Johan Fourie's blog

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Posts Tagged ‘history

Writing a biography of an uncharted people

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Two weeks ago, early on the Tuesday morning while still in bed, I opened my laptop to start the day. I was staying in a guest house in Guelph, Canada, where I was on a short visit before heading off to the Economic History Association meetings in San José at the end of that week. Scanning through my mails, my eyes came to rest on an address I had expected – an email from our Development and Alumni Relations officer. It read only: ‘Geluk Johan!’ – ‘Congratulations Johan!’ Our Mellon application was successful. The Biography of an Uncharted People project had begun.

The idea for the Mellon project had started roughly a year earlier. South Africa’s individual-level census data for much of the period before 1948 has not been preserved, and economic history is increasingly moving towards understanding ‘history from below’, using large datasets to investigate the social, demographic and economic aspects of human behaviour in the past. Fortunately, large numbers of other types of individual-level records have been preserved in South Africa’s archives, and are increasingly being digitised by institutions such as These records include things like marriage records, death notices, voters’ rolls, tax censuses and slave emancipation records. Using such source material, I believe, would have two main benefits: firstly, it would open many new avenues for historical inquiry and, secondly, it would help equip history students with the skills of the data revolution, something I’ve written about before.

Dyanti Ngcita

An example of a Cape province death certificate

But transcription is expensive. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, however, is a generous supporter of research in the humanities, and after a rigorous internal and external application process, with many excellent competing project bids, we received, on that wonderful Tuesday morning, the happy news of success – starting in January 2018, the project will be funded for five years.

This will not only be a South African project. We have brought together an impressive team of scholars, with a wide range of expertise. Now we are scouting for academically dedicated and enthusiastic students to join us in writing this new biography. We offer bursaries from postdoc to Honours level. More information is available on the project website.

I am excited about what the newly transcribed information, currently hidden away in millions of unused documents, can reveal. I am excited about building a team of dedicated and brilliant young scholars, a team that can continue long after the five years funding term. And I am also excited to join a new faculty and department, encouraging inter-disciplinary research that will, hopefully, provide new insights into the lives of South Africans, present and past.


On racism and restitution: a Stellenbosch journey

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Nic Spaull, PhD student at Stellenbosch, recently wrote a long response to a comment I had made on his Facebook wall. In a nutshell, Nic’s argument was that the dominant culture at Stellenbosch is white and Afrikaans and therefore also conservative and subversively homophobic. I still don’t agree entirely with Nic, but let us focus on another issue which Nic and I have debated since his post and to which he alludes in his final paragraph: that Stellenbosch has not done enough to acknowledge and distance itself from its apartheid history.

Here’s the evidence: There is still a DF Malan* building on campus (erected with National Party funds to honour the founder of apartheid). There is still a plaque commemorating Hendrik Verwoerd in one of the entrances to the Accounting and Statistics building (which used to be called the Verwoerd building). These are the architects of apartheid. The fact that these names and artefacts continue to exist sends a strong signal, Nic argues, that Stellenbosch is unwilling to change. Black students find these relics deplorable and possibly preserved with malicious intend. These relics say: ‘You are now stepping on Afrikaner domain – this is our bastion’.

Architechts of apartheid: Malan, Strijdom and Verwoerd all have Stellenbosch roots

Malan, Strijdom and Verwoerd all have Stellenbosch roots

There is no doubt that some black students find Stellenbosch an uncomfortable and often abusive place. In my conversations with them, they’ve expressed similar views to those expressed on Nic’s blog or on other forums. Racist incidents around Stellenbosch’s bars and pubs seem, sadly, to be a particularly popular anecdote. But for a long time, the university itself harboured an inhospitable attitude towards English-speaking black students. Classes were only in Afrikaans, with little additional support provided. Residences seemed to be places of white exclusivity, the last remnants of what must look like a modern-day version of the Broederbond. Even though the university continued to excel in research, moving up international rankings, the campus remained, and remains, predominantly white and Afrikaans.

My sense, though, is that this is changing. I’ve lived in Stellenbosch for more than a decade. The campus today looks remarkably different than it did when I was a student. Nic showed some graphs that suggest little has changed, which is the reason he argues that not enough is being done. I tend to differ, mostly because I believe that the best type of change is that which happens organically. A call, if you like, for incrementalism. Here’s some hard numbers published on the university website: since 2007, white, male undergraduate students have increased by 9.6%. In the same period, black, male undergraduate students increased by 73%. White females increased by 6.4%. Black females increased by 148%. Yes, black students are still a minority, but these numbers reflect a rapidly growing minority. Given another decade, Stellenbosch should have the same racial profile that UCT has today.

Accessibility is one reason for these dramatic changes. All courses in the faculty where I teach (Economics and Management Sciences) are now taught in English. In 2014, for the first time in Stellenbosch University’s history, more English-speaking students enrolled than Afrikaans-speaking students. Various campus activities, like the very successful Diversity Week, encourage debates about gender, race, religion and sexual orientation, and activities that engage students from different social networks. Several building projects on campus are actively promoting social integration between those living in residences and commuters, for example. The point is: the Stellenbosch campus in 2015 will look very different from the Stellenbosch campus of 2010.

Many Afrikaans-speaking whites might sneer at such changes. ‘There are more than enough English universities for English-speaking South Africans to go to’, the argument goes. ‘Why do they want to come to Stellenbosch?’ Three reasons: 1) Because, if Stellenbosch wants to be the best university in Africa, we want to attract the best students. For a long time, and for historical reasons created by the Malan’s and the Verwoerd’s of the past, the best students used to be white and Afrikaans. Not any more. 2) Because the firm of the future wants to appoint employees that can interact with a diverse array of clients and colleagues. Computer programmers, marketers, scientists, engineers, artists will have to collaborate with people that do not share the same ideas about the world. The best place to get exposure of such interaction is at varsity. 3) Not only that, but one of the most fundamental lessons we have learned is that diversity – of race, religion, ideas – promotes the scholarly process, that there are positive externalities generated by interacting with people that see the world different from yourself. The whole (universitas) is greater than the sum of its parts.

Which brings us back to the question of whether the DF Malan building should be renamed. Perhaps renaming it to the Beyers Naude Memorial Centre will send a strong signal, even if it is only a signal. But I fear that is a too easy solution. As Nic noted to me, if the name is changed, Stellenbosch can take the ‘moral high ground’ having distanced itself from its horrible past. No, Nic. The moral high ground is exactly the place we should avoid, because it leads to self-satisfaction and self-congratulation that you have ‘dealt with the past’ when South African society all around us is so obviously still affected by its legacy. Changing a plaque on a wall cannot and should not give ‘us’ the moral high ground. Instead, our collective history should serve as a constant reminder not only of where we come from, but how we’ve travelled and how far we still have to go.

This week Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi’s wife, Nombulelo, received an Honours in Public Administration from Stellenbosch University. The degree was conferred on her in the DF Malan Memorial Centre. Some may see this as irony, and perhaps others may see shame and tastelessness. I disagree. In a country where our recent history has such a devastating impact on the present, this is how we claim agency of the future. I say let’s keep the DF Malan Memorial Centre. Let’s keep the historical artefacts in buildings to apartheid founders. For Cecil’s sake, let’s keep Rhodes University’s name, and the Rhodes Scholarships, and the Rhodes memorial in Cape Town, even if it is named after one of the most racist men in history. And we do so not to celebrate their deeds, but to celebrate how far we’ve come as a country.

It’s been only twenty years since the end of apartheid. In another twenty years, Stellenbosch will be irrevocably different. Not because you won’t hear Afrikaans (you will), or because you won’t see a white face (there will still be many), but because it will be a place where the sharpest minds congregate to solve Africa’s most daunting challenges. And to graduate in a hall that remind us of the long and costly road to freedom for all.

*Lindie Koorts, postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Free State and former PhD-student at Stellenbosch, has written an excellent new biography of DF Malan. The Financial Mail reviews it here, or you can read Steve Hofmeyr’s review in Afrikaans here. Listen to Lindie’s interview on SABC here.

Written by Johan Fourie

April 25, 2014 at 09:38

Global apartheid

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I have recurring nightmares of an incident that happened to me at a consulate a couple of years ago. (For my own safety, I won’t mention which country’s consulate.) This was my second visit to said country (the first one had been to a different part of it), and I was particularly excited to go, having only heard wonderful things and because I would meet new and old acquaintances at the meeting that was scheduled there. I had prepared all required documentation for my appointment at the consulate; I travel quite frequently and know the drill by now. I arrived. A very friendly looking lady welcomed me, and asked how she could help. I’m here for my visa application, I said. Great, show me your documents. I did. All was going swimmingly.

StampedThen she noted that the fees had increased. I don’t remember the exact amount – I’ve since tried to block it out – but it was somewhere around R900, plus R300 postage. I remarked on how expensive it is, simply to visit a country. She looked up blankly, her smile gone.

“You can be lucky we allow you at all.”

Those words still ring in my ears every time I have to apply for a visa, Schengen (to visit countries in the European Union) or otherwise. It is without exception a frightening experience (although, I must say, some consulates are better than others. Again, no names). Make no mistake, it is also expensive, not only in terms of money but also because many countries now require you to fly up to Pretoria once every five years to undertake a five-minute test (I live in Stellenbosch, which is close to Cape Town – about 1400 km from Pretoria). I’ve heard of a number of friends and colleagues that have decided to cancel their trips abroad when they realised the effort required to get what is essentially a sticker in a scrapbook. (It would be fascinating to get South Africa’s outgoing tourism numbers to see whether the imposition of these new rules have curtailed travel to those countries – dissertation topic anyone?)

Yet we – and the rest of the world – continue to find the system acceptable, even desirable. (Take for example our angst about Zimbabweans entering our country illegally, and the calls to better protect our borders.) We believe it is important to discriminate against people based on their nationality, on where they happened to have been born. Those fortunate to have been born in affluent countries have few restrictions on their movement; those born in the less well-off world are increasingly shackled to their roots.

This, to me at least, sounds a lot like a system we had in South Africa about a generation ago, a system which required certain groups in the country to carry a passbook (Wikipedia even calls it an ‘internal passport’). The passbook noted whether black South Africans requested permission to be in a certain area during a certain time, and whether that permission was granted or denied. It also explicitly asked for the reason of visit. To anyone who has ever filled in a Schengen visa application, this sounds eerily familiar.

You might say that there is a big difference between discrimination based on race and discrimination based on nationality. Surely countries must be able to fortify their borders, to keep out the unseemly, to protect their own economic interests against what would likely be a flood of economic migrants if immigration requirements were relaxed. Surely the survival of the self is salient – ‘our’ people, ‘our’ culture, ‘our’ language, ‘our’ religion. We see everywhere in Europe, even in mellow Denmark, Sweden and Norway (those bastions of equality), the rise of political movements that agitate for higher fences, stronger walls against the evil immigrants. And apartheid, the argument goes, was different: it was white South Africans that had taken the land of black South Africans and now required them to carry a pass to travel to what was essentially their own land.

I’m not sure it’s that different at all. The reasons the fathers of apartheid imposed these pass laws were also political: to protect the interests of their electorate, to protect ‘their’ culture, ‘their’ language, ‘their’ people against the encroachment of the ‘Black threat’ or ‘Commies’ or ‘liberals’, depending on the creativity of the leader. Make no mistake, black labour was important for the development of industrial South Africa, and white politicians were extremely aware of this. (So, too, in Europe.) But, these leaders argued, as long as these workers returned to ‘their’ people, ‘their’ areas after a few months of hard labour, then that would be the best for everyone involved. And, in any case, these areas were ‘their’ traditional areas. Here they were partly right, of course, but chose to ignore the fact that large parts of formerly black lands had been confiscated by whites two or three generations earlier. (Most of South Africa’s first land redistribution occurred in the nineteenth century. The new ownership was solidified by the 1913 Land Act.)

Yet, to return to the global comparison, the South African experience was not so unique: Texas belonged to Mexico until 1836, yet it is extremely difficult for Mexicans to enter the United States, legally or illegally. And then there are the many colonial experiences: the Scramble for Africa has turned into the Scorn of Africa. Ruled by Britain for 104 years, black South Africans now need to pay a tenth of their median annual income to just land at Heathrow airport (even if just for a connecting flight).

“You can be lucky we allow you at all.”

If apartheid was a crime against humanity – which I believe it was – then how do we justify global apartheid?

Written by Johan Fourie

August 22, 2013 at 09:10

Empire and emigration

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The 1820 British settlers arrive in Algoa Bay, Port Elizabeth. Image courtesy of:

The 1820 British settlers arrive in Algoa Bay, Port Elizabeth. Image courtesy of:

22 million Brits left Britain between 1814 and 1913. Two-thirds of them went to America, the other spread out over the world: from Canada and the Caribbean, to India, Africa, and Australasia. About a third returned to Britain, only to leave again to some other corner of the globe. It was a time of empire building, of Britain conquering the globe.

Yet – so writes John Darwin in an excellent new book, Unfinished Empire – it was an empire built without a blueprint. The experiences of empire building were as varied as the diversity of the regions it engulfed, both for the colonizers and for the colonized. Rather than dividing chapters by region, the narrative follows more general themes: making contact, taking possession, settling in, warfare, traffic and trade, ruling, rebellion, and converts and culture. This global history makes for compelling reading: it points out the similarities but also the idiosyncrasies of the colonial experiences: the economic, political and ideological reasons why settlers could easily ‘grab’ Australia, to a lesser extent New Zealand, and to a much lesser extent South Africa.

South Africa was different. There exclusion (by wipe out) was practised against the San hunter-gatherers. But against the Xhosa, the Zulus and other pastoralist peoples (who also grew foodgrains), these tactics were useless. They were too numerous, too rooted, and in white eyes too useful, to be driven away. In a country too poor (before the finding of gold) to attract mass immigration from Europe (the British were always fewer in number than the local-born ‘Dutch’), black land and black labour were equally valuable. So the mode of exclusion was varied.

Darwin describes the trials and tribulations of the new settlers: how they struggled to survive in New Plymouth, New Zealand, or how they profited from land speculation in Canada. What surprised me the most, however, was the sheer scale of the emigration: 22 million people during the century when Britain is experiencing the greatest Revolution the world has ever seen, the Industrial Revolution. Darwin argues that it was exactly the economic pressures caused by the Industrial Revolution that fuelled the urge to migrate:

The gradual industrialization of many skilled trades through the rest of the century pushed men and women out of work or threatened a sharp decline in their wages (and thus of their status). As Britain imported more and more of its food, and especially its grain, many rural districts, not just in Scotland and Ireland, began to seem ‘marginal’. … It became the conventional view among English economists that the problem of Irish poverty could be solved only by large-scale migration – though preferably not to England. With the free sale of land and the consolidation of landholding, agriculture in Ireland might at last become profitable (p. 95).

But there was another ideology that fuelled emigration, not elitist but popular. While most people with influence had come to accept the idea that Britain was first and foremost a commercial and industrial state – the premise behind adopting free trade in corn – in the rest of society in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, a quite different set of beliefs survived. Notions of a ‘just’ wage, and of the respect owed to skilled work fuelled bitter resentment against ‘industrial’ employment and ‘factory discipline’. More rooted still was the idealization of property, of the right to cultivate a plot of land if not as a main income then as an insurance against old age and misfortune. The demand for ‘allotments’ – small plots of land to which urban workers could retreat – was a cry of the Chartists, the great working-class protest movement of the 1830s and 1840s. Even those who migrated abroad from Britain’s towns and cities were only a generation away from life in a village community, sometimes with rights to common or woodland. If migrants were pushed out by economic hardship or worse, they were also pulled out by the lure of free or cheap land, the huge social magnet that was dangled before them by rival destinations in America and Australasia. When settlers in New Zealand explained what they had gained from the change, it was the security of owning even a small plot of land that they most often referred to (p. 96).


It’s difficult to miss the striking similarities of the above sentiments with the demands of modern South Africa: the call for a ‘just’ wage for workers, the pressure for ‘land’ redistribution, the reproach of ‘industrial’ capitalism. But, different to nineteenth-century Britain, emigration for the poor South African is not an option. The best the poor can do in South Africa is to migrate to cities where they have a greater likelihood of finding a job and access to better (although not great) education, health and infrastructure services. (Remember, in South Africa the ‘poor’ are those living in rural areas, in female-headed households, with poor access to services (including education), and often affected by HIV/Aids.) But urbanization can create other economic and social challenges: crime, for example, or a greater (infectious) disease burden.

In industrializing Britain the poorest also moved to cities. But they had an alternative: to move abroad, find a job in the labour-scarce New World and, hopefully, acquire land of their own to cultivate and build a future. When, in 1819, the British government advertised for settlers to come to South Africa, 80 000 poor applied. Only 5000 1820 settlers were sponsored. Emigration provided an outlet for the economic and social pressures of the nineteenth-century English city.

Yet the inter-country movement of labour is today more restricted than it has ever been in history. Countries are most likely to accept high-skilled immigrants, but even then the process is expensive and cumbersome. For unskilled labour, there is virtually no hope of emigration except, for an (un)lucky few, as refugees. Opposition against further migration is gaining popularity; fences are being reinforced. Global apartheid is on the increase.

22 million poor could escape the poverty of industrializing Britain in the nineteenth century through emigration. Would England have continued along the path of industrial transformation if the pressure cooker poor could not be released through emigration?

Written by Johan Fourie

July 2, 2013 at 18:28

2020 vision

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One of man’s eternal quests is to predict the future. We all want to know what will happen tomorrow, next year, or twenty years from now, not only because we are curious beings but because it has a real effect on how we behave today: I have one year left to live? Well, perhaps I should go on that expensive vacation. The economy will boom within the next five years? Well, perhaps I need to buy that property today.

Modeling the future is therefore one of the activities economists and other scientists tend to do and, if they are relatively successful (i.e. accurate), are rewarded for richly. Take New York University economist Nouriel Roubini who famously predicted the collapse of the US housing market and the consequent recession. Here’s his entry on Wikipedia: “As Roubini’s descriptions of the current economic crisis have proven to be accurate, he is today a major figure in the US and international debate about the economy, and spends much of his time shuttling between meetings with central bank governors and finance ministers in Europe and Asia. Although he is ranked only 512th in terms of lifetime academic citations, he was #4 on Foreign Policy magazine’s list of the top 100 global thinkers.” They neglect to say he makes a ton of money. (Roubini continues his bearish stance on the economy which provides a clear lesson for future economists: pessimism sells.)

But it is not only economists who attempt to forecast the future. Historians such as Niall Ferguson (Civilization) and Ian Morris (Why the West Rules – for Now) use the past to map the future. Morris’s contribution builds on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel to argue that the reason the West ruled was mostly due to geography and, importantly, how societies adapt to the changing climate and environment. Ferguson argues that Europe developed six ‘killer apps’ that ensured that they ruled the world after 1411. Both authors paint pessimistic pictures for future Western domination. Economists often get heavily criticised for projecting or forecasting trends two, three years or even a decade into the future. Much of the criticism is true; the world is complex and by projecting what will happen even a few months down the line, economists risk looking like fools. And ask any investor. Despite (or perhaps because of) no quantitative evidence, these historians have found a gap in the market: Using mega-histories to explain the rise and fall of societies, they claim to be able to see far into the future.


Enter the mathematicians. As an article in Nature (and a new one in Wired) suggest, a group of mathematicians have taken up the forecasting crusade by using newly digitised historical data and undertaking cliodynamics. They claim to find cycles of upheaval in society: as the graph illustrates, every 50 years (1870, 1920 and 1970) have seen major social disruptions. They predict that 2020 will see a new flood of protests, riots and/or terrorism.

There is much to disagree with: Is this only true for the US, or a global phenomenon? Were the US really a peace-loving society between 1780-1840? Are three data points enough to statistically predict future trends? But the problem is more fundamental: the US (and world) economy today is very different from those of earlier periods. What would be the justification that similar patterns would emerge today when, in economics jargon, the data generating process is fundamentally different?

Finding historical cycles is an old fantasy (Isaac Asimov’s Foundation spells out the science of Psychohistory). But it is little more than fantasy. Historical statistics can tell us a lot about history (or help us reinterpret history, i.e. cliometrics), but, like the long-run predictions of historians, it has little scientific merit for making (accurate) predictions about the future.

Written by Johan Fourie

April 12, 2013 at 16:04

Remembering history

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Last week I wrote about the 1913 Land Act and its counterfactual, and sent the post to several opinion-makers. While the first few days were relatively quiet, Lindiwe Mazibuko, leader of the opposition in the South African parliament, responded on Friday afternoon with the following tweet: “Do not send me offensive, ahistorical ‘the blacks should be grateful’ drivel masquerading as analysis. I am not that person.”

I guess that warrants a response, although to be honest, I’m still a bit flabbergasted by Ms Mazibuko’s knee-jerk reaction. Like most authors who receive critical referee reports, I gave it some time. I reread the post. I got second opinions. I reread the post again. And in the end I decided not to respond directly to her. Perhaps I should’ve been clear that I don’t make any policy recommendations. Perhaps I should’ve emphasised that this is a thought experiment: that I don’t wish to make judgments on what should have been, but rather, what might have been. So let me be absolutely clear: I don’t believe ‘blacks should be grateful’ and I do not advocate such a view in my post.

In preparation for my first graduate Economic History class this morning, though, I was forced to think about who writes economic history in South Africa, and why we do so. Reading Barry Eichengreen’s excellent contribution on how our understanding of the causes and consequences of the Great Depression influenced US policy-making during the recent Great Recession, I wonder whether we will learn similar lessons from our own history. South Africa has a disfigured history, and the period of oppression of the majority by the minority is still fresh in our collective memory. Which means we tend to not want to talk about it. Or, worse, we tend to cluster everything before 1994 in the ‘evil box’, with the insinuation that nothing that happened in South Africa before the democratic elections can be useful for understanding and improving our country today.

We  need leaders that can engage critically with our past, and more so if our past is one of suffering, discrimination and inequality. As Eichengreen notes, knowledge of the past is especially helpful in times of crisis. Ben Bernanke’s research on the Great Depression allowed the Federal Reserve to react quickly to the recent financial crisis. John F. Kennedy won a Pulitzer for a popular history of the Senate and could fall back on his knowledge of the events of Pearl Harbor when faced with the Cuban Missile Crisis. But more broadly, a remembered history – even if it is tainted (whose history isn’t?) – also reinforces the principles of democracy that many had fought for. As Ms Mazibuko would acknowledge herself, past practices are increasingly popular with the current generation of politicians and bureaucrats. If we ignore the past how will we recognize déjà vu?

Let’s debate the past, even if we don’t agree with what happened, how it happened and why it happened. Let’s tolerate alternative opinions because we might be wrong. The most discouraging aspect of this exchange with Ms Mazibuko is her rejection of this basic liberal tenet.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 7, 2013 at 13:31

An ode to demography

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Global population growth according to the CIA World Factbook

Global population growth according to the CIA World Factbook

In his latest book ‘The Last Afrikaner Leaders’, Hermann Giliomee notes three ‘badly flawed assumptions’ of the Apartheid government: the carrying capacity of the homelands, the historic claim to the land, and the growth of the black population. While the first two have solicited much attention, the last one has, surprisingly, been neglected. In those years, the study of demography was still at an early stage. Jan Sadie, professor in Economics at Stellenbosch and South Africa’s pre-eminent demographer, greatly underestimated the growth of the black population. This was an important error. Given his calculations, Sadie believed that complete separation between the races was still a possibility. But what if he had known that the black population would grow more than five times faster than his projections? Would integration – however skewed and unfair – not have been the only option available to Verwoerd and his followers?

Instead of discussing this counterfactual world, the point here is that we tend to underestimate the power of demographic changes. To explain changes to GDP per capita, economists focus mostly on the GDP rather than the per capita. But population growth rates change rapidly and the impact of the demographic dividend – a rise in the rate of economic growth due to a rising share of working age people in a population – is often neglected. Perhaps one cause of the high South African unemployment rate is the large increase in the number of working age individuals that was born at the end of the 1980s? Or perhaps the slower growth in Europe is not only a consequence of rising debt, but because there are fewer people to pay it? Or perhaps the lower rates of crime in New York – as Freakonomics authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner argued – is due to legalised abortion two decades earlier, removing a subsection of the population that would have had a higher probability of committing crime? The Census 2011, for example, suggests that South Africa’s fertility rate during the 2000s declined dramatically. What are the implications for the number of kids going to school? And what if the unemployment rate begins to fall in 2020? Do we congratulate ourselves for a thriving economy, or realise that it’s simply the result of a smaller denominator rather than a growing numerator?

Accurate demography statistics is also critical if we to understand development over time. In compiling national income statistics for various twentieth century African countries, Morten Jerven at Simon Frasier University noticed that for most African countries, official population estimates are scattered and often don’t add up. Colonial administrators most likely had to minimise costs and censuses were thus often little more than guesswork. And after colonisation, the new independent governments often had an incentive to overestimate the population numbers of their own constituencies, boosting population numbers far beyond their actual size. Morten and Ewout Frankema is busy with a large project to find archival sources to recalibrate African population sizes for the twentieth century. In the latest edition of Economic History of Developing Regions, Leandro Prados de la Escosura use these and other data to calculate new GDP growth estimates for twentieth century African countries.

Often, demographic indicators are all we have left of the past. In a new paper, Jeanne Cilliers and I use a new genealogical dataset to calculate demographic estimates of the settler population in the Cape Colony (Working Paper here). We find that the settlers often lived longer than many of their eighteenth century counterparts (i.e. the poor) in Europe – and that the average life span increased from around 40 years to 54 years during the nineteenth century, probably due to higher incomes and better medicine (which, incidentally, is higher than the life expectancy of South Africans in 2010 – 52.1 years). It also appears as though this rise occurs a decade or two earlier than the discovery of diamonds in the South African interior – which is when incomes probably began to increase. Demography is also about much more than incomes: household size was also high for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (about nine children per male), falling to four by the 1930s. In more recent work, Jeanne also investigates the marriage patterns of Cape settlers, showing that women’s age of marriage increased from about 20 at the beginning of the eighteenth century to around 26 in the 1840s. In contrast, men’s age of marriage declined from a high of 28 at the start of the period to be on par with women at the end. Such evidence has important implications for understanding household size, fertility and female education, for example.

It’s surprising that the field of demography doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. A better understanding of our future – and our past – depends on it.

Written by Johan Fourie

January 20, 2013 at 23:07