Photo by Mario

The past is never dead. It is not even past. Photo by Mario Gerth

This week is conference week. From Monday to Tuesday, STIAS hosts an ERSA Workshop on the ‘Fiscal history of Africa’. With additional funding by the British Academy, we have been able to invite a stellar list of international visitors: Noel Johnson (George Mason), Christian Makgala (Botswana), Leigh Gardner (LSE), and Jutta Bolt (Groningen). And from Wednesday to Friday, another ERSA workshop, this time on ‘Longitudinal data in African history’, will be held at STIAS. Here, too, we have an exciting list of international presenters: Marcella Alsan (Stanford), Bill Collins (Vanderbilt), Jason Long (Wheaton), Ellen Hillbom and Erik Green (Lund), Neil Cummins (LSE) and several PhD-students. More than 30 local participants will be able to share their research and interact with the visitors. Hosting the workshops back-to-back mean that many can stay for both.

The international and local interest in the two workshops shows that African Economic History is in good health. The rise, or renaissance, of African economic history is evident in the popularity of the annual African economic history meetings, rising from a small group of regulars to, as last year in London showed, a wide circle of scholars from diverse disciplines interested in the African past. Word on the street is that this year’s meeting – from 30-31 October in Wageningen, Netherlands – will be the largest yet.

LEAP_logo_US_2It’s this momentum that has been a catalyst for the creation of a new Economic History research unit in the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University. And so, this Wednesday we will launch the new identity of this research group: LEAP – the Laboratory for the Economics of Africa’s Past. LEAP (see website) is dedicated to the quantitative study of African economic history, bringing together scholars and students interested in understanding and explaining the long-term economic development of Africa’s diverse societies.

The aim of any research institution is, of course, to produce high-quality research output. This, I believe, can only be achieved through 1) access to funding and 2) recruiting high-quality students (from Africa and elsewhere) to exploit those resources. Both require us to nurture deeper networks across Africa, the US and Europe, and build research partnerships through collaborative projects. I am happy to say that this is already happening, as projects on the fiscal history of South Africa (with Leigh Gardner at the LSE), or the impact of railways in Africa (with Alfonso Herranz at Barcelona), or early South African living standards (with Martine Mariotti at Australian National University, Kris Inwood at Guelph University and Alex Moradi at Sussex) demonstrate.

But more can be done. African archives still hold vast quantities of historical records, of which we’ve only scratched the surface, and too few students are exposed to an expanding Economic History literature. It’s now time to take the leap.

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