The Role of the Past and Future in the South African Economy: A South Africa – Germany Research Collaboration

Posted on May 09, 2019

On 6 May 2019, PD Dr (habil) Juergen Schraten gave a seminar on ‘The role of the past and the future in the present South African economy’ in the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies. Prof. Thula Simpson and Dr Sean Maliehe (PhD) hosted the lecture as part of ‘The Making of Modern Southern Africa’ (MoMSnA), a research project led by Prof Simpson. 

Dr Schraten is based at the University of Giessen’s Institute of Sociology. Working on South Africa, Botswana, Germany and the United States of America, his research is focused on economic sociology and the sociology of law with specific interests on financialisation, credit markets, property and contracts. Both former research fellows in the Human Economy Programme -- University of Pretoria (UP), Centre for Advancement of Scholarship -- Dr Schraten works with Dr Maliehe, an economic historian and ethnographer of commerce, money and mobile phones in southern Africa (Lesotho and South Africa, Diepsloot).

Grounded in historical and ethnographic methods, Dr Maliehe’s work explores the role of the people, money, markets, technology, law, institutions and bureaucracies in the making of modern southern Africa. Fitted within the MoMSnA project, his work is an attempt to develop the economic component of the project, which thus far, focused on the political and social history of the region.

Dr Schraten’s presentation marked a decisive step towards this direction and a launch of a Germany-South Africa research collaboration. 

Their sub-project aims to explore a) the historical, legal, bureaucratic, institutional and technological factors in the making of the modern South African economy and b) to examine the significance of political movements in the struggle for economic democracy in southern Africa. His presentation focused on the effects of a financialised economy on the legal concepts of 'property' and 'contract', which shape much of the social interaction in society.

His main argument was that the necessity to meet challenges deriving from digitised commerce collided with the requirement of legitimacy, which emanates from tradition and equity. The economic expansion of social relations pushes back direct social relations based on trust in favour of contractual procedures. This could be observed of the development of South African law. African elements had been eradicated by colonialism. 

The Roman-Dutch law imported from Holland, he explained, was not always suitable to meet the demands of industrialisation and international trade, but prevailed in many legal concepts of central importance. British common law influenced procedures and institutions, and provided precedence for questions that have been raised by economic development. In the global, digitised economy, the South African legal concepts are confronted with alternative understandings. For example, the US legal concepts were focussed on facilitating risk taking, and the quick clearance of debts. This made it beneficial in times of growth, but more vulnerable in times of economic crisis. The South African concepts protected property, but created high levels of debts among the population, but also in the balance sheets of banks. So, both legal traditions showed weaknesses that must be addressed by further development.

The two researchers are grateful for the support that they received from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and UP. It is their hope that this work will contribute towards creating a vibrant interdisciplinary and intercontinental collaboration. They will highly appreciate the continued support of their departments and universities.



Published by Vincent Sithole

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