This paper emphasizes on the role of academic economists and of economic policy think tanks in providing policy advice and indirectly on economic policy in South Africa over the period from the mid-1980s to date. It assess as well the origins of the ideas that feed into economic policy and development strategy in general and in South Africa’s case, and the question of the power relations or politics that lead to some ideas evolving into policy and others not. This paper illustrates two comparative country case studies in different time and space contexts (Chile in the 1970s and Indonesia in the 1980s and 1990s).
The authors conclude that in 1997/8 South Africa’s transition to democracy and development was far from complete. The task of progressive economists, political economists and social scientists in this transitional context, was actively to re-build relationships with modernizing social movements in civil society, while at the same time, wherever possible, to expand the new spaces opened up at the level of the state by the triumph over apartheid oppression.
A number of problems have emerged in recent times. One is that the strategic and political vision, as well as the organizational capacity, of most civil society organizations, including the unions, has been badly affected by aspects of the transition. A second is that the spaces for progressive engagement within the state over really big questions of policy have closed up. The conditions that prevailed in Chile and Indonesia, and which facilitated the absorption of the ideas of academic economists and think tanks, do not appear to have obtained in South Africa over the period under consideration.
However, even if direct forms of engagements with the state and civil society organizations over the hegemonic economic frameworks are ruled out for these or other reasons, there still remain challenging and important tasks for South Africa’s progressive academics, including its economists, to busy themselves with in the post-apartheid era. On the one hand, university-based and independent academic economists need to continue to play their traditional and vital role of critic on the side of the poor and vulnerable. On the other hand, there is an important task to support economic institutions in the new context, both in terms of offering independent research-based policy advice and economic analysis as well as (where possible) in areas of administration and governance.