Scholarship, policy and the practice of economics in South Africa – A desperate need for transformation


A ‘business as usual‘ approach to both scholarship and policy in South Africa is perpetuating gross inequality. Conservative economic policy has privileged the maintenance of the status quo in the economy, the realm of the ’socially neutral‘ and ‘technically rational‘ – all problematic terms, and all this at the expense of social restructuring efforts and redistributive justice.

The practice of economics and consequent praxis in policy and scholarship in South Africa remains largely ahistorical and asocial. The same economic system that has made it possible and acceptable for two white men in South Africa to own “the same wealth as the bottom half of the population” is privileged. This is an economic system we are yet to dismantle under democratic South Africa and it has led to the levels of inequality in the country to be “greater today than [at] the end of Apartheid”, as pointed by the recently released Oxfam report on inequality. What is worrying today is that our universities in South Africa are mainly advancing neoclassical economic thought, producing graduates that are simply going to reproduce the same system. What we need is to question the hegemony of scholarship, policy and practice of this school of thought and champion a need for a new agenda and transformed narratives.

Despite the saturated nature of discourses around young South Africans, whom we know demographically average 24 years of age, this mass of young people is excluded in the creation, design and development of social and economic policy. In an attempt to occupy this space and contribute to the policy discourse with informed, albeit alternative, views from a youth perspective, we formed the Young Economists for Africa, a part of the Rethink Africa Group. During our 2013 recruitment drive at Wits University, for the Young Economists for Africa, we were genuinely shocked by the lack of knowledge on South African and African political and economic history. During our drive, we were specially baffled by a group of second- and third-year commerce students who did not know what colonialism was, nor saw the importance of that knowledge. One of them remarked;

“Oh my gosh Sima, you are so serious, oh my gosh, oh my gosh. Like you know…. colonialism happened in Nigeria and those other countries in Africa we dont need to know that, we had Apartheid”.

The above comment might be alarming to most, but for us, who have gone to school and university in post-Apartheid South Africa, it is not. If one looks at the pedagogy and teaching approach in the social sciences, and in particular in economics, one understands this lack of history and social understanding. It forms a part of a larger contestation around the untransformedpost-Apartheid academy and its failure to reflect its African grounding. South African students coming out of the academy today do not understand their continent’s history and most probably cannot point out a quarter of the countries on the African map. With this, how do we expect to take advantage of our youthful demographics and for them to contribute to some of the structural challenges affecting the continent?

Neoclassical Economics, which for many years has been the ‘darling’ of the social sciences, faced an assault with the 2008 economic crisis. The post-War economics taught to students the world over primarily prioritised methodological individualism, and efficiency considerations above all else. This lack of plurality in the teaching of economics meant that other contributions to economic thought, such as those from the Keynesian, Marxist and Feminist approaches, fell by the wayside. The market, we were taught, in conjunction with the price mechanism, are the most efficient allocator of resources. Social and historical concerns of equity and redress don’t matter.

For many years, students in economics classes to policymakers in developing countries at the behest of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank accepted the ‘theoretically sound’ yet socially and historically empty notions of efficiency and utility maximisation. These notions informed the social spending cuts and other austerity measures that defined the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and the IMF in Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s. These policies are a part of a seemingly hegemonic project waged in different spaces of society, whose scholarship, policy and practice is informed by the same intellectual and academic traditions. The same policies in South Africa through the Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy, have placed market forces in the foreground and a government focused on reducing budget deficits at the expense of important social and public spending to redress the legacy of Apartheid. A legacy that has resulted in poverty carrying a face that is undeniably black in South Africa.

We are often taught to move past this history and present, and instead focus on growth, as the answer to our development. We have heard this message plenty of times from South Africa’s private sector (that has not yet accounted for its criminal exploitation under Apartheid) and its leaders. What this narrative does is to negate the historical injustice committed against black people, especially economically. Black people are in a position to be demanding, so no one should be telling us to not be demanding. You can’t come and tell us that economic growth as a concept is more important than historical redress and changing the entire makeup of the South African economy, in terms of ownership and production. However, we aren’t being fed these messages by the ‘lily white’ private sector alone; there is a particular set of interests in South Africa, which aren’t necessarily only white anymore. There are increasingly a lot of black people who are a part of that thinking, which represents itself not only in politics and business, but creeps itself into our institutions of higher learning. In many ways, even those acutely aware of our history, have taught us that the cause of our suffering, the unfettered market control of our social and economic lives, is the best way to a common and equitable prosperity in South Africa.

Even attempts at an alternative scholarship have failed because for instance, for the first time in 2009, the Corporate Strategy and Industrial Development (CSID) research programme at Wits University instituted a heterodox economic policy programme at postgraduate level. The programme highlighted the plurality of economic thinking that existed, and continues to exist. The programme highlighted how contextual factors needed to be considered in economic policymaking including issues of social redress and equity. The ‘one size fits all’ approach to policymaking was critiqued along with some sacred holy cows of economic scholarship, policy and practice such as inflation targeting, structural adjustment and the mathematisation of what is essentially a social science, constantly in flux and changing, with evolving circumstances. This ‘alternative revolution’ was not to last long, and the popular programme has been scrapped by the School of Economic and Business Sciences at Wits, not due to lack of rigour, but due to ideological differences. One of the senior faculty members in favour of the move argued that the heterodox and socially informed approach may be the mainstream of tomorrow, but for today the School needed to prepare students for the marketplace. A problematic yet honest statement, as what she was saying was that the marketplace in the field of commerce, from which most of economic students are drawn, does not acknowledge economic thought different to the neoclassical postulates. So in a sense one understands how the balance of power, and the interests of those who wish to maintain the status quo determine the pedagogic approach of the academy. Economic faculties are no longer places of debate, but places where the unquestioning acceptance of asocial and ahistorical scholarship, unlocks opportunities for upward mobility within the Faculty, and beyond including business and politics. This kind of academic monocropping is what has led to the hegemony of these ideas, with disastrous implications for the public discourse on socio-economic development in the most unequal society in the world.

Indeed, as the Oxfam report on inequality in 2014 notes, “Inequality is not inevitable, it is a result of policy choices’’, and that unequal access to assets, income and services, as a result of Apartheid and conservative economic policy post 1994, has placed us in this position. Our critique is based on an observation that views, informed by neoclassical economics, are shared by dominant elite interests that can be found in both in scholarship and policymaking and in corporate activity. Moreover the neoclassical position assumes, contrary to the historic evidence in Africa, Asia and Latin America, that the long-term interests of all social actors can be achieved and is implicit in the free market economic system. Perhaps the greatest implication of this hegemony, is that it has placed economic decisions beyond the realm of popular decision-making and scrutiny. Economics, as many have argued, best be left to the experts, the same cohort that has placed us in this mess. This approach suggests that economic problems should be solved outside the realm of other social imperatives such as redistribution and need for full employment of resources. The implication of this, for South Africa, has been that conservative economic policy has privileged the maintenance of the status quo in the economy, the realm of the ’socially neutral‘ and ‘technically rational‘, which the majority isnt, as is often suggested. All this at the expense of social restructuring efforts and redistributive justice.

Teaching a form of economic policy that is historically and socially grounded will make more students ask the same questions that we asked ourselves in class, questions such as where was the ‘trickle down’ after Apartheid and after policies such as GEAR? Questions that will surely disrupt the status quo in the academy, boardrooms and the larger policymaking arena. For if we are to address the major economic challenges of our time, in particular our pole position with regard to inequality, itcannot be business as usual.