Economic history tells a “thoroughly optimistic” story, says Fourie, a professor of economics at Stellenbosch University and author of the recently published book Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom: Lessons from 100 000 Years of Human History.

“I have taught economic history for the last ten years. I find that students, especially those from the arts and social sciences, have a very negative view of the world.

“They tend to think that things are just getting worse. It is an idea that is popular in certain disciplines. I find it strange, because if you look at any measure of human prosperity, in every way, things are better now than they were 200 or 100 or even 20 years ago.

“The world is a much better place. It’s the best time to be alive. Even in the midst of a pandemic, it is amazing what technology we have at our disposal and how many people have access to it.

“The world population is much bigger than ever before, but humans are also better off. People live longer and they have access to education, safe housing and health services. All of these things used to be limited to a small elite. If one looks at the world before the Industrial Revolution, it was a place where a small section of society had access to the kinds of things that we accept as normal today.

“We can therefore be far more optimistic. And, what is more, we should learn from the past about how people became wealthier. Some of my students ascribe everything that happened in the past to exploitation. There was, of course, a lot of exploitation, but things like slavery are almost non-existent today. Then there are things like human rights, democratic suffrage, access to the legal system and property rights. These are things that did not exist for a big part of our history.”

Lessons from the past

In his book Fourie looks at aspects of economic history that span the period from the human migration out of Africa to today.

He investigates, among other things, what happened at Blombos 70 000 years ago; what the recently deceased King Goodwill Zwelithini and Charlemagne have in common, how Einstein helped “to create” Eskom, and how a catastrophic economic decision in China resulted in one of the biggest tragedies caused by humans in history.

Fourie, aside from being a professor in economics, is also a co-founder of the African Economic History Network, president of the Economic History Society of Southern Africa, and a columnist for local publications. He says that he initially wanted to be a journalist, but then he “fell in love” with economics in his first year at varsity.

“I find it curious that we don’t reflect enough on how people became more prosperous and improved their living standards. I believe that this is one of the most important questions of our time.

“Severe inequality and poverty remain important features of South African society. We all have ideas as to why this is the case, but there is also a whole field that studies it: economic history. This is, in a way, at the heart of economics: How can you do more with less? How can we not only create prosperity, but also share it fairly?

“The nice thing about economic history is, therefore, that is uses lessons from the past to answer those questions.  People like to tell stories, and history is filled with wonderfully rich stories. History can help us to understand how it happened that some people and countries and regions were better off than others.”

New questions

Fourie says that he and a team of just over 20 students in the Stellenbosch University economics and history departments use data to do research about economic and social history.

“We ask new questions and sometimes provide new answers that might not have been obvious to an earlier generation of historians. It is rather exciting. I think that historians are often seen in a very specific light and here we show that what we do can also be sexy. Historians aren’t just people who sit in the archives all day writing about forgotten dead people… That is a stereotype of historians, but it is not all they do.

“Here we do research which is not just focused on understanding the past better, but rather also on our current context. If someone understands something about their own history, such as West Africa’s fourteenth century prosperity, it can also change how they think about opportunities today and maybe even how they view their own identity. This provides a way to understand the present, especially in times of crisis.

“A good example is pandemics. When Covid-19 came along, the first thing that people asked was: What happened during the Spanish Flu? We could then analyse thousands of death notices to provide information about what happened back then and look at how it could be relevant for today.

“This book is actually just a way to provide a concise overview of what the leading economic historians have written in the last two decades.

“But I also use the latest research to tell a story about our long-run development. It is not just a retelling of things that we know already.”

Richest of all time

During our Zoom interview, Fourie is sitting in his office on the campus of Stellenbosch University. On the wall behind him is a puzzle of a map with the description Mapamundi 1375.

“It is a world map from 1375 by Abraham Cresques – eight panels. I built it with my wife [Helanya Fourie, also an economist and linked to the Bureau for Economic Research]; it is the first puzzle we built together. She completed six of the panels and I did two… There are just inequalities everywhere,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.

“Mansa Musa is on the map. He was a 14th century ruler of the Kingdom of Mali in West Africa and the richest man in the history of the world. This is one of the only drawings that exists of him.”

In the chapter “Who was the richest man in history? The spread of Islam in Africa and the Crusades”, Fourie writes about Musa and how he was not content to just enjoy the wealth of his kingdom, thanks to natural resources of gold and salt. Instead he also undertook enormous construction projects and established mosques, schools, libraries and universities.

Africa’s future

In May 2000, The Economist published an article titled “The hopeless continent” in which it announced that there was little hope for the future of Africa. Fourie unpacks this view, indicating how wrong it was, and looks at what happened in Africa after 2000.

As far as the future is concerned, he believes that the continent must focus on the service industry. “Africa’s location, and the fact that English is spoken relatively widely, makes us a place where services – everything from call centres to tourism to soccer players to architectural services, design services and ICT services – could be supplied on the continent and then exported.

“I try to make the argument that we will struggle if we see industrialisation as the next phase in our economic development. Maybe there is an alternative route we can take, especially given the great technological progress of our time.”

Poorer and shorter

In the chapter “What did Sol Plaatje find on his journey through South Africa?”, Fourie reviews the effects of the Native Land Act of 1913 (whereby black people’s land was expropriated).

He explains how the writer Plaatje travelled through the country to determine the effects of the law on black people. Among others, Plaatje spoke to a white policeman who told him that black people had a relatively comfortable life.

They owned their own cattle “living in many instances just like the Dutchmen”.

But, he added, “Many of these black farmers are now being forced to leave their homes. Cycling along this road you will meet several of them in search of new homes, and if ever there was a fool’s errand, it is that of a black man trying to find a new home for his stock and his family right now.”

Fourie and the economic historians Bokang Mpeta and Kris Inwood then used anthropometric history – the comparison of human heights – to determine how black people’s living standards were impacted by land expropriation.

“We don’t have enough information about the living standards of black South Africans from that time period, and that is why we used this method. Even this method is flawed, however, because there are limited samples available.

“But our research confirms what Plaatje said: The living standards of black people dropped substantially in the first three decades of the 20th century. It was only in the 1930s, when the mining industry expanded notably and there were more job opportunities for black men, that babies were better fed and those babies, when they were adults, were taller than their parents.”

A wrong turn

In one of the last chapters of Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom, Fourie comes to the following conclusion about South Africa’s most recent decade: “Nelson Mandela’s long walk to economic freedom went down a wrong path. Let’s hope we can find our way back.”

He says that one of the most interesting things about South Africa is that, other than “this outlier Covid year”, we are not a country with great fluctuations in our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

“I think we focus too much on politics – and there are of course valid reasons for that – which means that we miss the story of normal people on the street. It is one of the things that I also find frustrating about talking to students.

“But we must remember, they were born in 2002, so their world, since the year they turned seven until now when they arrived at university, was basically Jacob Zuma. All that they know is a negative story.

“The story of the 2000’s is overwhelmingly positive. We started to significantly eradicate poverty. We created jobs, although not everyone that wanted one had one. We had a budget surplus. We built an electric car. There were many things that were positive about the future, in both the micro- and macroeconomy.

“Unfortunately, we took a wrong turn with Zuma and what happened in the 2010s – state capture and all that went with it.”

In our favour

But the good news is that we don’t only have to have this one story. We know that things can be better. We know what we need to do. It is difficult to do it and that is why things are going frustratingly slowly right now.

“In the book there is a chapter about Argentina, one of the richest countries at the beginning of the 20th century, which is now not much more than middle-income.  Last year they could not pay their debt (once again).

“This is what populism does. I hope that we will not careen from one populist leader to the next like Argentinians did.

“But I don’t think we are there yet. I hope the Zuma-experience has clearly shown us the dangers of what we did wrong.

“Our president and minister of finance are currently doing and saying the right things. I am carefully optimistic; just like with the Ever Given in the Suez Canal, we will need to turn the ship around slowly but surely.

“I think the other big thing that counts in our favour, is that we are on a continent where the market will grow rapidly within the next decade or three. We have a new free trade agreement. Infrastructure which promotes trade is improving – new roads and bridges and optic fibre networks, but also more efficient border posts which will decrease red tape.

“Combine this with new technology and there is a huge opportunity for the attentive entrepreneur. And we will attract people that will come to study here and then start companies here, because South Africa is still a place with excellent tertiary education and where one can do business easily.”

The future

In his last chapter Fourie does something which he warns against: He tries to predict the future.

“Of course, no one knows what will happen; if someone confidently predicts the stock market or exchange rate or the Springbok ruby score, ask them why they are not rich.”

And yet he risks pointing out some broad trends. “We are getting better at utilising our assets. Just think of the fact that Airbnb does not own any property. Technology allows us to transform our unused assets (such as an empty room) into something that generates an income. What else is an unused asset that can be utilised effectively? The fact that Covid-19 forced us to work from home opened a whole new world of possibilities.

“The fundamental reason we are richer than our forefathers is because people have realised two things. Firstly, we can use our understanding of nature to improve our living standards. This knowledge has helped us to be more productive.

“But we have also made a second important discovery: that this improvement in living standards should not be limited to a small elite with political power. Everyone can benefit from it, provided they are given the freedom to do so.

“Even though we don’t always see it in the news, we have more freedom now than even before. And that is why we can be optimistic looking forward,” he says.

  • This interview first appeared in print in Die Burger and Beeld on Saturday, 3 April – and online on Netwerk24. It was published in Afrikaans. Written by Murray la Vita and translated by Amy Rommelspacher. Visit for more info.