Chicago), ‘vergeet om niet uit te checken’ announcements on the Utrecht (Netherlands) buses, and of a vuvuzela at the 2010 FIFA World Cup (South Africa). And then there are the sights: The colours of Istanbul (Turkey), Maputo (Mozambique), of Sintra (Portugal) or Durban (South Africa). The breathtaking awe of cathedrals (Cathédrale Saint Jean-Baptiste, Lyon), and mosques (Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Istanbul), and temples (Pantheon, Rome) or the tiny chapel in which I got married (McGregor, South Africa, pictured). The majestic beauty of elephants on the plains of the South Luangwa National Park (Zambia), or of a rhino in the Kruger Park (South Africa), or of polar and brown bears in Finland (pictured). And the epic landscapes of the Drakensberg mountains in Lesotho, or of Positano (Italy, pictured), or the Alps, or Lake Victoria just before landing at Entebbe (Uganda).

But, ultimately, travelling gives ‘home’ new meaning. It forces us to consider the possibility that our own (people, places – policitians?) are not unique, not different, not special. That we share all the vices and virtues with all of humanity: I’ve encountered sloth, pride (racism, sexism), and greed everywhere I’ve been. But I’ve also experienced the greatest patience, humility and charity. We all share a common ancestry, a common history, a common humanity and – the sooner we realise this the better – a common future.

Stef Bos also writes: ‘Ek wil reis rond die wêreld om huis toe te gaan’ (I want to journey around the world to go home). Not only should Afrikaners travel more. We should all travel more. Even if it is simply to meet our neighbours (next door or on another continent).

PS: At the start of this year, my wife and I started a travel blog in Afrikaans to document our journeys. We called it Grensloos (borderless). There are also numerous other sites, but if you want to be inspired to travel (and perhaps laugh and cry at the same time), watch this.

Written by Johan Fourie

April 7, 2013 at 10:42

The incentives for entrepreneurs

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Vast volumes have been written on the importance of entrepreneurship in building prosperity. Entrepreneurs innovate, identify new markets, implement new systems and process, connect labour, capital and technology in novel ways; in short, entrepreneurs make stuff more efficient than before. But measuring the contribution of ‘entrepreneursip’ to growth has been difficult, given the unquantifiable nature of entrepreneurial traits: motivation, creativity, risk-taking, to name a few. In a recent working paper, Sascha Becker and Hans Hvide claim to have found an answer to the question: Do Entrepreneurs Matter? They consider Norwegian companies between 1997 and 2008 and identify 500 firms where the founding entrepreneur died. This exogenous shock they show had strong negative consequences for these firms, regardless of firm size, age and location. Interestingly, more qualified entrepreneurs had a larger negative impact. (Read the review here.) Entrepreneurship clearly matters.

The more important (policy) question, though, is how to cultivate entrepreneurship. How important is formal education in creating entrepreneurs? (What type of education?) Does access to finance play a role? Rules and regulations? Inequality?

Koos Bekker at the World Economic Forum

Koos Bekker at the World Economic Forum

William Baumol, in his famous 1990 paper, suggests an alternative framework for thinking about entrepreneurship. Instead of (attempting to) cultivate entrepreneurship, he assumes a given stock of entrepreneurs in all societies. (Just as one would assume that there is a given stock of land-handed people in all countries, instead of trying to ‘cultivate’ left-handed individuals.) The important question, Baumol suggests, is how to change the incentives for entrepreneurs so that they participate in what he calls “productive” activities. Here is his central hypothesis: “the exercise of entrepreneurship can sometimes be unproductive or even destructive, and whether it takes one of these directions or one that is more benign depends heavily on the structure of payoffs in the economy – the rules of the game.”

Baumol use historical examples to show how the incentives for entrepreneurs – in essence, the risk-taking individuals in society – determined whether they were involved in productive or unproductive activities. Where warfare was the most likely activity to yield wealth, ‘entrepreneurship’ was rewarded through war spoils, with destructive consequences for the economy. In other societies, incentives were directed to rent-seeking, i.e. spending resources on obtaining a larger share of existing wealth, instead of growing the wealth, also known as redistribution. The most successful entrepreneurs, in this context, were those that could extract as much wealth from the state.

These ideas are particularly relevant for South Africa. The rules of the game changed dramatically for white South Africans during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Gone were the days where the state could be relied on for support, where rent seeking could be a profitable exercise. Instead, as I’ve written before, it was Afrikaner entrepreneurs that came to the fore after 1994 – Jannie Mouton, Michiel le Roux, Christo Wiese, Koos Bekker. Much of this success has been built on export markets: between 1998 and 2013, Naspers shares increased by more than 1900%, largely due to investments in China, Russia and Brazil. The Financial Times recently dubbed Bekker the “exemplar of the post-apartheid Afrikaner”.

But how has the post-1994 “rules of the game” changed incentives for black South Africans? Have Black Economic Empowerment facilitated productive or unproductive activities by black entrepreneurs? Where are the highest financial rewards for black South African entrepreneurs: to sell to a market, or to sell to government? In the former, competition is rife and global; in the latter, competition is protected because only BEE-rated businesses compete. It seems the incentives are heavily biased in favour of (unproductive) government contracts.

Here is the key question for policy-makers: What can we do to modify and improve the rules of the game (the reward structure of the economy) so that entrepreneurs – black and white – change the type of activities they engage in (from unproductive to productive)? Allocating more entrepreneurial resources towards more productive activities is the key to building a prosperous future.

Written by Johan Fourie

March 28, 2013 at 07:13

Afrikaans at Stellenbosch: A delicate balancing act

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I remember well my first interview as a student journalist for Die Matie Student Newspaper. My first visit to the vice-chancellor’s office, I was a nervous ball of energy, as I – a first-year –  had to interview professor Andreas van Wyk after nine turbulent years at the helm. Asked a question about Stellenbosch’s role in the rest of Africa, he answered, ‘it’s a delicate balancing act’, which we also used as the article head. In fact, twelve years later, this remains the most apt phrase to explain Stellenbosch’s continuous struggle with The Language Issue.

‘Afrikaans is under threat’, proclaims one group, either from government (the usual suspect), or from management (which don’t provide enough ‘support‘), or from English-speaking black and white – to misquote Helen Zille – ‘refugees’ who find the tertiary institutions in their own provinces of too low quality. Or who find (and who would deny them?) the Stellenbosch academic, cultural and natural environment simply irresistible. On the other side, the pro-English constituency point out that Stellenbosch’s reputation as an academic institution of excellence is built on the foundations of the Apartheid system, allowing Afrikaans to develop as an academic language which benefited predominantly white, Afrikaans-speakers and excluded most of the black population. If it continues to teach only in Afrikaans, Stellenbosch will remain a place of white refuge, an Afrikaner bastion, a visual reminder of the South Africa of the twentieth century. There is simply no place in the new South Africa for a quality tertiary establishment that exclude the majority of black South Africans, they argue.

Both sides, of course, embody only elements of the truth. The move to English is undeniable. Afrikaans is officially the default language of instruction at undergraduate level, while English is used predominantly at the postgraduate level. In the Economics department where I teach, parallel medium (instruction in English and Afrikaans in separate classes) is standard practice for first-year students, and in a 2011 decision by the Faculty of  Economic and Management Sciences, parallel medium instruction (in Economics) will be available for the full undergraduate degree in 2014. (Currently, lecturers are required to teach in Afrikaans but often follow the T-option, using both English and Afrikaans in the same classroom.) This shift is no ideological Rubicon moment by the Rector or any of his employees; instead, I argue, this is a pragmatic (sub-optimal) solution to the forces of the market. Let me explain.

Any market is shaped by supply and demand. On the demand side, in order to be the best university in South Africa, Stellenbosch hopes to attract the best learners from the best high schools in the country. Before 1994 (and even before 2000), most of these students would have come from privileged Afrikaans High Schools. Many still do, but the numbers are changing fast. International borders are also opening rapidly: Stellenbosch hosts more than 3800 students from other countries in 2012, and these numbers have increased at exponential rates since the early 2000s. In short: Stellenbosch is becoming an international university, non-Western Cape and non-South African students attracted by the high academic standards, diverse cultural mix, and beautiful surroundings. This globalisation of our campus has enormous economic, cultural and social benefits for our clients, the students. Our region also benefits from the financial stimulus; in an earlier paper Emile du Plessis calculates the economic gains from visiting international students to several million rand (depending on the multiplier used). Foreigners are also more likely to engage in community outreach programmes, and more likely to build networks that result in positive externalities.

Stellenbosch has just joined the list of the top 500 universities in the world. In a globalised marketplace, this ranking is dependent on us providing exceptional services to our clients, both as teaching as well as research outputs. To do quality research, Stellenbosch must find, employ and be able to hold on to the best researchers, regardless of their mother tongue. With the European crisis, for example, Stellenbosch is becoming a lucrative opportunity for young exceptional researchers that cannot find employment in the developed world. A language policy that inhibits the appointment of such scholars, will also inhibit Stellenbosch’s ability to compete with other top international institutions – and, after a while, even other South African universities.

These market forces are pushing Afrikaans into the margins of undergraduate teaching. But that certainly doesn’t mean that Stellenbosch will not retain its Afrikaans character. The Woordfees continues to expand (there is little correlation between undergraduate teaching and this festival’s success, for example). Varsity Cup rugby at Coetzenburg is very much an Afrikaans affair. There is also no reason that the university could not support other “cultural” activities run by the SRC, or extra Afrikaans classes (already popular with foreign students). There is no reason why Litnet Akademie will not continue to see a rise in Afrikaans paper submissions, or the Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns not continue to reward excellent Afrikaans scientists.

The cost of fighting this unstoppable force, though, is high. Already, my Faculty will need to spend several millions of rand extra to teach parallel classes to groups of 40 students that can easily fit into a single class. Resources will thus be diverted from its main objective of supporting science (not scientific language). Stellenbosch will remain a good university (at least in comparison to other South African universities), but won’t be able to compete with the best internationally. We have this exceptional opportunity to be a gateway into Africa and a gateway for Africans into the wider world; viewed differently, an opportunity to welcome the world in Afrikaans rather than to isolate ourselves because of it. Indeed a delicate balancing act.

As Andreas van Wyk mentioned in his interview, the international academic language today is English. To compete for the best students and staff members, Stellenbosch will have to adopt it as language of instruction if it is to remain competitive. Not from government pressure, but because of market forces. That doesn’t mean that Afrikaans will die. Instead, I believe, it will continue to flourish in unforeseen, ironic spaces. Look at the remarkable success of Afrikaans music and movies and festivals. Consider Kobus Galloway’s Idees Vol Vrees (image above). Afrikaans will not survive because it is being taught at undergraduate level to a bunch of Afrikaans kids in separate classes. It will survive because it is beautiful, friendly, versatile and fun. Lekker, rather than lectured.

Written by Johan Fourie

March 23, 2012 at 22:26