UP's Department of Economics celebrates 100 years

Posted on September 21, 2021

The Department of Economics at the University of Pretoria originated from humble beginnings in a large house in town. It operated in an extramural facility, as the majority of students in the Faculty of Commerce were employed in businesses in the city centre and could only attend classes in the late afternoon and evening. The department has, since, been located in the Old Arts Building, the Human Sciences building, the Economic and Management Sciences building and, currently, Tukkiewerf on the present campus.
Economics was one of the foundation subjects in the first Faculty of Commerce, which was established in 1920 at the Transvaal University College. To some extent, it directly emerged from a need voiced by the business sector.
From 1921 onwards, publicity for the courses taught by the Faculty depended on advertising to the public service, banks and chambers of commerce. Student numbers continued to rise, and increasingly so; by 1958 the number of enrolled students was double the 1950 number, reflecting the rising value that commerce and industry attached to university education.
Early Leadership
Each Head of Department brought new emphasis and development, including: Philosophy and Political Economy, Practical Banking and the Theory of Finance, Economic History,  Economic Theory, Economic Policy and Applied Econometrics. Under each head of department there were new improvements and emphases and also authors of several pioneering works.
Early heads of department went on to be leaders in the public sector, like Director of Census and Statistics, Chairman of the Wage Board of Board of Trade & Industries, Governor of the South African Reserve Bank (SARB), Members of Commissions of Inquiry into industrial strategy and labour legislation, Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Business Sciences, Director General of Manpower, and many more.
The Department frequently made use of numerous economic experts in the private and public sectors, as well as internationally to offer lectures or courses, especially at the postgraduate level. In addition, the department made an early foray into contract research, having put together an internal research agency: Bureau for Economic Policy and Analysis. This was established in 1973 and unit soon became a leading role player in economic research, featured in periodical publications such as Focus on Key Economic Issues. In particular, monetary policy, econometrics, labour issues and the economic implications of constitutional reform were “focus” issues. However, by 2003, the unit became obsolete, due to the establishment of the campus companies Business Enterprises (BE) and Continued Education (CE).
The Department of Economics is located in the Tukkiewerf building  
Prof Geert De Wet (HOD, 1987-1997) placed specific emphasis on statistical methods and built the first econometric model for South Africa, subsequently internalised by the South African Reserve Bank (SARB). Since that time, the department's econometric research programmes have gained greater international recognition, since they were incorporated in the activities of the United Nations-financed organisation Project Link. The goal of Project Link was to link econometric models worldwide to thus enable the forecasts of global economic activity, which would incorporate trade and capital flows.
This time period was also associated with a significant investment in its staff, with the goal of  improving academic and research capabilities. Staff members were supported to acquire foreign qualifications and financial support was given to staff to deliver papers at national and international conferences and forums. Indeed, each full-time staff member had an opportunity to attend a foreign conference. Thus, value was added to the quality of the workforce. 
Through these efforts, academic connections were made between the University of Preotria and, amongst others, the universities of Twente, Erasmus, Toronto and Siegen. In 1998, the Department took the lead in the faculty in the field of telematic teaching. As part of the long-term education strategy, a computer-aided teaching programme was instituted at the second year level. The WINECON software package was purchased and commissioned from 1998. Approximately 400 students worked weekly on the micro- and macro theory programme.
These partnerships and the extensive improvement in the econometrics programmes in the department led to the award of honorary doctorate degrees to Stephen Hall and Peter Pauly. Each of them was instrumental to the department’s establishment of the African Econometric Society, which has since been incorporated as a region within the Econometric Society.
In 1997, Prof Geert de Wet was succeeded as HOD by Professor Jan van Heerden. One of Prof Van Heerden’s legacies was building the international profile of the staff component of the department. In 2002, the first two permanent faculty members from abroad arrived: Dr S.F. (Steve) Koch, who had completed his doctoral degree at the Pennsylvania State University, and Dr T. (Tonia) Kandiero, who had completed her doctoral degree at Howard University in Washington, DC. Koch decided to remain in South Africa and was appointed Head of Department in 2009 – the first international academic to be appointed in this position. These were followed by many more appointments from all over the world.
During this time, research activities  in the department expanded from econometric models to a different class of modelling based on computation. These computable general equilibrium models, which were a staple of Prof van Heerden’s own research, have been used to analyse and extensive range of economic policies in South Africa and many other parts of Africa. These activities have also led to a stronger relationship with Australian universities, currently Victoria University, and the awarding of an honorary doctorate to Prof Peter Dixon.  
During Prof Van Heerden’s time, the department also established the South African Tax Institute, now the African Tax Institute, along with the South African Reserve Bank Chair in Monetary Economics, now the South African Reserve Bank Chair in Monetary Policy Studies.
The African Tax Institute (ATI) was established in 2001 as the South African Tax Institute, with Prof R.C.D. (Riël) Franzsen as its Director. Prof Franzsen has since become the South African Research Chair in Tax Policy and Governance, which also supports the institute. The ATI was devoted to training, research and technical assistance related to tax policy and administration in Africa. Within a short period more than 1 300 participants from 25 African countries had benefitted from one or more of the ATI’s programmes, workshops and conferences. The ATI has developed both magister and PhD programmes in tax policy and developed strong linkages with researchers from around the world.
The South African Reserve Bank (SARB) Chair was established in 2005, as a chair in Monetary Economics. After a few interim appointments, Prof N. (Nicola) Viegi was recruited to serve as the chair and work closely with the SARB to build capacity in monetary economics and to stimulate research. This chair has since been renamed to cover the Monetary Policy Studies and expanded to incorporate more research, training and collaboration with the SARB.
The department was involved in a number of other activities. The department established the Investment and Trade Policy Research Centre under Prof C. (Chris) Harmse; it is now directed by Prof A.C. (André) Jordaan. The department also received a  United Nations grant funding in 2001 to train Africans to build macro-econometric models for their own countries, use those models for economic policy analyses and forecast their own country’s economic performance. The project covered 15 different countries on the continent.
The current head of the Department of Economics, Prof Steve Koch, was appointed into that position in 2009. His primary research interests are in microeconomics and applied microeconomics, which is reflected in his efforts to add microeconomics breadth and depth to the department’s skillsets, and, thus, expanding its reach. Prof Koch also undertook to consolidate the achievements of the previous heads.
According to Koch, the department has three main pillars driving its behaviour, namely quality research, quality teaching and impactful marketing, underpinned by a strong educational anchor in the Department, namely the capacity of its staff component. He has worked to raise the bar, in terms of academic excellence, so that the Department of Economics at UP becomes the best in South Africa, as well as highly respected world-wide. In order to reach this goal, the department has focused on core competencies in microeconomics, macroeconomics and econometrics. Those skills are necessary for students to be able to follow and debate literature across all fields in economics.
The department has further leveraged its comparative locational advantage –  its proximity to South African policy-makers and financial institutions – to contribute to the development of a sound economic policy for South Africa and other countries on the continent. Much of that work has been supported by the Chair in Monetary Policy Studies and the South African Research Chair in Tax Policy and Governance, as well as a strong contingent of both national and international researchers.
Prof Koch has also worked, with many other South African and international academics, to create a collaborative research culture that presents and publishes excellent research on South Africa. He has done so through his involvement in Economic Research Southern Africa, as well as his appointment as the managing editor of the South African Journal of Economic and Management Sciences. He was subsequently appointed managing editor of the South African Journal of Economics.
A number of highlights for staff members of the department occurred in this most recent period.
  • Jaco Weideman (master's student in the Department) was awarded the Master's Founders’ Medal by the Economic Society of South Africa (ESSA) in 2015 for the top economics Master's thesis in the country, co-supervised by Proffs Jan van Heerden and Roula Inglesi-Lotz.
  • Dr Tumisang Loate, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Economics, was awarded the PhD Founders’ Medal by ESSA in 2018 for the top economics PhD thesis in the country – the first non-white recipient of this award.
  • Theshne Kisten was awarded the Masters Founder's Medal by ESSA in 2018.
  • Prof Roula Inglesi-Lotz was awarded the Distinguished Young Woman  Researcher in the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2017, as well as UP’s Exceptional Young Researcher Award in 2013. She is also the President of the South African Chapter of the International Association for Energy Economics. She is a member of the South African Young Academy of Sciences (SAYAS) (served as a co-chair in 2020) and a member of the Global Young Academy (GYA) (elected Co-chair 2021/22)
  • Dr Nicky Nicholls, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics, was awarded the PhD Founders’ Medal by ESSA in 2017 for the top economics PhD thesis in the country.
  • In order to establish good collaboration between academia and policy in the energy sector, Prof Roula Inglesi-Lotz was the founding president of the South African Association for Energy Economics (SAAEE) in 2018, a recognised affiliate of the International Association for Energy Economics (IAEE) of which she is elected the Vice President of Membership and Regional Relations 2021/22.  
  • In 2019, during the Academic Achievers Awards function, Prof Rangan Gupta received the award for his excellent research achievements, which include nearly 500 publications in national and internationally accredited journals.
  • Research in the field of environmental economics was initiated by Prof Blignaut who published widely on this topic, including a book titled Sustainable Options: Development lessons from applied environmental resource economics in South Africa, which he co-authored.
  • In 2019 Prof Riël Franzsen received the Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarly Book Award in Humanities and Social Sciences for his book Property Tax in Africa, Status, Challenges which he co-authored together with Prof William McCluskey. Franzsen’s research enjoys considerable international recognition and he is acknowledged by the National Research Foundation (NRF) as a B1-rated researcher.
  • Prof Alexander Zimper has been awarded several research grants, such as the 2010 Netspar Research Grant for his research project On the role of biased survival beliefs in a structural life-cycle model, and a research grant by the NRF, also in 2010.
  • Prof Bohlmann was appointed as Research Director for the Modelling and Policy Impact Analysis group at the Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP) succeeding a former colleague in the Department and current Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, Prof Margaret Chitiga-Mabugu.
  • The academic programmes of the Department have in this period been strengthened by the appointment of post-doctoral fellows from a number of countries. These include Dr Tumisang Loate (South Africa), Dr Vincent Dadam (Cameroon), Dr Kehinde Omotoso (Nigeria), Dr Cyril Dell'eva (France), Dr Ekaterina Pirozhkova (Russia), Dr Eleni Yitbarek (Ethiopia) and Dr Yuxiang Ye (China).
This article is a summary of preliminary report by Jackie Grobler. Click here to read the full report. 
Published by Nonkululeko Kubeka Moyo

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