Trudi Makhaya: Economist of Dreams

A strong message for young professional women can be found simply in the title of the poetry that Trudi Makhaya says inspires her; ‘Be nobody’s darling’, by Alice Walker. The BrightRock team interviewed super strong, centred and powerful Trudi Makhaya in a quick-fire Q & A session, covering others’ reactions to her being an economist (and most certainly not a banker), what benefits she garnered studying at Oxford, her perception of the connection between economics and poetry, and her not-quite-so dreamy inspiration for the future of South Africa. – CH

This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes.

Meet a mover and shaker who understands the way the world is moving and shaking, and what it means for us all.

Like the roar of thunder and the flash of lightning that herald a storm, the forces that shape the global economy can be daunting. Markets rise and fall on a rumour of war, and the shifting tides of opinion on the other side of the planet can trickle down into what you’re paying for bread and milk in the grocery queue.

The economy has a hold on us all, whether or not we understand the way it works. That’s why we turn for inspiration and advice to the wizards, the alchemists, the sages of our fortunes: the economists. Trudi Makhaya, a Rhodes Scholar with an MSc in Development  Economics from Oxford, is one of the clearest and most quoted voices on the myriad of matters affecting the economy in South Africa and beyond.

As an analyst and commentator for Business Day and eNCA, she is highly sought after for her views on the complexities of competition, economic policy, and business strategy. She is a published poet too, and she believes that even economists need to be guided by dreams, in a world where every storm brings the promise of a good harvest. We caught up with Trudi to chat about life, business, poetry, and the economics of change.

If you could change one thing about yourself for the better, what would that be, and why?

It would be my lack of patience. I would like to be more patient with people and processes and life in general.

What do you love most about change?

The opportunity to see the world anew excites me. I am a repressed adventurer so I welcome change. But I still need to feel in control, hence the repressed part.

I also love seeing people change their views, shed their biases or become aware of a different viewpoint. Change is often accompanied by growth.

Which modern economist do you most admire, and why?

This changes from time to time. At the moment, it would have to be Thomas Piketty. He combines the best of the profession – historical analysis, rigorous data analysis and wicked scepticism.

And he is able to present it all in a fairly accessible way. I suspect that when non-economists read Piketty, it’s not obvious that he relies of complex models and mind-blowing data crunching. With other modern economists, this would be in-your-face. You might not agree with everything he says, and some of his policy advice is hopelessly idealistic, but he presents it all in a very compelling way.

What would you say was the most valuable lesson studying at Oxford taught you about life?

That I should know my worth and not be intimidated by ‘greatness’. Many world leaders and brilliant minds pass through Oxford to give talks or attend events.

Meeting some of them tempered the tendency to put these types of individuals on a pedestal. Observing someone like Hillary Clinton at close range and realising that she is ultimately a nice, hardworking tannie, not some mythical superwoman, is quite liberating. And inspiring. Suddenly a lot of things appear within reach.

How has your background in economics affected your own attitude to saving and spending money in everyday life?

I’d like to think it helped a lot. I like saving and I’m not a spendthrift. Some of this also comes from observing such behaviours at home. But my background has certainly helped in scrutinising financial products, managing my expectations about equity returns, and taking a life cycle view on my finances.

What is the most common reaction you get when you meet people for the first time and you tell them you’re an economist?

A lot of people ask me how the economy is doing. Others want my views on economic policy. The profession is also not well understood, so people are sometimes surprised that I’ve never worked for a bank. I’ve plied my trade in management consulting, then in regulation, now in the media and academia. But for most people, economics is tied to banking.

What advice would you give to young South Africans who dream of starting their own businesses?

From my observations, I would say don’t overthink it. But choose your industry wisely. Be careful not to be trampled on by ‘giants’. Find your niche and work from there.

Who or what gives you the most hope for a brighter future for South Africa?

I meet a lot of brilliant young people through my involvement with the Rhodes Trust, which awards scholarships for university graduates to pursue further study at Oxford. I suspect we don’t see the fullness of the talent out there and would love for more people to apply for it. But even the pool that we see is outstanding. Their stories, their triumphs over challenges, their optimism is amazing.

What was the single biggest and most daunting change you have ever made in your life?

Buying property a year before I planned to was quite daunting. I came across an apartment that was perfect for me. And then I had to go through the whole process of making an offer and raising a mortgage and a deposit.

I had to break up with my long term bank because they didn’t’ give me the best lending rate. I hate paperwork and dealing with conveyancers and that sort of thing. But it was worth all the drama.

As a published poet, how much of a connection do you see between economics and the process of writing poetry?

I go to the one to escape the other. I’m afraid I don’t see much of a connection.

What line from any poem, your own or anyone else’s, do you hold dearest to your heart?

‘Be nobody’s darling’, by Alice Walker.

What would you say is the most profound social, political, or economic change that is currently taking place, that will most affect us in the future?

Despite everything that is done to slow this process down, a borderless world.

What is your dream for business as a force for change in South Africa?

To take some short term pain for long term good. To give that young, inexperienced graduate a chance. To work with that new supplier until they reach the scale that will bring their costs down.

What can and should South Africans do to help us become a more globally competitive nation?

It will take some sacrifice from all role-players in the economy. Wages and margins are high in South Africa. We need to transition to a moderate cost, highly productive economy. We have to be unflinching in examining our weakness in education, health, governance and infrastructure and fix that.

You describe yourself, in part, as a dreamer. How valuable are dreams when it comes to the science and practise of economics?

Very important. Economics has advanced by people rejecting the limits accepted by society, overturning conventional wisdom. You can’t be too resigned to the world as it is if you are going to influence policy.

What does it take for you to change your mind?

Evidence, evidence, evidence.

Where do you go when you feel like a change of scenery?

A bookstore with a coffee shop.

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