Wits student Kamal Ramburuth-Hurt is driving a campaign to revolutionise the 'irrelevant' economics curriculum taught at South African universities. It's called Rethinking Economics for Africa (Refa) - and it's gaining traction.
Wits politics and economics student Kamal Ramburuth-Hurt, 22, came to the realisation that "something wasn't right" while he was sitting in an economics lecture on how the labour market worked. "We were learning about bargaining power, unions and budget constraints but the neoclassical model we were being taught just didn't make sense."
It was 2016 and Ramburuth-Hurt was in the second year of his degree. He pointed out to the course coordinator that the labour market she was talking about was "not the one we live in". He questioned why students were learning about a labour market model that did not apply in South Africa. And he complained of inconsistencies: on top of the use of microeconomic principles on a macroeconomic problem, recent research on implementing the national minimum wage (this was before the minimum-wage findings were made public) had concluded that it would not result in widespread unemployment as the textbooks had taught. Those findings conclusively proved that what we are learning does not make sense in countries like ours."
The lecturer had agreed with him, explaining: "…but unfortunately we have to teach these models because these are the models used at the universities in the UK and the US. What if some of you end up at Oxford or a university in Europe? If you don't learn this way, you won't know this classical stuff and you'll be behind."
That comment made Ramburuth-Hurt realise that students were "not learning things relevant to our lived experiences" but simply because it is learned in the West. He decided their economics curriculum needed to be decolonised.
"Most students do not go overseas after their degree or even after their honours. Most remain in South Africa or other African countries, having been taught a labour-market model that does not apply to their countries."
In 2015 when the FeesMustFall movement kicked off, RamburuthHurt was in his first year at Wits, having matriculated from Jeppe High School for Boys. As the child of long-time activists Karen Hurt, who is also a feminist writer, and Shan Ramburuth, he "didn't think twice" about getting involved. "I was there every day supporting the students. It felt natural to join a campaign for free, decolonised, quality tertiary education."
Ramburuth-Hurt became a Wits SRC member for 2017 and 2018. It was his involvement in FeesMustFall that convinced him free education was not enough. "The movement's philosophy is that education must also be of a high quality. When you open things up, there's always the concern that the quality of education will go down. It is critical to ensure that education that is free is also quality education."
Not long after his experience in the lecture theatre, RamburuthHurt experienced another turning point. "We were looking at the Solow economic model (that of Nobel Prizewinner in Economics, Robert Solow and Trevor Swan). "This model talks about population growth and the role of technology and the relationship between capital and economic growth. I found it very useful. After the lecture, I went to the lecturer and asked, 'If we were to plot South Africa's Solow growth model, where would we be?'
"We had the most interesting fiveminute conversation about where South Africa is and what we could be doing. We discussed this model's relevance for the country - which was awesome as it gave me a good idea of what our economy needs in order to grow. The problem was, this was just a side conversation with a lecturer, not something in our syllabus. There was just no focus on South Africa or Africa or our experiences. It was all discussed in the abstract. I had a strong feeling that we need to make this useful information relevant to our country."
He cited a friend "who got straight As in her final year" yet who felt she still had no idea how economics works in the real world.
Ramburuth-Hurt and a small group of like-minded students decided to take action. "One student did a class survey about the curriculum, then a few of us decided 'No, screw it, we must do something about this'. We decided to start engaging with the university about curriculum reform."
And so, in December 2017, their organisation Rethinking economics for Africa (Refa) was born. It has fast gained momentum on campuses around South Africa through a combination of campaigning, events and projects. Their aim is "to connect people to discuss and enact the change needed for the future of economics". They also "seek to make a meaningful impact in the university space by introducing plurality, critical thinking and a decolonised approach to economics, and "to make economics more accessible to communities outside the university space.
Ramburuth-Hurt also complains that undergraduate economics students at Wits and many other campuses "are not exposed to even one reading or chapter by an African economist, nor are we taught about the economic history of our country or the continent". Most economics courses are only taught from the neoclassical perspective "even though there are in fact nine different schools of thought".
He points out that none of South Africa's mainstream economists predicted the current economic crisis in the country "yet two of our nonmainstream economists - well, there are two: Marxist macroeconomist Wits associate professor Chris Malikane and Johannesburg economist Duma Gqubule - both of whom are heterodox economists ['outside of mainstream or orthodox schools of economic thought'] saw it coming a while before it happened. So the guys who don't use the mainstream ideas were the people who publicly warned there would be a recession before the mainstream thinkers did.
"We have serious problems in our economy and we need to be taught as many schools of thought as possible, so we can approach these problems in a way that is critical, pluralist and decolonising."
Ramburuth-Hurt bemoans the fact the "limitations" of what economics graduates are taught means they often go into the workplace with little confidence in their knowledge or skills. "We are stumped when asked crucial questions about our economy: What is the solution to South Africa's unemployment crisis? Will a national minimum wage really cause unemployment in South Africa? What is the informal economy and how does it work? What caused the financial crisis and how do we avoid another one? What is South Africa's economic history? How can we look at economic problems using Institutionalist, Austrian, Keynesian, Post-Keynesian, Feminist or Complexity Economics schools of thought?
"These are key questions that are not answered in most South African undergraduate economics degrees. This limits our ability to problem solve and develop qualitative skills. Some academics have argued that, to teach one approach and to teach it without critically engaging its assumptions and implications, is to teach economics that is propaganda. Pluralism, the teaching of different approaches and schools of thought, is vital to a wellrounded education. The introduction of different approaches offers economics graduates a greater range of tools that they can use to tackle problems in the working world.
|Kamal Ramburuth-Hurt gives a presentation on decolonising economics|
So, what would be appropriate models to teach in South Africa and what critical factors make the classical model inappropriate?
"We should be engaging on more ideas and publications of local authors - and of authors who have grappled with problems of developing and semideveloped countries.
"In Africa we need to be dealing with the way that concepts apply to African examples. We also need to be learning concepts and solutions to relevant African problems. In South Africa, for example, we should be engaging on problems such as middle-income country traps as well as massive inequality and unemployment.
"We are not saying we don't want to learn Neo-classical economics, but that there are other schools of thought that prove useful in addressing problems that the Neo-classical does not.
"I understand that as a recent undergraduate I may not know enough about economics to know exactly what a perfect economics curriculum looks like, however I know enough to be convinced that what we learn is not sufficient and lacks relevance. I also understand that the world is made up of institutions and systems of politics, sociology, international relations and psychology that affect decisions as individuals, households, firms, communities and countries. The economy does not exist outside or independently of these things. We want to learn how these affect economics, and so come to understand the real world.
The classical model is inappropriate. "In the macroeconomic paradigm we can learn from complexity economics and from institutional economics and from institutional economics.
"Let's take institutional economics for example. South Africa's public finance is in crisis by all accounts, affecting the value we get from government expenditure. Another example is the importance of economic infrastructure such as water and energy. If not planned and implemented well it could result in shortages that have a ripple effect throughout the economy. Institutional economics explains and offers solutions to these issues.
"There is another school of thought that looks at how the South African economy is dominated by men. Patriarchal practices affect the workplace through things like gender wage pay gaps and socially enforced inaccessibility to the economy for women. This creates problematic dynamics in our economy that feminist economics sheds light on.
"Marxist political economy helps to explain the dynamics of state capture, or why South African SOEs have been run badly - and used by politicians and businessmen to loot state coffers. It also explains the importance of trade relations in developing and resisting a dependence between industrialised and unindustrialised countries that stagnates development in countries on the periphery.
"There are other questions that are not answered in our mainstream education but from which we can learn answers in behavioural economics. For example, how do we improve the productivity of workers without exploiting them? How do increases in VAT affect the decision-making processes of the poor? This is important in our society because more than half of South Africa lives in poverty."
Ramburuth-Hurt went on: "What about issues of land reform? How did South Korea enact their land reform when Japanese colonial powers dominated the ownership of land in South Korea? What did Zimbabwe do? What can we learn from their experience? With engagement in economic history we can develop our economic understanding around the land question."
In September, Refa held its inaugural festival at Wits, hosting more than 500 people from civil society, academia and unions as well as many students from UCT, UWC, Rhodes, The University of Zululand, UKZN, UJ and Tuks.
Students at the festival slammed the lack of pluralism in Wits's undergraduate economics programme, saying this was unacceptable for a university that claims to be the "Harvard of Africa". Other universities are in the same boat, they agreed. The students put out a call to action along with proposed solutions for Rethinking Economics for Africa. These included forming societies to supplement the existing curriculums and challenge the status quo and to "democratise" economics by making it accessible to all members of society
So far, Refa groups have been established at Wits, the University of Johannesburg, UCT and the University of the Western Cape. "We believe we will have a Refa at every university in the country in the not too distant future," Ramburuth-Hurt told Noseweek.
In the past year Ramburuth-Hurt and a few fellow students attended a conference in Paris on Rethinking Economics, where they met students from 30 different countries.
"Although our organisation came about independently of the international movement, it was an epiphany to see that a lot of the problems we face here are faced around the world."
The year ahead will see Refa pushing for decolonised curriculums at universities. The organisation is also planning a workshop on a potential textbook for the Wits syllabus.
"We also plan a workshop to consolidate our views as students, as well as one with university academics to engage on the new curriculum."
On his personal plans for the future, Ramburuth-Hurt said: "I would like to study up till masters, and then I am interested in developmental work. Whatever I do, I'd like my career to involve making a positive difference.
"No matter where I study, I will always come back home."
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