In February, Daily Maverick published an opinion piece in which two columnists argued for transformation in the scholarship, policy and practice of economics in South Africa. In the interests of robust debate, we publish here a letter to the editor by Dean of the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management of the University of the Witwatersrand, Professor IMRAAN VALODIA.
I began reading, with keen anticipation, the contribution by Simamkele Dlakavu and Ayabonga Cawe (D&C) published in Daily Maverick, 18 February 2015. I was left bitterly disappointed with the article – while I agree with much of what they have to say, the so-called facts that they use to substantiate their argument are simply untrue.
I agree with their concerns about economics and education – that the ideas of mainstream economics, hegemonic internationally and in South Africa, need to be questioned and more heterodox approaches need to be part of our curriculum; that history and social understanding need to be at the core of our curriculum; that our education system fails many of our young people; that a preoccupation with focusing on growth of the economy hides the tremendous challenge we face with the high levels of inequality generated by our current growth trajectory.
D&C, however, create a false reality to substantiate their argument. I refer here to the heterodox postgraduate economics programme started by the Corporate Strategy and Industrial Development (CSID) research programme at Wits University, which they claim was scrapped as a result of an ideological onslaught from proponents of mainstream economics at Wits University. It’s simply untrue.
I was appointed as Dean of the Faculty of Commerce Law and Management at Wits University in 2014, and personally managed the so-called “CSID matter”. Contrary to what D&C argue, this heterodox economics programme is not “scrapped”, but has instead been incorporated into the core programmes offered by the School of Economics and Business Sciences (SEBS) – precisely to ensure its sustainability and continue growth. My objective in “mainstreaming” this heterodox programme was to ensure that students are offered a wider perspective in the area of economics. Running programmes of this sort “on the side”, as was the practice previously, only reinforces the concerns that D&C raise about the hegemony of mainstream economics. As the Dean, I can assure D&C, and anyone else for that matter, that the programme will continue to be supported.
For the benefit of D&C I should add that the so-called “CSID matter” was a rather complicated mess, which I and the Head of SEBS inherited and had to sort out. The mess was due entirely to the lack of adequate financial controls in CSID – it certainly had nothing whatsoever to do with ideology. The reality is that CSID was running at a deficit of over R5 million, and very little attention was being paid to dealing with this deficit by those who at the time ran CSID. If D&C would like to be assured about this, I am happy to show them the documentation on this matter. They are also welcome to come over to Wits University to see that the heterodox programme is being taught. As the Dean, I can assure them that it remains a fundamental aspect our vision for Economics at Wits University.
There is a lot that is unsatisfactory with the way Economics is being taught at all universities, including in South Africa. There is also a need to critique the current state of affairs. However, this needs to be based on facts. The least that we can expect is that D&C would have checked the facts. It is also important for those on the left (and I include myself in this group) to understand that public resources need to be properly managed. Running an economics programme that is heterodox or ‘left’ is not a license to run at a massive deficit. Furthermore, hiding behind lies about imagined ideological threats from the right is simply unacceptable.
Dean, Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management
University of Witwatersrand