Johan Fourie's blog

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Posts Tagged ‘colonization

How do we build a prosperous, decolonized South Africa?

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I recently attended an academic conference at the University of the Free State on the topic ‘Decolonizing Africa’. Much of the debate was, understandably, about the past: about the lingering effects of the (Atlantic) slave trade, European colonization that included the imposition of largely artificial borders, and the post-colonial failures of independent Africa. But at the final keynote, delivered by Prof Alois Mlambo of the University of Pretoria, the discussion turned to the future. How do we build a prosperous, decolonized South Africa?

One unescapably emotive topic is land reform. The expropriation and dispossession of land in South Africa is the root, many agreed, of the severe levels of inequality that plague the region. But how to correct this past injustice was not so easy; in the audience, too, were several Zimbabwean scholars quite critical of that country’s land reform programme. Over lunch, one Zimbabwean student told me the tragic story of his grandfather, a former farm worker on a white farm turned successful tobacco farmer after land reform, only to lose his land because he was considered ‘too successful’ by the ruling ZANU-PF party. The farm is now dormant.

Getting land reform right is fraught with difficulty. Not everyone that suffered land expropriation wants to return to farming – by far the largest number of recipients of successful land claims in South Africa choose the cash instead of the land. (This is often ignored by politicians and commentators when simply taking the hectares transferred as measure of land reform success.)  And even when recipients choose to return to the land, they often struggle to support themselves because of the small size of land allocated, or a lack of capital investment, or a lack of technical or management skills. There are also political consequences: because land recipients, like those in Zimbabwe, often do not receive title deed to the land they are given, they become ensnared by the political party that gave them the land. Why do people still vote for ZANU-PF despite the state of the economy? Because they worry a vote for the opposition means that they might lose their land. Most worryingly, it is often the original farm workers who lose the most, like the Zimbabwean student’s grandfather.

This is not to say that some form of wealth redistribution is not imperative. But whereas land (and the minerals it contained) was clearly the most productive resource when it was expropriated in the nineteenth century (which is the reason it was expropriated), a valid question is whether it still is the most productive. Of course, people value land not only for its economic uses: there are a myriad of historic, cultural and religious reasons why the land of your ancestors are treasured. But as a redistributive policy aimed at creating a more equitable society, is land reform the best way to create prosperity for those who suffered historical injustice?

Think of the fastest growing companies globally: which of them still rely predominantly on land ownership? AirBnB is a great example: it is the world’s largest accommodation service, without owning any property! For AirBnB and the myriad other unicorns that have created incredible wealth for their founders and shareholders, it is not land or physical property that creates wealth, but science and technology. (Even farmers know this: that is why they are investing in science to improve their crops and in technology to mechanize production.)

In the twenty-first century, land is what you buy with your wealth, and not the reason for your wealth. A quip about Stellenbosch wine farmers summarize this well: How do you make R1 million farming in Stellenbosch? You spend R2 million.

Prof Mlambo remarked that India and China, both with a history of colonisation, is not growing at above 5% because they have redistributed land. They have prospered because they embraced science and technology. Consider this: in the 2015/2016 academic year, 328,547 Chinese students studied in the United States; only 1,813 South African students did. (If you account for population size, 7 times more Chinese than South Africans students study in the US.) Take South Korea, a country with roughly the same population size as South Africa: 61,007 South Koreans traveled to study in the US in 2015/2016, 33 times more than South Africa.

So how would a redistribution policy look that takes science and technology seriously? I don’t have the answers, but here are some suggestions. Most of us would agree that education is key, but the South African education system has not made much progress in the last decade and it is unlikely to do so in the next. Redistribution must start at the first year of life. Publicly funded but privately run nurseries will remove the gap between the rich and poor that has already emerged when kids arrive at school. For primary and secondary education, a voucher system that incentivize private schools for the poor is an option. At tertiary level, we need more and better-funded universities, notably in science and technology. (It would help to send more of our smartest students abroad to study at the frontiers of science – they will return with new ideas and networks to propel our industries forward.) Visas for and recruitment of skilled immigrants can boost research and entrepreneurship. Improve free wifi access and invest in renewable energies. The private sector, because that is where most innovation occur, can be incentivized through appropriate legislation to offer shares to workers – or to those living in communities where they operate. There are a myriad of innovative possibilities.

If Zimbabwe has taught us anything, it is that politics may triumph over economic logic. Land reform in Zimbabwe was not an economic strategy in as much as it was a strategy to keep the ruling party in power. It has had severe economic consequences, as anyone visiting Zimbabwe today can attest. The real radical economic transformations of our age – just in my lifetime, the Chinese has managed to reduce the share of people living in absolute poverty from 88% to less than 2% – have not come from redistributing an unproductive twenty-first century resource. It has instead been the result of investments in science and technology. Any attempt to redistribute with the purpose of building a more prosperous society should take this as the point of departure.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 29 June 2017.


The remarkable Maori experience

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Moari Haka

Human height provide economic historians with a wonderful tool to measure living standards in the past. A society’s average height, it turns out, is to a large extent determined by the environment it inhabits during the early stages of life; the more proteins (e.g. milk and meat) we eat at a young age , the taller we tend to grow. This was especially true in the past, when people were poorer and nutrition varied more in different parts of the world.

The past week I attended a conference on Heights and Human Development, organised by Tim Hatton and Martine Mariotti of the Centre for Economic History at ANU in Canberra, Australia. The invited authors used historical heights to measure the diverse impacts of slavery (Rick Steckel), migration (Zach Ward), colonisation (Joerg Baten), social transfers (Diana Contreras Suarez), Chinese industrialisation (Stephen Morgan) and technological change (my own, with Mariotti and Kris Inwood, which will hopefully soon be available as a working paper).

But I particularly enjoyed a paper by Kris Inwood (with two colleagues) that investigated the heights of New Zealand’s Maori over the last two centuries. When the Pakeha (the whites from Europe and their descendants) arrived in New Zealand early in the nineteenth century, they described the native peoples as tall and strong. Yet, as Maori lands were taken up by Pakeha farmers, their stature declined: by the beginning of the twentieth century, Moari people had lost their reputation as a tall and strong people, and Inwood et al’s evidence shows that they were significantly shorter than their white countrymen.

This gap in the heights of the two groups persisted for more than fifty years, but, and this is the surprising result, by the 1970s the gap had narrowed and by the 1980s had closed completely. Children born to Maori parents in the 1980s are today as tall as their Pakeha compatriots. The exact reasons for this convergence in heights are unclear: Inwood suggested that it was due to government social transfers during the Golden Age, but clear causal evidence is lacking. Yet, I would argue, this is an incredibly important event to understand, because it has implications elsewhere, most notably in South Africa.

Whites in South Africa today are about 8cm taller than their black compatriots. There is no reason to expect that this has always been the case; the gap was almost certainly smaller at the beginning of the twentieth century and, although we have limited data, probably much smaller (and possibly even negligible) at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Two centuries of land dispossession and prejudiced policies saw a divergence in the living standards of South Africa’s different race groups. When exactly this happened, and by how much, is the question of ongoing work by myself, students and collaborators. (I will hopefully have more to report later this year.)

Yet Maori convergence suggests that the current discrepancy in height between black and white South Africans is not fatalistic, that aggregate differences in height are not set in stone as most people would tend to think. And more, Inwood et al’s evidence show that this could happen relatively quickly: Maori heights increased by 8cm over a 25 year period (from 170cm to 178cm between 1955 to 1980). If black South Africans experienced the same after the end of apartheid, we would have seen the large divergence in height disappearing within this decade.

By all accounts, though, despite many improvements in the living standards of black South Africans, the height discrepancies remain. We therefore need to learn whether it was better nutrition, female education, a stronger economy, luck, or maybe even a strengthening of Maori identity and pride (as was suggested at the workshop) that led to the remarkable Maori experience of the mid-twentieth century. This is the challenge for us as economic historians. As the Maori would say: Ma tini ma mano ka rapa te whai. By many, the work will be accomplished.

Written by Johan Fourie

March 9, 2015 at 06:05

Lessons from a computer game

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Those who know me well, know that one of my secret indulgences is playing Civilization, a computer game that let’s you build a virtual empire. I don’t remember when and where I first encountered Civ, but I do remember spending countless hours over weekends and school holidays building my Egyptian, French or Zulu empire. I’m glad that as a student I never owned a computer with the specs necessary to play, as I’m pretty sure it would have cost me another year at varsity. I do remember playing it while writing my Masters dissertation: for a month, I would write from 5am to 9am, and then play for the rest of the day. I even mentioned Civ IV in the conclusion of my dissertation, using it as a metaphor to explain why a lack of infrastructure is holding back African development.

Why is Civ so appealing (and addictive)? I suspect there are many reasons, but for me it certainly has something to do with the ability to rewrite history. Civilization is in essence a massive simulation of counterfactual history, simplified of course to make it playable. While your aim is to found towns and cities, explore new territories, invent new technologies and conquer other nations, I am always struck by the relevance of economic theories in explaining ‘success’ in the game. Play on the world map, for example, and see how difficult it is to win when starting on the continents of America or Africa. The reason? Economic isolation. Trade and warfare between competitive civilizations benefits your civilization more than if you had developed on your own in peace. This concurs with much of what we know about trade and economic history and is summarised by Gary Fields’ classic remark that “you can’t get rich by selling to yourself”. Trade requires infrastructure, though, and here Africa is particularly problematic. The vast distances and the thick jungles of the continent (clearly visible when you play on a customized map to reflect the actual size of continents) makes it nearly impossible to build roads and railways to connect and defend your cities, and if you’re building cities on the coast of southern Africa, the harbours of other nations are simply too far to trade with. And apart from losing out on profitable trade routes, you also lose out, most critically, on gaining new technologies from your neighbours. The lesson: if you settle in southern Africa, be prepared for a tough game.

ImpiNot only is geography a limitation, but the lack of alternative strategies is sometimes patently obvious. This is most clearly visible in one of the scenarios in the latest Civ V version which allows you to start as the Boers or the Zulus during the period of African colonisation. There really is only one way to win as the Zulus: destroy the Boers as soon as possible and found as many cities in the ’empty’ African interior. Similarly with the Boers: destroy the Zulus and beat back (or trade with) the Portuguese (in Mozambique) or the English (in Cape Town). Was there ever really an alternative to the hundred-years war between settler farmers and the Xhosa (from 1779 to 1879)? Perhaps we will uncover different options if a larger South African map was available, and one that included more southern African tribes. I’d like to see the Tswana, for example. Their special building could be the Kgotla (which could replace the courthouse and be built in any city (not only occupied ones), reducing unhappiness) and their special unit could be the Donkey (which improves the efficiency of workers). Or the Basotho, with their special building the Mokorotlo (or hat maker, which grants one additional gold for every grassland) and their unit the War Pony (which replaces the chariot archer and allows units to cross mountains). For those who haven’t played, the Zulu’s have a special building – the Ikanda – which replaces the barracks and grants extra experience to units, and a special unit – the Impi – which replaces the pikeman.

Simulations are used in many fields to predict future events, and economics is no exception. The world is incredibly complex, and simulations (based on our theories of how the economy functions) help us to explain what the impact of some shock would be. A good macroeconomic model, for example, can explain how an increase in the interest rate should affect other economic variables. Civilization was never meant to simulate the past or the future, but it recently did exactly that: one man who goes by the name Lycerius played a single Civ II game for more than a decade. In the game, he reached the year 3991. What does the future look like? Bleak. He finds himself (playing with the Celts) in perpetual war with the Americans and Vikings, with all other populations annihilated. Communism is the only political system that allows him to constantly make war. Malnourishment and pollution is rife. Sea levels rise. CNN reports on his efforts here. The one positive about this sad state of future affairs is that the game designers did not (and could not) factor in future technological innovations that might alleviate all this misery. Which just shows us the importance of incentivising innovation if we are to survive as a species.

As computers become more powerful, our models will become more complex too. Civ V: Brave New World (the third extension of the fifth edition) does an excellent job of replicating the major historical developments, perhaps with the exception of two things. Disease has shaped (African) history far more than anything else. The black plague, some scholars argue, were the root causes of the Industrial Revolution. Smallpox killed First Nation peoples at rates that warfare could never do. The deadly disease environment in many African countries forced Europeans, according to Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson, to build extractive institutions that continue to have a detrimental effect on development. The resistance of  Africans to tropical diseases was also pivotal into them being coerced into slavery. If the next Civ could add disease and slavery, history might really come alive.

Two weeks ago, Sid Meyer and his team of Firaxis designers released the latest Civilization installment: Beyond Earth. As the name suggests, it takes mankind into space after an unexplained “Great Mistake” on earth. At the start of the game, you must choose one of eight different factions that builds a space ship and leaves earth to permanently settle a distant planet. (For an explanation of why mankind needs to go into space, listen to the two designers discuss it here.) On the new planet you have to choose one of three philosophies (or affinities as they call it) about how you want to live in your new environment. The Harmony affinity allow humans to adapt to the indigenous life, developing new technologies that eventually make you a new species. Choosing the Supremacy affinity means you choose to improve the robotics that allowed you to reach the new planet. Your interaction with the new environment is limited and you rely generally on advanced technology to stay alive and conquer. Following the Purity affinity suggests you believe that humans are the pinnacle of evolution and you therefore want to recreate (through prodigious terraforming) Earth in your new environment. Which affinity you choose, I think, will determine how you interact with the new environment and alien life forms.

columbus_1772950bI wondered whether there are parallels in the process of European colonisation? Some colonisers set out to create a new society, intermixing with the indigenous population. Think of the Cape Verde islands or Mauritius or perhaps Brazil and Mexico. Others set out to create a new Europe. Here the settler societies of the US, Australia and, to a lesser extent, South Africa are good examples. Others, again, tried to simply extract as much as possible, not settling but simply using their superior technology to extract resources as fast as possible. These are the places AJR say have ‘extractive institutions’, places like the Congo, and Hiati and the Philippines. It’s not difficult to see which of these turned out best for the descendants of the settlers, but the same is not true when we consider the welfare of the indigenous people of course. The millions of American Indians or Aboriginal Australians or Cape Khoesan that died due to smallpox or European guns had to give way for the Europeans to create their New Europe. (New Zealand was literally renamed after the home province of the European mapmakers. Think also of New York, first named New Amsterdam.) It is also patently obvious that the indigenous populations in the ‘extractive’ colonies benefited very little, even though they generally survived. If we were to maximise the welfare of the indigenous populations, integration was evidently the better alternative.

It’s not clear how humanity will react when we first discover alien life on a new planet. But let’s hope we learn from our own planet’s history – and the simulations of a computer game – about what not to do.

Counterfactual Africa

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Africa before European arrival: Swedish artist Nikolaj Cyon used historical sources to draw a map of Africa without European settlement or colonialism

Terra intactum: Nikolaj Cyon used historical sources to draw a counterfactual map of Africa  (Source:

What if Europeans never colonized Africa? What would modern-day boundaries of African countries look like had the Scramble for Africa never occurred? The short answer is that we will never know, but the thought-experiment is appealing. So appealing, in fact, that Swedish artist Nikolaj Cyon decided to create a map of what Africa would look like today if borders of ethnic groups remained fixed from around 1600. The above map, showing the South on top (to subvert the traditional Europe-on-top orientation), draws on historical sources to show the territories of the major ethnic groups that existed in Africa prior to European arrival.

So what would a tourist, visiting this counterfactual southern (northern?) Africa, have seen? (If you really want the full experience of this post, listen to this song while reading.) If the Khoe groups of the Cape decided to unify politically, a country roughly the shape of today’s Western Cape including half of the Eastern Cape (up onto the Fish River) would have existed. Let’s call it Khoe-country. If I had to venture a guess, the landscape would have been dotted with villages – around Paarl, Swellendam, George, Graaff Reinet – with the capital of Khoe-country around modern-day Grahamstown: Gona. Traveling east, our tourist would have entered the land of the Xhosas and visited the capital Mthatha. Further up the coast, the kingdom of the Zulus, Zululand, the largest country in southern Africa, would have welcomed our visitor. Here the visitor would have seen the beautiful hills around the capital Ulundi and perhaps paid a short visit to the forgotten kingdom of the Basotho people across the stunning Drakensberg mountains. Traveling North, the visitor would have visited the lands of the BaPedi, and their capital, Phsiring, and from here back west into the BaTswana kingdom, the country of mines. Returning to the Cape, the traveller would have met the San-peoples of Komani and Xam, living in the arid regions of the Kalahari around the Gariep river.

What is most interesting about this map, perhaps, is the extent to how colonial boundaries cut ethnic boundaries. Consider the BaTswana, with their capital in Gaborone. Today’s Botswana only includes a fraction of the territory of the then BaTswana people. Had BaTswana been a country, it would have included large parts of South Africa’s Northwest province (platinum mines) and the Northern Cape. Even Kimberley (diamonds) would have been part of Botswana. But the haphazard colonial borders also benefited the BaTswana. Today, Botswana encompasses almost all of the Khwe en parts of the !Xoo and Khomane San territories, peoples that have lost their independence.

A number of recent papers in Economics attempt to assess the costs of these artificial borders on African development. In a recently published paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Stelios Michalopoulos and Elias Papaioannou use light density as measured by satellite images to investigate whether ethnic groups split by colonial borders exhibit different rates of development, and why. They do find significant differences between two ethnic groups divided between two countries like, for example, between the Tswana of Botswana and Tshwana of South Africa, but attribute this not to differences in national institutions (country-wide policies) but instead to ethnic-specific traits (like the role of chiefs, culture and pre-colonial institutions). Their paper is open to critique: their use of Murdoch’s ethnolinguistic map of Africa, a popular but controversial map of Africa’s many ethnic groups, is problematic. (The above map was presumably not drawn with Murdoch’s data, as the boundaries of the two maps do not overlap.) Nevertheless, their and other results provide quantitative proof that the artificial partitioning of African countries had a detrimental effect, causing conflict and lower levels of development.

Naturally, in our counterfactual world, it is extremely unlikely that borders would have remained fixed for 400 years. Ethnic borders in the pre-colonial were in continuous flux, and there is no reason that conflict over territories would have stopped suddenly. Take Johannesburg, for example, the location of the world’s wealthiest gold mines. On Cyon’s map, Johannesburg sits at the junction of the kingdoms of the BaSotho, Zulu, BaPedi and BaTswana. Is it not possible that the discovery of gold would have caused severe conflict over resources between these groups?

Two countries, of course, do fit the current map of Africa quite well: Lesotho and Swaziland. Both countries experienced little European settlement, and while the Basotho did lose territory to the Voortrekker settlers, the position of Swaziland on Cyon’s map is exactly the same size and in the same location as modern-day Swaziland. So how did these countries perform in the absence of colonisation? Not great. Swaziland has a GDP per capita of around $6000, ranked 116 out of 187 countries by the IMF. More than 50% of the country’s annual budget is paid by South Africa. Life expectancy is at 50 years. Much of the reason for this low level of development can be attributed to geographic and institutional reasons: both countries are land-locked and have tiny markets, and communal ownership remains widespread. In the counterfactual world as drawn by Cyon, it is highly likely that more of these small, land-locked and poor countries would have existed.

Counterfactual history is art not science, fiction not fact. (Or, if you trust Sheldon and Amy’s judgement, a board game.) And more importantly, asking what the map would have looked like, and what it should look like, are two very different questions. But counterfactual history does challenge the imagination and, more importantly, propagate the promise that the future is malleable.

Written by Johan Fourie

April 17, 2014 at 13:35