Johan Fourie's blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Jean de Villiers

The fruit of the vine

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Signatures of some of the French Huguenot migrants to South Africa. Source.

As I write this in my cozy hotel room, I hear lions growl in the background. Next to my window, guinea fowl do what they do best: squeal with a voice that evolution would find difficult to explain. Somewhere a donkey hee-haws its own contribution to the cacophony. At 5am it’s still supposed to be silent night. But not in Pretoria. The sun is rising. Welcome to Africa.

Pretoria is a different country, and so is the past. I recently read Elsa Joubert’s The Hunchback Missionary, a book of historical fiction first published in Afrikaans in 1989 about a Dutch missionary traveling to the Cape around the year 1800 with the purpose to bring Christianity to an uncivilized world. In the end, it’s Aart Anthonij van der Lingen, the hunchback missionary, whose worldview is challenged by what he sees and experiences in the wilderness of the Northern Cape and the Eastern Frontier. It’s a world we would find difficult to imagine: months of painfully  slow travel, constant threats from wild animals and unknown peoples, and utter, deadly loneliness. The Business Day reviews it here. I would recommend the book if only for one scene that is inexplicably sad and shocking and unexpected and vivid that I am unable to banish it from my memory. You’ll know which one it is when you read the book.

What historical fiction books like these do for me is to contextualize the often dry economic history I investigate. Consider the French Huguenots. When the Huguenots fled France in 1685 following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, they settled across the Western world. Many moved across the English Channel and settled in London. Others moved to similarly familiar places like Switzerland and Germany. Here they continued to make telling contributions to the local economy. A recent paper by Erik Hornung published in the American Economic Review shows, for example, how Huguenot migrants stimulated textile production in German, then known as Prussia.

But others, far fewer in number, decided to move to the Cape. What could they have possibly known about this small colony at the bottom tip of the massive African continent? What made them come to the Cape than to England or Europe or even America, where there were at least a large number of European settlers already? (At the Cape in 1685, there were about 400 settler families.) We don’t know, although we do know what they did when they got here: most founded farms in the Drakenstein region and began planting wheat and barley. Some planted vines. The Huguenot memorial in Franschhoek documents their arrival and early struggles and eventual contribution to South African society. (They continue to have: consider, for example, the current captain of the Proteas cricket team and Springbok rugby team.) But even though we know much about their social and cultural activities, there has been little attempt to quantify the economic impact of the 150 or so French Huguenots that arrived in the Cape Colony in 1688. In 2009 when I just started my PhD, Dieter von Fintel and I decided to see whether we could somehow find a way to identify whether the Huguenots were somehow different than their settler counterparts. We used eighteenth-century tax censuses to estimate the productivity of the French settlers and their descendants. The results of these investigations were published in the December issue of the Economic History Review. (An older working paper version is available here.)

We follow a novel approach to identify not only how much more productive French Huguenots were in making wine, but why they were so productive. We do this by tracing the origin district of each French family that arrived at the Cape, which allow them to split the sample between those that arrive from wine-producing regions and those that arrived from wheat-producing regions. We then show that those from wine-producing regions were more productive winemakers at the Cape than their counterpart Huguenots that originated from wheat-producing regions.

What is even more surprising is that this productivity bonus persisted for at least 80 years, in other words, for more than two generations. One would expect that those families with some skills in making wine would have an initial advantage, but that this would disappear as other families learn from them or intermarry. Yet we find the exact opposite result: the gap between the descendants of Huguenots who originally came from wine-producing regions and those who originally came from wheat-producing regions widened.

The reason, we suggest, is because families protected the knowledge of making good quality wine. Eighteenth century wine was typically bad tasting, so ‘good quality’ here simply refers to wine that would last several months, long enough for a ship to sail to India. OF Mentzel, a traveller in the 1730s, explained it thus: “There is no doubt that many colonists at the Cape do indeed know the secret of preparing good wine and therefore wines are made which stand the test, and grow mellower with age: but they are not such fools as to give away their secret and thus make the good wines more common.”

So what was the economic impact of the Huguenots? Their greater productivity in wine-making meant that wine production expanded significantly a few years after their arrival. Different to stock and wheat farming, though, viticulture required (and still requires, although mechanisation is finally changing this requirement) large numbers of labourers during harvest season. There was a shortage of labour at the Cape, and so the expansion in viticulture forced the Company to import more slaves from modern-day Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Madagascar and, later, Mozambique. The fruit of the vine, we argue, was the beginning of South African (racial) inequality.

It’s 6am. The sun is already high. For some reason the lions, guinea fowl and lone donkey have fallen silent. Time for this Huguenot-descendant and missionary of the African economic history gospel to get to work.


Wanted: black Springboks

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South Africa's Mtawarira reacts as Habana is clear to score a try during their rugby test match against Italy in Durban

Tomorrow the Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team, play New Zealand, their most formidable rivals in arguably the toughest rugby match of the year. Last year I watched the game in a tiny South African underground pub close to the Panthéon in Paris. It was awesome except, of course, for the result, which was largely due to a silly decision by the referee to send off Bismarck du Plessis for a fair tackle on Dan Carter. This year promises to be even more entertaining: South Africa has selected a young flyhalf after losing to Australia the previous week in a game again affected by the heavy hand of the referee. (It must be said, though, that no one deserved to win that game. It was an awful game of rugby.)

But instead of chatter about flyhalfs, forwards, referee decisions or Jeanne de Villiers’ centennial test match, the largest game of the year has been overshadowed by the plans of the South Africa Rugby Union, published last Sunday in Afrikaans newspaper Rapport, to have at least a 50% quota of black players in the 2019 Springbok team. To achieve this, the Springbok coach will be ‘requested’ to ensure that at least 7 of the 23 players in his squad to go to the World Cup in England next year are not white, of which 5 have to play and 2 have to be African black. Similar quotas have also been put in place for the South African sevens team, the /19 team, provincial coaches, and referees.

Quotas are not new to the South African landscape; they have been touted as possible interventions to address what I think most South Africans can agree with: that there is too little representation of black South Africans in the national rugby team. Against Australia last week, only one black player, Tendai (The Beast) Mtawarira, was in the starting fifteen. He was replaced late in the second half by Trevor Nyakane, the only other black player in the squad. Bryan Habana, who happened to play in his 100th game for the Springboks, and Cornal Hendricks were the only two other non-white players in the starting team.

Because few would question the goal of greater representation, the question really is whether a quota is the right way to achieve it and, if not, what the alternatives are. Max du Preez and Gareth van Onselen took opposing views on this. (Do yourself a favour and don’t read the comments to the Du Preez piece.) Du Preez says yes, quotas are necessary. Van Onselen says no it’s not. Both raise valid points: Du Preez argues that more than 20 years after South Africa became a democracy, quotas are necessary to ensure that coaches give black players a chance: “When two players in the same position have more or less the same talent and ability, you obviously pick the black one to restore the balance and build a new rugby culture.” Van Onselen disagrees that quotas are the way to do this: “As for coaches who sideline or discount deserving black talent, they should be fired”. He doesn’t really propose any alternative to more rapid transformation.

Both commentators however miss what I believe is the most important factor: the majority of black players are not in schools where they get the necessary coaching that makes a successful Springbok. Rugby has changed. It is no longer a sport where you can simply pick up a ball and run your proverbial way into the provincial and national teams.* The top schools are elite academies where they coach their best players with nutrition, fitness, and technical advice that one needs to succeed. They have good equipment, good infrastructure and offer their players constant exposure to other top talent, allowing them to improve faster.

There is really only a small number of schools that have these facilities, and they tend to dominate provincial and national teams. To prove this point, consider this list of all players that has ever represented South Africa. All 793 players came from only 295 schools high schools, less than 5% of the total number of high schools in South Africa today (6591). Of these 295 schools, a third of all players to every play for the Springboks come from only ten schools. (If you wanted to be fancy you could calculate a Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality in society. South Africa’s rugby Gini is 0.52. This is of schools that at least produced one Springbok. If I were to include all schools, the Gini would be above 0.91, much higher than a measure of income inequality.) Or if you don’t believe that the older statistics matter, just consider the Springbok team to play the All Blacks tomorrow: 8 of the 15 players in the starting fifteen went to one of the top ten schools on the all-time list.

That means that if we are to ensure that more black players play for South Africa, it is not enough to simply say that coaching facilities at poor schools should improve. Even if these facilities improve, the kids won’t have access to all the other elite skills that they nowadays need to be a professional rugby player: gym sessions, nutritional advice, specialised coaching and frequent competition. Even a white kid with potential would have a far bigger chance of becoming a Springbok if he attends one of the top ten schools, than if he was to attend a school that had never produced a Springbok.

Different to the kind of comments you might read on news sites, it is not that the talent is not available.  If South Africa had to pick seven black players tomorrow, we could. Among the forwards, Siya Kolisi has recently shown some the form that first made him a crowd favourite while Cheetah flanker Teboho Mohoje is already in the Springbok squad. Nazeem Carr and Lubabalo Mtyanda have been stand-out performers for Western Province and the Pumas respectively. At the back, Lwazi Mvovo still impresses with his speed, although he has perhaps met his match with Western Province and Sevens star Seabelo Senatla. And it’s difficult not to get excited about Juan de Jongh’s and especially Cheslin Kolbe‘s mazy runs. Yet it should be noted that all of these (black) players attended former Model-C schools, with five of those schools ranked in the top 50 on the above list (and 2 in the top 10). Which proves my point that it is really only the top rugby schools where talent can be nurtured well enough to reach the level required to play for the Springboks.

Because quotas, unfortunately, do not work. Economists know that they can create perverse incentives: It is not only demoralising for a player to know he’s preferred to someone else based on something else besides his skill-level, but quotas will cause wages of good black players to rise sharply in contrast to white players (especially those white players that compete in the same positions with black players). That could lead to interesting team dynamics. Expect less player rotation and more player burn-out as the best black players will be ‘forced’ by their unions to play as many games as possible. Also, expect to see more players from other African countries – or even African American players – because the quotas seem to be about race, not nationality. (WP has already acquired the services of a very skilled Kenyan.) It is not entirely coincidental that when Zimbabwean-born Beast Mtawarira showed the potential he did, there was a hasty process to grant him South African citizenship.

In a utopian world, SARU would roll out clinics and infrastructure and coaches to all of South Africa’s poorest schools and do what everyone loves to call “grassroots development”. That is nice, but it won’t get more black players in the national team. The only way to do that is to grant large numbers of bursaries to black children that shows ability to attend the elite rugby schools around South Africa. Let me put this more practically: The only way to ensure a 50% black Springbok team (with no quotas) in a decade is if SARU identify the top 1000 u/13, u/14 and u/15 black players and ensure that they all receive full bursaries to attend one of the top 20 schools in the country. And the best is: it won’t be that difficult to implement. Give support at higher levels too. Many black players do well at group-age level, but struggle to make the transition to professional player. That is because black students often face high financial demands from family or don’t have the financial support structures that more affluent white kids have. SARU can support provincial rugby academies to provide a holistic approach to player development. And why not start a South African B-team, with a 90% black selection criteria, to play frequently against high-quality opposition? There would be an audience for that, too, I promise.

None of this is perfectly fair to everyone. There will still be many black kids that are excluded, the same as there are many white kids who are not exposed to soccer. But providing bursaries to kids with potential is a far more equitable (and realistic) approach than a quota system that will at best create unnecessary tensions and at worst fall flat (and cause much collateral damage) as such attempts have done in the past. Not only will bursaries broaden the pool of potential Springboks, but it will do so in a way that avoids the artificiality of affirmative action in the national team.

*There are exceptions, of course, like this guy.