SA economist whose work went global wrote with a deep idealism

Sampie Terreblanche’s name will live on in the hearts and minds of social scientists, economic justice activists and perhaps even a few guilt-ridden politicians. Indeed, President Cyril Ramaphosa tweeted generous condolences on Monday.

Terreblanche died on February 17 at age 84 of brain cancer.

His pen channelled his quiet fury about the world’s and South Africa’s worsening inequality and always with crystal-clear analytical force.

He was first drawn to this research as a member of the 1970s Erika Theron Commission on the poverty of the coloured people in the Western Cape.

His 1980 book Wordings van die Westerse Ekonomie began his process of expanding the scale of analysis to the global. By 2014, he had summed up the systemic character of West-versus-Rest exploitation, with a strong institutionalist focus but doing so while drawing upon the finest structural (including Marxist) critiques of global capitalism. His last three books – all deserving space on any concerned citizen’s library – were A History of Inequality in South Africa, 1652-2002 (KMMR Publishers and UKZN Press, 2002), Lost in Transformation (KMMR Publishers, 2012) and Western Empires (Penguin, 2014).

Terreblanche wrote with a deep idealism, in a country repeatedly scoring at the very highest levels of both income and wealth inequality, in a world whose richest have far outpaced any prior era for greed, hedonistic consumption and structured systems of exploitation. He observed in his home village of Stellenbosch some of the world’s most extreme capitalists, in a country whose workers are considered the most confrontational on earth (in annual World Economic Forum surveys) and its businessmen the world’s most corrupt (in bi-annual PricewaterhouseCoopers reports, which posit that “eight out of ten senior managers do economic crime”). Here, he always reminded, the poorest 15 million are young children and – if lucky not to fall through innumerable bureaucratic cracks or have their grant raided by the World Bank-owned CPS Net1 – they are surviving on R380/month: the tokenistic Child Support Grant with which mothers must attempt to pay for food and other essentials.

Terreblanche insisted on a more realistic poverty line of R50/day, under which StatisticsSA finds no less than 55% of our society, up from 45% in 1994 (but University of Cape Town SA Labour and Development Research Unit bean counters consider StatsSA’s current methodology biased, resulting in a 10% under-count). The inability to address this stain on our political democracy angered Terreblanche so much that in his frustration, he complained mightily of the liberation government’s acquiescence to corporate capital’s ‘neo-colonial’ agenda. Some critics – like Tito Mboweni – find in Lost in Transformation a ‘conspiracy theory’ but aside from disputes about whether the Development Bank of Southern Africa hosted elite deal-making evening chats, the basic thesis is sound, parallel to the Ronnie Kasrils ‘Faustian Pact’ revelations.

At a University of Johannesburg symposium celebrating Terreblanche last month, the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Verne Harris explained: “Did Mandela have breakfast with Douw Stein, lunch with Harry Oppenheimer, dinner with Sol Kerzner? Yes, but was he cutting macro-economic deals? No, he was raising funds for his party.” Still, what was the policy cost of generously nurturing and relegitimising these lads? Watching from his daughter’s Stellenbosch home on skype, an alert, appreciative Terreblanche – suffering the last stages of brain cancer – did not reply.

But, no socialist he, Terreblanche’s answer wouldn’t have been to chide Mandela for failing to nationalise ill-begotten apartheid loot or for assuaging tycoons about the sanctity of post-apartheid property rights. Instead, Terreblanche testified to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 1997 meetings on big business and apartheid, where he called for a substantive wealth tax. One commissioner, Yasmin Sooka, told the UJ memorial how the TRC’s unofficial representative from Brenthurst scuppered that idea.

Mandela had insisted in 1994 that to avoid the deficit/GDP ratio rising beyond its then 9% level, a once-off 5% income tax supplement was necessary. Then, under pressure from Washington Consensus disciples, Mandela agreed on a primary corporate tax cut from 56% to 38%, and after 1999 it fell another 10%. Due to the discursive power of neoliberal capitalism – and aside from students’ #FeesMustFall proposals in 2015-16 – there has been no subsequent public discussion on reversing that calamitous fall, even though the promised pay-back by business in the form of private sector gross fixed capital investment only briefly materialised, during the 2002-07 minerals and consumer credit boom. Before and after, business has been on an investment strike.

In late 1997, Terreblanche was widely ridiculed by the establishment, but last month the Wits Southern Centre on Inequality Studies issued its first working paper: his TRC testimony, preceded by an updated appeal to put the taxation of wealth – both windfall and durable – back on the public agenda. The balance of forces in public policy discourse prevented either this week, but next year there is an election. And in my last long discussion with Terreblanche a month before he died, I could see how committed he remained to electoral solutions, generous social policy and tighter exchange controls that would put Scandinavian-style social democracy back into the mix, even under rule by a rand-mullti-billionaire whose accumulation of wealth via illicit financial flows remains a mystery but helps explain such extraordinary levels of inequality here, and everywhere.