Decolonising Economics in South Africa
The drive for the decolonisation of South African higher education may comfortably be associated with much older post-colonial intellectual movements to invigorate the social sciences and humanities across Africa. This latest decolonisation movement has ramped up the challenge to western economics rationalism, and Eurocentrism as the main underpinnings of education, knowledge production and public policy-making.
While the decolonisation movement has found significant appeal among scholars and students in the humanities – economics (as a social science) has, for the most part, slipped under the radar, and remained beyond external scrutiny. The greatest challenges to economics orthodoxy, especially the Neo-Classical Model that has dominated education and public policy-making since at least the start of the 20th century, has come mainly from within the European world.
Thus, an important element of the decolonisation of economics is to delve deeper into African economic and political histories, and to understand today’s capitalism within the longer historical context of the development of human societies across the planet. Walter Rodney argues in his classic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa that “Taking a long-term view, it can be said that there has been constant economic development within human society since the origins of man, because man has multiplied enormously his capacity to win a living from nature. The magnitude of man’s achievement is best understood by reflecting on the early history of human society.”
Prior to the emergence of the Western-dominated global order in the 15th century, for over 6 000 years, the global trade of desired commodities, luxury goods and agricultural surpluses was much more an Afro-Eastern economic affair where the Mediterranean, Sahara Desert, Indian Ocean, and overland routes into Asia were highways of human cultural and economic exchange. Independent African commodity production was key to global economic trade for those thousands of years.
Within southern Africa, human exchange in early toolmaking techniques, indigenous medicine, metallurgy, livestock domestication, and folklore was key in the development of longstanding ancient civilisations of the Bushmen-Thwa-San, whose earliest ancestors, over 80 000 years ago, laid the scientific and cultural basis of human development.
Around 2 500 years ago, livestock herding and later farming communities entered into the autochthon mix of southern Africa leading to the development of our many indigenous traditions, languages, clan-systems and spiritual beliefs.
By about 900 AD these millennia of cultural developments saw the emergence of powerful trading kingdoms in the Kalahari region in Botswana and Zimbabwe as southern Africa became a key player in the ancient global trade that saw commodities such as gold and ivory bound eastwards through the Indian Ocean for Zanzibar, the Middle East all the way to China.
It was the stone remains of these ancient southern African trading states of Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe, Khami, Thulamela that baffled 19th century European explorers who did not believe Africans had any contribution to make to world history. It also led the University of Pretoria to perpetrate one of the greatest epistemological cover-ups in South African history when it hid Mapungubwe’s artefacts deep in its dungeons in the 1930s. The colonial erasure of independent African economic histories means we have missed the opportunity to theorise African economic autonomy on African terms.
Economics and the Problem of Physics Envy
Let us look, first, at some of the shortcomings of standard economics – and highlight its ahistoricity. Since the turn of the century critics have demanded a more pluralist, more heterodox economics, that is less formalist and less wedded to mathematics and statistical modelling. The greatest appeal, on the part of orthodox economists, and which presents itself as an impenetrable fortress, is the claim that economics is a science, “like physics”. Because of this, Economists, have been accused of pseudo-scientific mimicry, and of suffering from what has been described as “physics envy”.
On this basis, economists, generally imagine themselves as scientists, like physicists and often escape being held ethically accountable for their policy choices or policy-failures. In other words, when policies prescribed by economists plunge communities or societies into misery, or destroy the environment, they readily defer to “the market”. The assumption, put crudely, is that the market works perfectly, according to its internal logic, driven by an invisible hand, which “re-adjusts” to achieve equilibrium without any human intervention.
The Company and Epistemological Blindness
One of the singular emphases of economics orthodoxy is that a company is a company, and the purpose of economics is to study companies independently of social, national, cultural or historical moorings. This narrow focus can lead to an epistemological blindness, in the sense that it excludes variables that may help us better understand companies and uncover surface forms of justice and equality.
To illustrate this opening up of enquiry, we turn to southern Africa in the 17th century. In 1613, four decades before Jan Van Riebeeck’s arrival, a Khoikhoi chief called Xhore was abducted on the shores of the southern Cape by the English East India Company (EEIC) and taken to London to live in the home of Thomas Smythe, the first governor of the EEIC. By the time Xhore was taken, the indigenous of the Cape had experienced unfriendly encounters with European ships, one of the most well-known being the altercation between the members of the Bartholemeuw Dias party and a group of Khoikhoi in Mossel Bay in 1488.
European seafarers soon learnt to keep on the good side of the Khoikhoi lest these Africans refuse to trade in the fresh meat sailors so needed when they came off their ships riddled with scurvy. Notwithstanding the growing trade between Khoi and Europeans throughout the 1500s, their mistrust of Europeans meant that the EEIC likely tricked Xhore and a friend of his to board the England bound Hector, probably plying them with alcohol to achieve the act.
What is key is Xhore was abducted not just by Englishmen, but by an entity called a ‘company’, and sent to live with its governor, what we would today call a “chief executive officer”. The image of the company as the original imperial conquistador has all but disappeared in today’s economics classrooms. Over the next series of columns, we intend to explore key companies which shaped the South African economy and understand them within the context of the human economic history. These conquistador companies – the Dutch East India, De Beers, Naspers and others, have shaped South Africa’s racialised capitalism. We will be exploring their roots in the context of the popular cry rises for the dismantling of white monopoly capital.