There is a contemporary flavour to the art. If you get a chance to walk into the New Commerce Building, you’ll even get an opportunity to see the art of, and read about the great South African artist, Ephraim Ngatane. The changes to the aesthetic features of the New Commerce Building are of interest, because the artistic make-over is rather recent. As recently as 2009, the staircase to the Economics Department, was adorned with the pictures of prominent economists the world over, from Ricardo, to Malthus to Friedman. Even Marx was in the mix; his labour theory of value placing him in the company of contemporaries who, if he were alive, would have never been his closest associates.
The beaming faces of dead men, meant to inspire, but often creating greater curiosity; posing more unanswered questions. Have “we” never made any contribution to the history of economic thought? Disturbing the collection of pictures, each beneath the cover of glass on a wooden panel, was a black man whose strong features shone beyond black and white uniformity of “history”. Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences 1979 recipient, William Arthur Lewis was the only black man, whose picture made the three flights of stairs with pictures of the main protagonists in the “History of Economic Thought”. The Caribbean-born scholar’s work on economic development in contexts of unlimited supply of labour, although contested, has become a seminal starting point in the development economics of the colonies of the 20th century.
A committed pan Africanist, Lewis was invited by Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah to serve as his economic advisor at the independence of Ghana in 1957. Lewis’ intellectual and analytical muses were the common features he saw in colonial economies he encountered in his advisory postings across the globe on behalf of Nkrumah, the Crown and later on in his life for the Caribbean, in his capacity as the first president of the Caribbean Development Bank. His theory on the dynamics of capital accumulation in contexts of large surplus labour gave initial and much needed impetus to our quest to understand transitions from subsistence to industrial economies in the developing world.
I thought of Arthur Lewis this week, as I reflected on the furore over the remarks made by Standard Bank, economist and market commentator Chris Hart, a few weeks ago. It was the political disturbances of the 1930s in the Caribbean, right up to the winds of change that swept the Gold Coast that would become Ghana in the late 1950s, which would give the ideas of Lewis a receptive audience. Coming as it did, at the tail-end of the British colonial enterprise, his ideas provided insights about how post-colonial societies could confront the tough challenges of economic planning and governance.
Conversely, Chris Hart took on the cumbersome task of commenting on what he felt were constraints to growth. Credit to the former Physics teacher, he was quite “diplomatic” in referring to the commonly held view, among many of our white compatriots, that a white genocide is an inevitable outcome of “black mismanagement” of the economy, without mentioning that poverty, ignorance and malnutrition continues to have a black face in South Africa.
For Lewis, the point of ground-breaking innovation in ideas, was the ever-changing context of shifts in two sets of contending forces; the metropole and the colony, and the subsistence and the capitalist economy. So it is for Hart, one observes a context of much greater critical awareness and scrutiny of “experts” in political economy, and the easily accessible critical race theory classes delivered by “woke twitter” that would set the scene.
The fallout not only signalled public outrage over his views, but also greater circumspection and scrutiny of “market commentators”, “economists” and other rational “experts” whose advice we are encouraged to unquestioningly receive. It matters little whether Hart believes blacks are entitled and resentful of whites or not, what matters to me is the ease with which he thought he could make that statement and have it resonate as credible analysis. Why? The rationality of experts is often thought to be objective, based on facts and empirical observation and analysis. Economics, has become a science to some, with an organized systematic way of analysing evidence and economic phenomena. An impersonal way with universal outcomes that are empirically grounded, we are told.
A false consensus then exists among our people, that the economic ideas of particular groups with their own subjective views and class biases have an indisputable universality. South African economist, Trudy Makhaya, made a similar observation in her call for meaningful economic journalism, citing how widespread and largely uninformed belief in particular ideas made it difficult for creative solutions to emerge. This is not merely a question of the economic illiteracy of the masses. Many educated people — teachers, dentists and engineers — are mystified by economic concepts, or imagine that there is consensus in economics, and thus lend support to simplistic ideas of how to solve some of our most intractable challenges.
Presented as an “observation”, Hart’s detached analysis was built on notions of superiority and racist tropes that are often used to define black life; entitled, corrupt, lazy, diseased and with an overzealous affinity for drink and sex.
It is to these tropes that Hart comfortably retreated. Indeed, after the centuries of violence, the persistent expectation of the well-heeled beneficiaries of colonial conquest would be, to be a target (real or perceived) of retributive justice. An additional feature of this deployment of lazy racist tropes is that it positions the black, in particular African majority as a perennial problem to be fixed. The solution to the South African equation it seems has always rested on solving the problem of poor blacks. As a problem, particular observations are required, of this “poor black problem” as it presents an ever present threat to firm profitability and aggregate growth in South Africa.
It was the great Africanist scholar, WEB du Bois who in starting his work Of Spiritual Strivings, argued that between him and “the other world” existed an asked question;: how does it feel to be a problem? Similarly Hart, just like The Economist, which thousands of miles away from our shores, can declare South Africa as a country on its way to being a failed state, makes detached assumptions with an unquestioned “objectivity” that passes as credible analysis. How “objective” analysts “anthropologise” blacks as subjects under inquiry, and then by extension end up “knowing more about us than ourselves” is not a new phenomenon. Steve Biko spoke of this in the 1970s.
“Somehow Africans are not expected to have any deep understanding of their own culture or even themselves. Other people have become authorities on all aspects of the African life….,” Biko said at the time.
What we can infer from Hart’s tweets is that he “knows” a great deal about the growing victimhood and hatred of the black majority; the latter directed at the white minority. This all occurs despite the African people’s commitment to pursuing restorative rather than retributive justice, whilst forgiving the white minority when no clear apologies (material or verbal) had been provided. Furthermore, there is an insistence on a particular kind of racial Armageddon that will inevitably face white South Africans. The narrative presented, is one of Africans who at the slightest provocation will resent white people to the point of eliminating them, politically and physically. I guess that’s why we need Ferial Haffajee to write a book about how our nation would be without whites; to remind us how “vulnerable” we would be in their absence? Thabo Mbeki mentioned this narrative in his response to then Anglo American CEO, Tony Trahar’s, comments about the “political risk” that South Africa presented.
‘’The doomsayers had not understood our people. They had not understood that as the first and principal victims of violence and war, the masses of our people, black and white, would be the first and best guarantors of the peace they won in 1994. The masses would not be easily persuaded or duped to join some violent campaign to solve any of the challenges our country faces,’’ Mbeki said.
How then do we reclaim the space for reflection on the economy from the disciples of “market fundamentalism”? Firstly, the articulation of progressive demands in the aim of altering state-society relations and achieve meaningful decolonization requires economic literacy. To understand the mechanics (even conceptually) of complex economic systems, is to understand globalised power relations in the 21st century. It is important because we know that oppression is fluid; the chains become credit cards and bilateral treaties and the daily taxi ride emulates the slave ship and ox wagon. Similarly, those trusted with the ability to analyse the relations between people and resources, as Hart shows us, often mobilise narrow racist tropes to characterize the black majority as a problematic element that needs to be “confronted” in solving the growth conundrum South Africa faces.
What this analysis does in mainstream platforms, is reproduce these tropes with no real engagement with the lived experience, concerns and issues that are economic features of black life. More importantly, it removes the focus from certain stakeholders, in particular the business community, and their role in the creation and reproduction of a polarised and unequal society. Without our own Arthur Lewis band, armed with an understanding of the political economy of race in past and contemporary society, we risk missing the subtle and vivid shifts that are happening in our society. Moreover, and more importantly, we risk misunderstanding the policy levers we have at our disposal and the (real or perceived) trade-offs associated with economic policymaking in South Africa. DM