political economy politics public policy

Reclaiming Africa’s history of economic dynamism

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.