Human History: From the economy of our ancestors to SA democracy and the future

Human History: From the economy of our ancestors to SA democracy and the future

South Africa’s long walk to economic freedom remains incomplete, to say the least. There are many competing versions out there regarding the path the walk should take from here. The EFF, as one of many examples, pointedly has the words 'Economic Freedom' in its name, and this is apparently the primary goal motivating its ‘Fighters'.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

And the road yet to be trod comes as the country confronts the Covid-19 pandemic, the legacies of apartheid, colonialism and State Capture, load shedding, a shoddy education system, widespread social unrest, glaring disparities of wealth and income, and too many other potholes to list here.

So a sense of history is in order, and not because history serves as a perfect guide to the future. Rather, as the acclaimed historian EH Carr observed, history “is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past”. We maintain this dialogue to provide insight into how and why the potholes were dug, and the depths they reach. This can bring some clarity to the current state of the road, and when a new pothole emerges, we may at least be equipped to fill it. And as history unfolds, we will seek new ways to fill the holes, based in part on our dialogue with the past.

In Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom: Lessons from 100 000 Years of Human History, Johan Fourie, a Professor of Economics at Stellenbosch University, has maintained Carr’s “unending dialogue” in exemplary fashion. This is history as it should be – readable and accessible to a wider audience, brimming with anecdotes and insight, and played out on a global stage with Africa at its centre. It is an engaging romp through economic history. The book will serve as an excellent introduction to the subject for undergraduate students. But even a crusty middle-aged reader with a history MA, such as this reviewer, read it profitably.

Each chapter offers an insightful snapshot of the past, under (as my colleague Jillian Green remarked when I showed her the book) “clickbait” titles such as “Why was a giraffe the perfect gift for the Chinese emperor? The Indian Ocean Trade and European imperialism.”

One of the many things this reviewer learned was this startling fact: Britain only paid off the debt it had to raise to compensate slave holders for the loss of their property in the wake of the 1833 Slave Emancipation Act in 2015. Yes, you read that right. Talk about an odious debt, and one that remained drenched in blood well into the 21st century.

Speaking of debts, the Cape Colony’s public debt to GDP ratio in the 1880s surged to more than 200%, largely to fund the construction of railways that benefited the likes of Cecil Rhodes. This perhaps puts South Africa’s current debt levels in historical perspective, bearing in mind that ratings agencies did not exist in the late 19th century.

On vexed issues such as inequality and poverty reduction, Fourie – drawing on examples from the past, such as the Great Depression – notes that, although the 1930s depression was linked to poverty, “It had exactly the opposite effect on levels of inequality. Wage inequality declined significantly between 1929 and 1933 as the middle classes joined the ranks of the poor, but by 1935 it recovered to the same level as that before… This mirrors the experience of many countries that see rapid poverty reduction.

“Not everyone grows out of poverty at an equal pace. While poverty declines, inequality may increase. It would be short-sighted to use only inequality as the barometer of policy success.”

He also notes the rise of inequality in SA’s black community during the last two decades of apartheid – a point that does not sit well with current political narratives.

An overarching theme is the role of property rights in the history of the global economy. Written shortly before Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini died, one of the book’s chapters is provocatively called “What do Charlemagne and King Zwelithini have in common? Feudalism”. This is a reference to the Ingonyama Trust and the lack of ownership rights on the Trust’s lands and elsewhere in the apartheid relics of rural poverty that are the former homelands.

The book briskly takes readers from the economy of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and humanity’s exodus from Africa to the first 25 years of democracy in South Africa and the outlook for its future. Along the way, The Economist gets a drubbing for its “hopeless continent” depiction of Africa in 2000. This fine book is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the economic history of Africa and its role in wider global developments. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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