Johan Fourie's blog

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Posts Tagged ‘whites

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.

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Written by Johan Fourie

March 9, 2015 at 06:05

How Zuma’s words disempower black South Africans

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Who wears South Africa's diamonds? Source: BBC

Diamonds (and colonialism) are forever. Source: BBC

Black South Africans have suffered a lot over the last two centuries. I am an economic historian and, together with some of my students, have recently begun a project which hopes to quantify the material inequalities between black and white South Africans over the last 200 years. It is not easy, because the colonial records have often ignored the black experience. And yet, there are clues everywhere. From early nineteenth-century government payrolls (where black translators earned one-tenthousandth of what the white governor earned) to mid-twentieth century cadaver heights (where blacks are significantly shorter in height than their white compatriots).

All this evidence points to the incredible material injury of black South Africans. And this is to say nothing of the psychological scars and social strife that has accompanied this material hurt.

This suffering is much longer than the colonial experiences of many other Africans on the continent. Although Van Riebeeck already arrived in 1652 and first contact with the isiXhosa’s at the infamous Fish River was more than a century later, this was still much earlier than the colonial experiences of other African countries, which started around the end of the nineteenth century. True, many countries across Africa suffered the vulgarities of the slave trade, most pronounced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But South Africa’s colonisation, I would argue, was worse, with Europeans subjugating complex agricultural societies to material inferiority by taking their lands, stealing their cattle and, above all, exploiting the minerals that they had claim to. (Is it not ironic that the Queen of England still wears Africa’s most prized diamond?)

When and where black societies adjusted to the new reality of colonialism – proverbially pulling themselves up by their shoelaces – they were punished, either through higher head and hut taxes to ensure that they remain docile labourers, or through more sinister (but also more effective) policies, like building a railroad circumventing the black areas, excluding blacks from the vote despite their immense contribution (to both sides) during the Second South Africa War, or, most infamously, by providing rubbish education (with the 1953 Bantu Education Act). For two centuries, at least until 1994, whites did their best to discourage, disrupt and, when those two did not work, destroy, African innovation and entrepreneurship.

All this changed in the new South Africa, for although blacks were (and many remain) at a serious disadvantage, there was no one to now stand in their way. And so, we witness the rise of the black middle class and the black diamonds. Sandton today is perhaps the epitome of this black entrepreneurial class; confident, successful, prosperous. South Africa has moved from a nation of between-group inequality (i.e. white vs black inequality) to a nation of within-group inequality. As an example, if all of South Africa’s whites were to leave the country tomorrow, the Gini coefficient (the measure social scientists use to quantify the inequalities of a country) would remain exactly the same. Over the last two decades, millions of black South Africans have escaped poverty and moved into the middle class; some studies estimate that this group is now close to 5 million people, larger than the total white population. And yes, whites have prospered too, despite their complaining and moaning about everything from BEE to racial quotas in the Springbok team. None of this hurt them (on aggregate), and the only things that do hurt – violent crime, corruption, blackouts – hurt black South Africans even more.

But the post-1994 South Africa is not a narrative about a minority group that represents less than 10% of South Africans. Instead, it is a story of a people rising up from the depths of economic and social deprivation. It is a remarkable story of courage, determination, and perseverance and triumph-against-all-odds. Black South Africans have claimed their birth right and begun to overturn centuries of injustice. They have had to skill up, build up collateral, educate the next generation, all with relatively little support from a government that first had to steer a sinking ship through shallow waters. And more: they have had to reconcile with racists, so magnanimous a step that we forget it is called a miracle.

And yet, when Jacob Zuma blamed apartheid for Eskom’s blackouts and when he branded Jan van Riebeeck the scapegoat for the country’s high levels of inequality, he changed the narrative again. Suddenly, South Africa was not a country where black South Africans had the agency to affect their own destiny, but one where whites had (again) the starring role. This tiny minority, Zuma implied, was the lead actor in the South African story; his statements suggest that black South Africans are, at best, supporting characters, much like in the days before 1994. While whites are up in arms at being blamed for everything, they are happy to be part of the conversation again, happy to be listened to, happy to have their say. (For, really, why should South Africans otherwise care about the opinions of a former presidential secretary?)

Zuma does this, I would argue, because it gives him legitimacy (much like Bob Mugabe gets legitimacy by blaming the whites in Zimbabwe, now less than 1% of the population). But Zuma is wrong. While this may still be a country home to millions of whites, it is certainly not a country about them. By blaming whites, Zuma is denying black South Africans the right to take ownership of their own future.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 3, 2015 at 10:43

Stellenbosch, Sandton and Soweto

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Andile Khumalo, a Johannesburg venture capitalist, recently raised the following vexing questions in a blog post (and Sunday Times column): “Is Stellenbosch going to continue to be the economic capital of South Africa, whilst Africans, in their townships and villages, remain the systematic consumers of its myriad of goods and services? Think about where you do groceries? Afrikaans capital. Think about where you bank? Afrikaans capital. Who grows your food? Afrikaans capital?”

Then the conundrum: “Why can’t Black people think-up, develop and roll out these ideas for themselves by themselves… to themselves?”

Stellenbosch is widely seen as the bedrock of white, mostly Afrikaans-speaking capital, and for good reason. According to the most recent Forbes list, five of the wealthiest forty Africans live in or close to Stellenbosch, and a sixth teaches at the University. Johann Rupert, fourth on the list, is chairman of Richemont, which owns brand names such as Cartier, Alfred Dunhill and Montblanc. Christo Wiese, eight, is the chairman and largest single shareholder of the continent’s biggest retailer, Shoprite. Twenty-seventh is GT Ferreira, chairman of the financial services company RMB Holdings. Jannie Mouton, executive chairman of PSG financial services (which he founded in 1995), is thirty-first on the list, while Michiel le Roux, thirty-third, founded Capitec in 2001.

The perceived wisdom is that Stellenbosch is a legacy of Apartheid, that most of this is “old money” from the days when whites were fortunate to have access to protected markets and state resources. Certainly some of this money is “old”, but there is little evidence that a large share of it was acquired with considerable government support; in fact, as an excellent history of Apartheid economics in the latest Cambridge history of South Africa (and, more anecdotally, Johan Rupert’s biography) clearly suggests, in many cases the needs of white entrepreneurs (for example, the need to appoint blacks in skilled or semi-skilled positions, the need for a high-educated, black labour force) were subordinate to the interests of a government committed to the vision of a racially segregated country. In truth, most of Stellenbosch’s “white capital” is “new capital”, acquired after the fall of Apartheid when white business was forced to enter a more equal playing field.

But how is that the former oppressor, now with less political freedom, gained in economic wealth? Clem Sunter, in a 2010 News24 column, eloquently answered this when he wrote:

“During the years of apartheid, there was a culture of entitlement among the volk (white, Afrikaans-speakers). With a good education you could end up as a Cabinet minister, a top civil servant, head of a parastasal or a senior executive in an Afrikaans-owned business like the Trust Bank or Sanlam. If you weren’t so privileged, you could get a job on the railways as an artisan, join the ranks of the army or police or work for a municipality.

After 1994, all these expectations came to an end. Suddenly Afrikaners were out of power. They had to take a leaf out of Steve Biko’s book: you are on your own and you will have to fend for yourself. And they have done so – fantastically well. I was told the other day that the fastest growing element of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange are companies owned and run by Afrikaners. The whole coast north of Maputo in Mozambique is now a string of safari lodges and dive shops established by entrepreneurs from Pretoria. The list goes on and on all around South Africa, and increasingly north of the border and elsewhere in the world.”

1994 liberated not only black South Africans. Instead, I would argue, white South Africans were liberated from an incentive structure that guaranteed a ‘safe’ job in the public sector, or in white-owned, state-supported business. Whites were forced to create jobs for themselves, not simply fill jobs; entrepreneurship, not political (or Broederbond) contacts, became a way to gain power. This is true of many cultural minorities across the world that has little political power: why is it that Somalians thrive in South Africa while their own country falls apart? It is because they know that here they are on their own. There’s an attitude of “if we fail, there is no one to blame but themselves”.

Ironically, the 1994 transition may have had exactly the opposite effect for black South Africans. While a democratically elected government brought political freedom, it also created an incentive structure of entitlement. The attitude was that “we had suffered enough during those dark days and should now share in the economic spoils”. Government policy made this easier: black economic empowerment, for all its good intentions, did not create entrepreneurs, it created a class of connectors, networkers, tenderpreneurs or whatever you would like to label those with the skills not in creating something new, but in redistributing. A few years ago I gave a lecture in parliament on trade policy. During tea, a PAC MP came over to ask one of the most important questions we’ve not answered as a collective. In his village, he told me, the farmer, the baker and the shopkeeper (read: the entrepreneurs) are still there, two decades after Apartheid, doing what they did back then. Only those with political connections have moved up, out, working in government departments. (I guess he included himself in this list.) Of course the next generation realises this. All the kids want to become politicians, not engineers, because that’s how you make money. In contrast, I told him, Afrikaans kids don’t dream about becoming president of South Africa; in Stellenbosch, at least, they dream about becoming Mark Zuckerberg. How to change this?

Andile Khumalo writes: “Black man, wake up! Your ‘real’ freedom is being outsourced to the minority, whilst you occupy yourself with meaningless politics and tenders. You are busy drinking skinny cappuccinos in Melrose Arch, whilst your markets are being penetrated by those who dare to dream, and do.”

Khumalo is correct in saying that Afrikaans capital has prospered. But it’s not because white South Africans are inherently more entrepreneurial (or, worse, that they have mafia-like tendencies that aim to control the lives of the masses), or that black South Africans tend to enjoy the luxuries of Melrose Arch more. Stellenbosch is thriving because it has accumulated a group of highly skilled individuals – black and white – that realise that prosperity is not tied to political contacts, but to innovative ideas and to the people that help turn those ideas into reality. Their attitude is: You are not on your own – Khumalo knows this when he says that great ideas always secure funding, and Stellenbosch is not the worst place to start looking – but that creating wealth is your responsibility. These are the virtues – creativity, diligence, responsibility – our society must reward. The only way South Africa – and especially black South Africans – can prosper, is if we start spreading these ideas (Khumalo calls them dreams) to the Sandtons and Sowetos of our country.

Written by Johan Fourie

May 20, 2012 at 21:23