REVIEW | Mamphela Ramphele critiques Johan Fourie's 'A Long Walk to Economic Freedom'

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Mamphela Ramphele reviews Johan Fourie's A Long Walk to Economic Freedom, writing it falls short of its intended path-finding mission to point the way to the promised land of economic freedom.

Author Johan Fourie must be commended for seriously engaging the most pressing problem facing South Africa of how do we ensure that the 27-year-old political freedom we are enjoying is appropriately complemented by economic freedom.

He has beautifully set out a journey of historical comparative economics, with the objective of enabling the reader to learn from other nations' experiences around the world.

With cleverly titled chapter headings, the reader is from the outset intrigued by the possibility of unique cross-cultural analysis.

Fourie's book falls far short of its intended path-finding mission to point the way to the promised land of economic freedom.

The strategic use of freedom struggle rhetoric to present the author as the "empirical social scientist who has set himself the role of finding ways to solve the continent's problems" is an unnecessary rhetorical gimmick that borders on hubris.  

His book rests uneasily on three fragile intellectual pillars. First, it is based on an inaccurate understanding of ancient history. Second, it is based on fallacies that reflect his Eurocentric view of the world. Third, it is too narrowly framed to proclaim GDP as the authoritative measure of progress of humanity.

Historical inaccuracies 

The book includes six historical inaccuracies that undermine Fourie's stated purpose. First, over the last century, societies in Tibet, Iran, Brazil, Mexico, Tanzania and Ethiopia have been successfully guided by different national aspirations and metrics of progress than the GDP-centric approach taken by Fourie.

Second, the argument that poverty has been the historical global norm is ahistoric. 

The amount of wealth controlled by the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians and Mansa-Musa-led kingdom of Mali as well as the Kingdom of Ashanti was in each case so enormous that these countries were globally acknowledged during their respective heydays, in the same way as America and the UK are by modern standards. That there was no GDP measure then should not obscure that fact. 

Third, economic development is not mechanistic.

The author is obsessed with using a single mechanism to describe economic history. Increases in living standards have happened in many societies using radically different economic development models.

The common elements are to be found in how formal institutions in those countries relate to their informal institutions. This fundamental relationship informs different societies' ability to set and follow rules that entrench belief in the systematic fairness principles undergirding their law and order. Although the author hints at this reality, he again ascribes sweeping inaccurate theories as to why formal institutions hold up in one society and not in another.

Fourth, the author fails to acknowledge the discoveries ascribed to "western peoples" between 17000 BCE and 3000 BCE, were made by Africans living in Europe, Arabia, and Mesopotamia.  

African-Arabian immigrants from Turkey brought agriculture, religion, astrology and language to Europe. African immigrants brought maths, science, engineering and writing to Mesopotamia. How then can we give credit to the latter inhabitants of those regions for technological developments perfected by their predecessors? 

Fifth, the author glosses over an inconvenient fact that both crop farming and pastoralist lifestyles began in the Nile Valley before 17000 BCE. Arguments for an agrarian revolution and the resulting development of specialisation in the Levant should apply to the Nile Valley as well. The idea of "luck" should equally apply to the Nile Valley societies. They had regular predictable seasons with some of the most fertile lands on earth.


Sixth, the author repeatedly associates the institution of slavery with illiberal societies practising the "custom and control" models.

He ignores the fact that slavery has been the bedrock of all western societies, especially the most "liberally democratic" ones like the UK and US. The effects of slavery were amplified and perpetuated through the extractive economic models that fuelled colonialism and apartheid inequities in our own country and elsewhere in the world. 

Given Fourie's stated purpose of promoting the understanding of African economic history, a few accompanying facts bear noting. 

First, until 1300 BCE, modern Europeans were living in Scandinavia, Ukraine, present day Netherlands and Germany at first as cave dwellers, then hunter gatherers, and only after 3500 BCE as farmers. 

DNA analysis conducted by European scientists has concluded immigrants from Turkey to Europe, who originally brought agriculture and language there in 7000 BCE, had Arabian, African and Asian blood.

No trace of European DNA was found from their DNA samples. Archaeological evidence shows Europeans came to southern Europe, Mesopotamia, the Levant and Mediterranean basin after 1300 BCE, as different tribes who then defeated kingdoms in these regions that were until 1300 BCE operating a globalised Bronze Age economy, run by Africans.  

Second, the first introduction of "white" DNA to Africa came in the form of kidnapped prisoners of war after 1278 BCE, when Rameses II defeated Sherden pirates attempting to raid Egypt from the Mediterranean, and from the Battle of the Delta in 1175 when a larger confederate army of Europeans was defeated by Rameses III. Extensive DNA analysis conducted by Cheikh Anta Diop, the Senegalese scientist, has successfully shown Egyptian royalty was of African descent. 

Third, cattle, horses and sheep were domesticated in Africa in 11000 BCE prior to the date of the first known genetic mutation favouring pale skin pigmentation (which happened no earlier than 6000 BCE). This negates and renders as nonsensical the idea that white people were first to domesticate certain animals and plants, and that black people were "unlucky" enough to domesticate yams.

Fourth, the author takes as an unquestionable fact, that market-based economies have been universally successful especially when combined with "western liberal values".

Thomas Pickety's book, Capital in the 21st Century, argued these values have fuelled structural inequalities and inequities in our world. 

Military power glorified

Fifth, the author repeatedly makes the case that luck determines the fortunes of vast peoples across countries and continents. That Africans had the bad fortune of an abundance of land base, enormous variations in weather systems, almost unlimited mineral resources which led to low productivity in agriculture. This argument tries to manufacture a curse out of abundance. It is ahistorical to make this argument while ignoring the fact that Africa's growth path without slavery, colonialism and imperial interference is not quantifiable. 

Finally, throughout the book, the author seems to glorify the use of military power and expects indigenous populations to have reciprocated the warlike, bloodthirsty approach of colonisers.

For instance, he asks why 138 Spanish conquistadors were, between 1519 and 1521, able to lie and to cheat their way into killing and colonising the Incas.

Fourie fails to understand that the behaviour of the conquistadors, the Dutch, and those British immigrants coming off the Mayflower in America were deviant, unethical and cruel. The societies they encountered had no frame of reference for such behaviour and thus were not in a position to expect other humans to act in such a manner. 

I would like to invite Fourie's students to approach the learning process with an open mind, taking into account the fact the complexity of human development defies a single linear narrative of the truth.   

- Mamphela Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA and co-president of the Club of Rome.

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