Sunday, August 21, 2022

Johan Fourie's "Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom"

Johan Fourie is professor of Economics and History at Stellenbosch University.

He applied the Page 99 Test to his new book, Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom: Lessons from 100,000 Years of Human History, and reported the following:
From page 99:
At the Cape, however, not everyone benefited from the coming of the railways. The missionary Germond’s report quoted at the start of this chapter suggests that Basotho farmers certainly did not. This was because, for political reasons, the railway lines circumvented the grain-producing districts of Basutoland. Once the trunk line between Cape Town and Kimberley was completed, it was cheapter to transport wheat produced in the region around Cape Town by rail to the mines – a distance of 1000 kliometres – than over the 330 kliometres from Lesotho to Kimberley with transport riders and their carts. Inn fact, as Germond further notes, it was cheaper to import Australian and American wheat and send it to Kimberley than purchase Basutoland grain. Transport costs matter, a lot.
Page 99 is a surprisingly accurate peek into Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom, my accessible introduction to global economic history written from an African perspective. It explains why railroads were a blessing and a curse for South Africa: a blessing, because it propelled the economy forward. But a curse, too, because it only benefited some, notably those with political power.

This story of South Africa’s nineteenth century industrial development is one of 35 chapters, covering everything from humanity’s Out-of-Africa migration 100,000 years ago to the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the focus is on global economic history, I write from an African perspective: at least a third of the chapters either deal with Africa or South Africa. Why? I’ve always been frustrated with how global economic history texts often pay little more than lip-service to the continent I call home, usually with a chapter about ‘why things fell apart’ at the end. Such texts, in short, do not do justice both to Africans’ participation in the march of human progress and the breadth of (recent) scholarship that investigate Africa’s own economic past.

Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom was written during South Africa’s Covid lockdown and based on a second-year course in global economic history I teach at Stellenbosch University. It was initially published in 2021 by a South African publisher and was a commercial success; it is currently being translated into other South African languages. I’ve now updated and expanded the book substantially. (It includes, for example, a new chapter on the causes and consequences of the Second World War.) Cambridge University Press was kind enough to republish it, now to an international audience. Although the book is already prescribed at several universities (and I provide extensive slides and explainer videos at, my hope is that the book reaches an audience beyond the classroom.

That the world has become wealthier beyond belief over the last two centuries would not surprise economic historians. By reviewing the latest research – on precolonial African economic systems, the Protestant Reformation, the Atlantic slave trade, Russia’s turn to communism, the Asian miracle, and much, much more – I distil why it is that some regions have become remarkably rich and others not (yet). There are many lessons. One of them, as the German missionary to Basutoland already surmised more than a century ago, is that economic freedoms ultimately also require political freedoms. Another is that technologies, like the railways, can benefit some and hurt others. Page 99 of Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom illustrates both lessons well.
Visit Johan Fourie's website.

--Marshal Zeringue