Trudi Makhaya’s Business Day column of 12 April 2016
DURING my undergraduate years in the late ’90s, unlike many commerce students majoring in economics, I took a few economic history courses. African economic history did not feature much in the curriculum. Some of what was there, such as the characterisation of lobolo as a fundamentally economic exchange for reproductive labour, I disagreed with. But there was enough in it to appreciate the economic dynamism inherent in precolonial African societies.
Last month, I had a heated encounter with student leaders from about six universities. It was a small workshop with student representative council members, 20 young men and one young woman. I was invited to share my views about student financing, as an economist. I have no firm solutions. I placed a few ideas for funding free or heavily subsidised higher education within the context of a tight budget and low rates of economic growth. I highlighted some trade-offs. But I also quarrelled with the notion of free higher education for all, especially wealthy students.
Accusations of neoliberalism, of Western-centric thought, of being the messenger for my “bosses” were flung at me. The more we argued past each other, a picture emerged of what many, although not all, of the students regarded as African.
Any economic concept or calculation was dismissed as thoroughly un-African. I tried to argue that every society, African or not, thinks about trade-offs and resource allocation and strategies for prosperity.