Finance and Economics


Non-fiction for reading for me in the past year generally fell into two main categories: straight-up history and more journalistic narrative. I’ll reserve a third post in my “reading 2009” series for books that I read that fall more into the category of what I call “books about ideas.” Ideas and ideologies are in all kinds of writing, but in that third category this is more explicitly the case.

In any event, it was unsurprising to me that much of my non-fiction reading focused on straight-up history and journalism in South Africa. South Africa is a particularly vibrant place in terms of commentary and other kinds of political and historical writing. New books are coming out all the time on a variety of relevant subjects. It’s the kind of country that is small enough that there are always gaps waiting to be filled. At the same time there is so much energy in this young democracy that keeps writers and readers pushing to fill these holes.

South African politics and current events

By no stretch of the imagination did my reading in South African politics and long-form journalism run the true gamut of what has come out in the last few years. Before I left, I devoured Jonny Steinberg’s Three Letter Plague (published in the USA as Sizwe’s Test). The story follows a young man in a particularly poor, AIDS-riven area of the Eastern Cape who is deciding whether to take an AIDS test. At around the same time, a Medecins Sans Frontier doctor is trying to set up testing and care programs throughout the province. It’s an all-too-rare example of examining a problem equally from three different angles: intellectual / scientific, interpersonal, and political. And Steinberg is just a damn good writer.

Also, on HIV/AIDS was The Virus, Vitamins And Vegetables: The South African HIV/AIDS Mystery edited by Kerry Cullinan and Anso Thom of the Health-E News Service. A series of essays by journalists, doctors, and activists about the ideological and bureaucratic pathologies of the Mbeki government in developing and implementing — perhaps it would be better to say not developing and not implementing — its HIV/AIDS policy.

Another book of essays on recent South African events was the University of Witwatersrand’s collection on the xenophobic attacks in 2008. A lot of good stuff, including Anton Harber’s essay on media complicity and oblivion on this issue (see my earlier discussion of this essay here). This is an issue that too often gets reduced to self-righteous preening and demagoguery when it really demands careful nuance like in Go Home Or Die Here: Violence, Xenophobia And The Reinvention Of Difference In South Africa. It also has a lot of impressive photos by Alon Skuy, a former colleague at The Times.

Jeremy Gordin’s biography of Jacob Zuma did not have particular insight, but it worked well for me as an open-minded “just the facts” approach to a compelling personality. It was especially useful to read prior to the election in April. Mainstream media in this country was a bit of a disgrace in that, only after he was elected, did many who were perfectly willing to pontificate on their fears about a Zuma presidency learn even basic facts of his rather impressive life.

South African history

Philip Bonner and Noor Nieftagodien’s new history of Alexandra township in Johannesburg was inspiring to me as a documenter and historian. Their reliance on hard-nosed field work combined with substantive archival research is a great example for most any kind of history. They could not have written this book without involving people in the community in their field research. Their integration of such a community-based approach to history should serve as a model for further work in modern South African, as well as in other places.

I grew up with a lot of South African jazz that my father used to have in his music collection. Now that I live in South Africa, I’ve been able to explore this a lot more deeply for myself. Gwen Ansell’s Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music & Politics In South Africa connects a lot of the dots in SA jazz history — the early Sophiatown days, exile, rural-urban migration, democracy — and does it in her usual, welcome, no-nonsense style readers of her regular Business Day column know well.

A random assortment

I finally got around to Michela Wrong’s account of the Mobutu Sese-Seko’s fall from power in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), In The Footsteps Of Mr. Kurtz. Shows what happens when a talented journalist gets the opportunity to examine the historical big picture, pull away from the mere day-to-day, while still incorporating her own first-hand reportage.

I am somewhat embarassed that I spent any amount of time reading Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent Of Money. This is mainly because he has been such an incorrigible deficit hawk in his recent newspaper commentary. Still, the book is a pretty accessible financial history, with some interesting anecdotes along the way.

I finally got around to Peter Hessler’s first memoir, River Town: Two Years On The Yangtze. I have been a big fan of Hessler since reading his Oracle Bones a few years ago, and subsequently catching a lot of his articles in the New Yorker magazine. His writing is always compelling and insightful, and he sticks out among American observers of China for two reasons: (1) he is a real student of the country’s history and (2) he integrates the history into his contemporary stories with particular elegance. I’m looking forward to his new book, Country Driving, which is supposed to come out early next year.

There is little both as hip and worrying to people interested in international affairs as China’s relationship to Africa. Beyond a fly-by-night visit by Barack Obama, it’s one of the only reasons the rest of the world will pay any attention to the continent.

Of course, the reasons for the African interest among Chinese businesses and government officials boils down to the same reasons most non-Africans have always cared about Africa: money and resources.

Foreign Policy‘s Elizabeth Dickinson notes that Africa’s resources are not only in vogue among the Chinese, but perhaps more broadly among the BRIC countries. Those BRIC countries that have managed to navigate the current economic crisis relatively well (of the four countries — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — Russia is almost definitely suffering the most) boast of decoupling from the developed world’s economies, and the opportunities their independence allows:

With aid and investment drying up from Europe and the West, it’s wise of the BRICs to fill the void. More than good business, it’s proof of the BRICs claim that they’re in Africa for the long haul. Guess who wins that game?

Still, most of the attention is coming from China — who else is going in deep enough to bail out Zimbabwe when no one else will? This has led to a lot of speculation in English-language press that there’s basically just a new colonial boss in town. Nothing encapsulated this view better than French president Nicholas Sarkozy’s chilly reception at a funeral for Gabon’s president Omar Bongo. Bongo was the quintessential French colonial stooge in the “post-colonial” African setting, the “epitome of françafrique,” writes The Economist. He even managed to arrange for the firing of one of Sarkozy’s ministers, overseas aid minister Jean-Marie Bockel, who had dared to call for the end of the excesses and patronage relationships of françafrique.

As France and other western states muddle along in trying to fashion a post-colonial world order that still affords enough of the practical benefits of colonialism, China the basically the only contender for the top of the heap of this world order. The attractiveness of China to Africans is partly a matter of the fact that the Chinese are just not the West, writes William Wallis in the Financial Times:

Europe still sees Africa as a burden. The Chinese, Brazilians, Indians and others see it as an opportunity.”We have a competitive advantage,” says Gu Xiaojie, China’s ambassador to Ethiopia, with a certain amount of glee.

“My own experience is that they [African governments] are uncomfortable dealing with developed countries. They think they [Europeans] want to impose their own ideas and they have a long [mutual] history that is violent and bitter.”

But China’s star shines brightly beyond the fact of who it is not. Quite plainly, it is often the only major economic power that seems to give a damn. Shortly before I left Philadelphia for Johannesburg, I had a discussion with my former professor in Chinese history during which I mentioned that the Chinese may be running roughshod over African workers and communities in the course of their projects in the continent. Her response was simple and, honestly, hard to refute: Who else is paying attention?

Howard French notes that both political and financial attention from China is in easy supply. Top political leaders visit the continent every year, including a visit by Hu Jintao concurrent to my discussion with my professor in late February / early March. Moreover,

from Angola and Congo and from Nigeria and Mozambique, the big news in Africa has recently been measured in big business deals, and this story could almost be summed up as all China, all the time.

A Shanghai-based housing developer argues that Africa is a key plank in China’s grander geopolitical strategy in China Safari, a new book on China’s role in the continent written by two French journalists, Serge Michel and Michel Beuret.

“I’m going to be honest with you, China is using Africa to get where the United States is now, and surpass it.”

This may be overstating the case. While the view from Africa may make this plausible, the view from China may look quite different.

Jeune Afrique recently had a large report on China in Africa, and took a much more skeptical view than most of the writing from English-language publications, perhaps reflecting a greater overall disillusionment with outside influence in Africa among those in the francophone world. In an interview with He Wenping, director of African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, reporter Pascal Auaralt asks if there might be a lack of knowledge about Africa among many Chinese. He does not exactly defend her countrymen and women. She points out that there are only 20 students in her program, the largest African studies program in the country.

No use writing here if I can’t occasionally plug a family member. My father, Daniel Bradlow, has a great (if I may say so) letter in today’s Financial Times bringing some sense to the heated debate about development aid raging between Dambisa Moyo, William Easterly, Jeffrey Sachs, etc. A good summary of the debate by the FT‘s William Wallis can be found here.

The main gist of his point is that aid is too often treated

as fundamentally different from the other sources of development finance that African countries utilise. It is not. Like these other sources – for example international capital markets, foreign direct investors, remittances etc – it entails both costs and benefits.

This means that, like them, there will be some occasions when aid, despite its costs, will be the best source of finance for the particular purpose, and some situations in which it will be an inappropriate source. Identifying the most desirable times for utilising aid requires governments to dispassionately assess both the explicit and implicit costs and benefits associated with the offers of aid that they have received, and of the alternatives to those offers. It also requires negotiating the best possible deal with the chosen source of funds.

Originally published by Obit Magazine:

Financial disaster hit on Black Tuesday in 1929. The response of stockbrokers who saw the economy collapse under their very noses? How about a jump from their high-rise offices?

Oh, those squirrely stockbrokers, playing games with everyone’s livelihood. They messed it all up, and they should have the decency to take their own lives and rid us of their greedy ways. For shame!

If only.

Read the rest here.