A vendor counts out rand banknotes while working in an African craft market in Rosebank, Johannesburg. The writer remembers his early experience of an official and a black-market exchange rate in Ghana, which differed vastly. Photo: Bloomberg
Saturday, October 6, 1980: Three of us boarded the Lesotho Airways aircraft at Moshoeshoe II Airport in Maseru. Two of us, Tiisetso Makatjane, now professor of demography at the National University of Lesotho (NUL), and I headed to the UN Regional Institute for Population Studies (Unrips) at the University of Ghana, based at Legon, and the late Dr Moeketsi Senaoana, the former professor at NUL and former minister of finance, headed to Ireland for economics.

He also had a stint at the National Treasury in South Africa. All three of us in our graduation suits which we donned 14 days before, when our class of 1976 that enrolled at the NUL had all graduated, except for a few I could count on my fingers who did not make it.

One had died from meningitis two years before, another had been disqualified for copying and had to repeat the following year, yet another was disqualified for indiscipline and for not attending classes, although his exam marks qualified. He came back to repeat three years later. Another had taken ill and could not write. Three or so had failed.

Many others proceeded to advance their studies just like my crew. A few I can mention by name: Dr Molotsi Monyamane headed to Australia for medicine, Kuleile Thekiso went to Leeds for a Master's in Science where they studied with with the late Dr Ajulu Rok. Dr Sethinyane went to the Medical School at the University of Zimbabwe, Dr Papa Masia headed to Nigeria for medicine, and the late Dr Motlatsi Mokhothu headed to The Netherlands for geography.

The first degree was never seen to be enough and as undergraduates we were thirsty to advance our studies.

Back to our flight with the two colleagues. We had just arrived at the then Jan Smuts Airport after the under-an-hour flight and had to wait for our respective flights that were scheduled to leave by about 6pm. Senaoana opened the provision his mother had prepared for him of a dumpling and free-range chicken. We indulged and cleared the food, not knowing when the next meal would be. Finally we checked in with KLM and Senaoana with British Airways, and off on our separate ways we went. Surprise, not only did KLM provide food, but also to my benefit had alcohol. I'm sure the British Airways provided similar delights, although Senaoana did not partake of alcohol, nor did Makatjane. I stopped the habit of taking alcohol on Sunday, January 13, 2002, though, and the reasons for this are for another article. We landed in Nairobi and slept at my sister’s place. Next day, we went to the Lesotho Embassy for formalities before we proceeded to Accra.


Ambassador Ntlhakana briefed us about Ghana, and suddenly a penny dropped that I should have listened to advocate Appiah, then working with my brother at the Lesotho High Court, who on advice from her parents in Ghana had advised that I bring some groceries to acclimatise in Ghana.

Among the laundry list was tinned fish and powdered milk, which I certainly did not take. But soap and toothpaste I had packed. In addition Fazila Surtie, now Mrs Montsi and a lawyer by profession based in Cape Town, had asked me to take a carton of Van Rijn and Rum and Maple pipe mixture for Faizel, who was doing medicine at Kulebu Medical School at the University of Ghana. He is now a medical doctor in Canada where he migrated from Lesotho some years back. The ambassador also exchanged some cedis for a few British pounds on us, at what he called a favourable rate.

Next we were on Ethiopian Airlines for a treat to Accra and arrived in the late afternoon at Kotoka Airport, where we were accosted by customs officials who were eager to check the foreign exchange stamps in our passports.

They herded us into a room and left us there to another mob who insisted on exchanging our British pounds for cedis and promised that if we failed to do so we would not enter Ghana. It was a jungle. I exchanged my most-needed 20 pounds, as I would learn later, for cedis at seven cedis to a pound, when the official bank rate was three cedis to a pound.

We got to the campus and tried to get food at the cafeteria, but there was no food, so we tried to get to a restaurant. Our guide said 'no, I'll take you to Medina market', where under a kerosene lamp we searched and aha kenke and fish was the treat. Makatjane could not eat it. I adjusted very fast and broke the mould.

By Wednesday the arrival of other students from Botswana, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, Somalia, Liberia, Sudan and other parts of Africa was completed.

Most of us from the south were quite shell-shocked by the experience. The studies, however, were high quality and many a demographer on the continent was trained at Unrips and they are scattered all over the world.

I finally delivered the tobacco to Faizel and he was glowing with excitement at the look and touch of his Van Rijn and Rum and Maple pipe mixture. Very little, however, was left of the pipe.

The mouthpiece was a stump from tooth bites. I told him that out of frustration I had helped myself to a packet of the Van Rijn in case he did not realise that he had only 19 boxes, instead of 20.

I asked him why there were no goods in the market. He took me through an economics lecture of market behaviour in Ghana and how the black market which I was now beginning to master worked.

Read also: Junk could add 40c to petrol price

The cedi at the black market traded almost 50 to a pound. The saying in pidgin English went “Ghana e-hard coconut make soft”. In part we were able to survive from the “essenco” (imported essential commodities like milk, tinned beef and sugar) we got from Lome in Togo.

So as we concluded our studies we were eager to come home. I'll never forget a discussion I had as we prepared to come home with Mutepfa from Zimbabwe and Lojero from Uganda. Mutepfa and I were clear that we were headed home, to Lesotho and Zimbabwe respectively, but strangely Lojero had decided to stay in Ghana rather than go back to Uganda.

We asked why and he said the conditions in Uganda were just bad and that Ghana was probably better. Ghana was junk status, so were Uganda and many other countries on the continent.

On the other hand, Zimbabwe was a shining and rising star. Lesotho was certainly great. Unfortunately the politics of Dr Leabua Jonathan forced me out of my country in September 1982 and I found a home in South Africa.

I was back in Ghana towards the end of 2007, and things had changed so dramatically. I met Gertrude Zacharia, who was a classmate at Unrips, and she had become a minister of manpower in Jerry Rawlings' government after he toppled Hilla Liman in 1982.

I reminded her of Abigail from Zimbabwe who had said to her face: “The food here is like dog food”, and Zacharia had wept deleteriously and asked whether Ghana had become so bad. The tears were clear, Gertrude was steeped in the politics of Ghana and her pain was very telling and she sought better for her country.

Threatened future

While in Uganda almost three decades later at the opening of the Statistics House by the president of Uganda, Mutepfa, my old mate at Unrips in Ghana called me from his country Zimbabwe, which was then and is now enduring a long and hard junk status.

He said: "Man, Zimbabwe is hard, and the future of my children is seriously threatened, and if it were possible I would leave." I reminded him of our discussion of three decades ago with Lojero in Ghana, and said it is quite fortuitous that you call me when I am in Uganda, after having been to Ghana recently. Certainly life has changed for the better in these countries. But I also reminded him that I had left my country and he was intending to leave his. And we engaged on the bigger issue of where Africa is headed.

Recently South Africa has been adjudged a junk status by rating agencies.

Read also: 'Junk'-rated debt could cost more than $10bn in lost funds

A junk status in South Africa is a status which every South African should work hard to get out of. It robs the middle class of a possibility of its reproduction, it condemns the poor to a life of poverty and hand-outs, it constrains those with savings and those who are rich from investing, and thus undermines the prospect of redistributive and inclusive growth.

Any semblance of growth while in a junk status is potentially immiserising and can easily meet Jagdish Bhagwati’s conditionalities for this phenomenon. Immiserising growth is a theoretical situation first proposed by Bhagwati, in 1958, where economic growth could result in a country being worse off than before the growth.

If growth is heavily export-biased, it might lead to a fall in the terms of trade of the exporting country.

Check the experiences of Greece, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina.

Dr Pali Lehohla is South Africa’s Statistician-General and head of Statistics South Africa.