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Integrity is key in economics – Professor Ben Fine

- Kemantha Govender

It can be quite challenging to condense 50 years of scholarship and teaching as an academic economist.

But Emeritus Professor Ben Fine rose to the challenge armed with boundless charm and humour.

Speaking at the Wits School of Governance (WSG), the recently retired eminent professor from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, reflected on his engagement with South Africa in the era of the anti-apartheid struggle and in the post-apartheid era. 

Fine, also a Visiting Professor at WSG, said his academic work has been wide-ranging, from the 16th century coal industry to contemporary eating disorders.

“If you are engaging with a discipline particularly one like economics then it must be broached with the greatest of intellectual integrity and energy rather than residing within mainstream groves. Within my discipline of economics, degradation over my lifetime of the discipline has been almost unbelievable with heavy dependence upon the most extreme and unimaginable methods, assumptions, theories and conceptualisations,” said Fine.

He said the concept of financialisation, for example, has exploded across the social sciences over the last ten years.

“It is a reflection of what is happening to contemporary capitalism around the world. This does not warrant a mention within the mainstream discipline of economics, it just does not exist there at all… a reflection of the nature of the narrowness of the discipline. Paradoxically, this quite extraordinary narrowness of my own disciple is matched by an even stronger monopoly of the mainstream over the discipline.

“Another of these features, again - not true within Wits though thanks to the energies which the University puts into hetrodox programmes and the support that they have received - is unfortunately the intolerance of alternatives which has strengthened since the global financial crisis,” Fine added.

The Emeritus Professor also noted that South African economics has been devastated by this development within the discipline of economics. He said the vast majority of economics training within Africa is dominated by the World Bank and its associates. He gave an example of how a number of PhD students in West Africa presented their work based on theories developed for developed countries and which was being applied to African countries although they might have only had a single export.

But Fine is also encouraged that over the last ten to twenty years, there has been a very strong reaction against post modernism which he welcomes.

“People now have become much more concerned with what is the nature of the real material pressures which affect our lives, rather than focusing only on what they might mean to the people who are affected, although that remains important as well. Its manifest affects from the systemic to the everyday is an absolutely crucial part of our interdisciplinary research” Fine said.

His parting words of wisdom stressed the importance of personal integrity. “I hope this is not being immodest, but it has got me to where I am today, which may not be very far, but that’s really been what has guided me in my academic life. It’s also what’s has gotten in a small way South Africa where it is today,” he said.

Fine added that he has major concerns about the continuing scholarly integrity and its capacity for progressive change.

“Particularly in South Africa, what we have seen is a decline, I think, in the commitment to academic life. We have seen the universities drained of resources, not only in monetary terms but also in terms of contributions being made.”

Joking that he is happy to part with his extensive book collection, Fine said perhaps the “little collection of books” he donated to the School will help the world to move and create momentum for future changes.

A plaque was unveiled at the Parktown Management Campus Library, acknowledging Professor Fine’s generous donation of his entire scholarly book collection (600 books plus major journal collections) to Wits University, through the WSG.

In his remarks at the unveiling, Professor Robbie Van Niekerk drew attention to the immense and selfless role that Professor Fine played since the early 1980s in the struggle to end apartheid and in particular his seminal supportive role in the development of policies for MERG, an alternative macro-economic policy framework for establishing an emancipatory, post-apartheid good society originally commissioned by the ANC.

Van Niekerk said Fine was one of the internationalist stalwarts of the South African liberation struggle and his legacy was very well considered by not only progressive scholars but also amongst grassroots anti-apartheid activists in the period.