Economics professor, Johan Fourie.
Economics professor, Johan Fourie.

Journey through the ages

By Duncan Guy Time of article published May 15, 2021

Share this article:

Students should learn more about economic history at school and university level, says Stellenbosch University economics professor Johan Fourie.

His newly released book Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom takes the reader on a 100 000-year journey from the days when hunter-gatherer societies transformed into agrarian societies, introducing hierarchies and, later, class systems, to now. It is set all over the world, telling the stories of the impact of technology, with the title chapters often highlighting a little-known links between countries: How Could A Movie Embarrass Stalin? How Did Einstein Help Create Eskom? Why do Indians have dowry and Africans lobola?

“I would love to see more focus on economic history, which is why I wrote this,” Fourie told the Independent on Saturday in a telephone interview from the Western Cape.

He entered the field almost by accident when, having specialised in trade economics, he delivered a paper on the history of shipping off the Cape and was offered an opportunity to study economic history at a university in the Netherlands.

A hundred thousand years of economic history in 34 easily digestible chapters.

“The University of Utrecht taught in a different way to South Africa. It did not focus only on the economic effect of history but also the social science effect.

“I fell in love with economic history.”

Back home, he went into economic history at the University of Stellenbosch and spent lockdown converting 10 years of teaching undergraduate courses into 34 “easily digestible chapters”.

He said many South African students want to know what kind of job economic history will get them.

“It is a more liberal education,” Fourie explained, adding that international employers offered high paying jobs to people with both qualitative and quantitative training.

“Most economic history departments have disappeared or been incorporated into history or economics. It is sad that this has happened. Fortunately there is still an increasingly vibrant community abroad.

“I hope this book inspires some students to consider economic history.”

While he has identified potential gaps in South Africans’ knowledge about global economic history, the same applies to knowledge of their own continent.

“Every year I show my students a map with five African countries ‒ no small, unknown ones ‒ and one in five will know them.

“Curricula are so limited in exposing students to Africa more generally. The continent is so full of economic opportunities that are important to know about.”

Fourie starts his book by comparing the board game Monopoly, associated with individual wealth and prosperity, with Catan, associated with one’s prosperity depending on that of one’s neighbours.

He identifies more with Catan and the idea of facing the challenge of climate change with an attitude of innovation rather than “degrowth”.

“When the rich world says ‘we can reduce’, so you (the poorer) should also cut down is immoral. Rather, there are ways to incentivise public sectors to use technical and innovative solutions.”

To have many solar power providers of electricity is better than having one coal-based provider, he argues.

“Solar is far less limiting than coal.”

In much the same vein, his epilogue, titled How do you win a World Cup? quotes a visiting scholar in 2010 suggesting giving every kid in the country a soccer ball.

“That will not make much difference a year or two before a global tournament. It will also do little towards South Africa’s chances at the 2014 or 2018 event.

“But by 2022 an entire new generation of kids would have grown up playing football. Some of them would have excelled.”

  • Our Long Walk To Economic Freedom

The Independent on Saturday

Share this article: