Francis Wilson, consummate researcher with a cause

Facts mattered to the late economist, who died just weeks before his 83rd birthday on 17 May. But so did history and morality, and all three were a hallmark of his work.

Just as the Covid-19 pandemic swept the world, economist Francis Wilson penned one of his last articles. It was based on more than half a century of research, principally into the effects of migrant labour in southern Africa and the way in which the mining industry had shaped not only an economy but an entire social structure.

Wilson, who died on 24 April at the age of 82, was known for his pioneering work on mainly the gold mining industry, but also the history of the agrarian economy and dispossession over more than 200 years.

An acclaimed economist and academic who used his careful research to vigorously oppose apartheid, Wilson wrote in an article in the Daily Maverick in 2020 that the time had come for South Africa to establish a sovereign wealth fund.

He was writing shortly after the platinum price had boomed. Notwithstanding the effects of the lockdown (production overall fell by 8% in April that year), the sector was nonetheless “bullish”, with revenue growing by nearly 40% “to the staggering sum of almost R600 billion” and profits increasing by 60%. Even gold, though much less significant than in the past, had doubled its price in the past decade. “Good news for all those involved in mining,” Wilson wrote.  

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Although the government reaped tax revenues from the boom, he asked whether there could be a more effective way of spending the windfall. Norway, which pioneered such a fund after the North Sea oil boom of the 1970s, suggested another way. “Suppose that in windfall years profits could be shared in such a way that shareholders got 50% and a sovereign wealth fund kept 50% for everybody in society to be used for the common good,” he wrote.

There were over 40 such funds in the world, he wrote. Oil and gas funded most of them, but in Botswana it was the diamond mining industry, for example, and non-commodities in China and the United States.

In the months before his death, I interviewed Wilson principally to write an introduction to a collection of his works due to be published in June*. Though ailing and losing mobility, his passion for social justice was still sharp. He also knew, as he had done all his working life, that any policy argument he made had to be based on evidence. “Facts are powerful,” he said. Facts matter.

Eye-opening probe

By painstakingly going through 55 years of Chamber of Mines reports from 1911 to 1966, it was Wilson who worked out that Black mineworkers’ wages had not only not gone up in real terms but had actually declined, and the racial wage gap had widened.

His figures were so stark that he thought he had erred. “The numbers were off the charts,” he wrote. His detailed tables showed that Black workers earned the 1938 equivalent of R72 in 1911. In 1966, 55 years later, their real wages had dropped by R1. White workers who earned the equivalent of R850 in 1911 were earning R1 241 in 1966, and the wage gap between white and Black workers had widened from 11.7:1 to 17.6:1.

The research was for his first book, Labour in the South African Gold Mines 1911-1969, which was to be published by Cambridge University Press. He did not want to risk either its reviewer or the Chamber of Mines disputing it, so he tested the waters by asking the Financial Mail to run an article, thinking it could be tucked away at the back of the magazine. Instead, it ran as a cover story under the headline “Gold’s forgotten men”. 

No one disputed the figures, although the chamber had asked to look at his research before he released it. He refused.  

By that time, Wilson had been down deep-level mines and visited the barracks that housed migrant workers – often up to 90 in a single dormitory. “You can’t write about this country unless you have been down a mine,” he told me.

Born in Zambia in 1939 to two accomplished anthropologists, Monica and Godfrey Wilson, he grew up in Hogsback in the Eastern Cape. His mother had done extensive research in the then Pondoland and written about the effects of European conquest in the late 19th and early 20th century.

His father died when he was just five and his brother Tim Wilson was still a toddler. Monica raised them while holding down demanding academic positions, first at Fort Hare and then at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

What really counts

Wilson enrolled at UCT to study physics in 1958, but he decided he did not want to spend his life “counting electrons” and switched to economics. He had been inspired by the words of John Maynard Keynes, who said economics was a “method rather than a doctrine” – a way of understanding and explaining the world.

It was here he met his wife-to-be Lindy Serrurier, whom he married in 1964. They had three children, David, Jessica and Tanya. Lindy developed a successful career in both education and documentary filmmaking and was a stalwart supporter of her husband throughout his career.

Wilson was awarded his PhD in 1967 at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. His thesis focused on labour in the gold mines. But his work had begun, in a sense, as a child. It was his coming of age in the Eastern Cape that launched him into a lifelong mission of exposing the misery caused by the system of migrant labour. He had seen cattle being brought to rural markets to be sold as land became overgrazed. Usually, the labour recruiters for the mines gathered at the same spots.

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The exigencies of deep-level gold mining on the Reef were such that to extract gold required a large – and cheap – labour force. The mines could not afford competition and effectively formed a monopsony to buy labour through the Chamber of Mines. “Indeed,” Wilson wrote, “it is with regard to the wage structure that the centralisation of control has had the most effect on the behaviour of mines.”

Deep-level mining and low-grade ore meant the work was arduous and dangerous and required thousands of men. He quoted the Chamber of Mines, (from a public relations release): “Imagine a solid mass of rock tilted … like a fat 1 200-page dictionary lying at an angle … The gold-bearing reef would be thinner than a single page, and the amount of gold contained therein would hardly cover a couple of commas in the entire book. It is the miner’s job to bring out that single page …”

This is what drove the suppression of wages for more than half a century. It also drove the system of migrant labour and its cheap labourers unanchored by families and homes in the cities. As much as the mines created wealth in those areas, they simultaneously generated poverty in rural areas precisely because of migrant labour.

A regional perspective

The poverty was across the southern African region. Until 1973, about three quarters of Black miners came from outside South Africa, principally Mozambique, Lesotho, Malawi and Zambia. Wages were too low to attract locals. Then two incidents dented the supply of regional labour. One was a plane crash that killed Malawian workers returning home and led to the withdrawal of labour from that country, and the second was the coup in Lisbon, which overthrew a dictatorship and freed Portugal’s African colonies. The mines’ workforce was depleted by about 200 000 men.

Between 1973 and 1978, the proportion of South African workers in the gold mines rose from 22% to 55%. A reawakening of African trade unions in the mid-1970s also put pressure on the mining houses. And then the price of gold rose. Wages trebled: it was the first pay rise in more than half a century.

But poverty in the regions from where the first migrant workers were drawn persisted. Throughout his large volume of work, Wilson returns to one central thesis: the very processes that created immense wealth in the region also created poverty. He wrote in 1985 that it was not only South Africans who were impoverished by the growing wealth in the cities, but also those workers in neighbouring countries that provided labour to the mines. “In no other economy in the world has so large a proportion of the labour force stayed in single-sex accommodation and worked at a place where their families were unable, by law, to stay with them.”

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Lesotho, for example, was an exporter of maize in the early part of the 20th century. By 1930 it had to import food. As mining jobs dried up from the late 1970s, one unemployed man in Lesotho said, “When I can’t get work, I feel as though these hands of mine have been cut off and I can do nothing, because I cannot even feed my children.” Wilson quoted this from research in Lesotho that was presented at the second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in 1984, which he directed (the first had been in 1931 and focused on the “poor white” problem).

His proposal for a regional wealth fund flies in the face of the “xenophobia” that has become a hallmark of some political parties and individuals on social media. The very people who contributed to the wealth of South Africa are not only excluded from its benefits, but pilloried as well. It is why he believed that such a fund, financed by mining profits in years of plenty, should be distributed across the region.

Facts matter. So does history. He called those who said it didn’t “flat earth” economists. So central, for instance, was migrant labour to the fabric of the country that in the first half of the 1970s, as he wrote after the apartheid government had destroyed the “illegal” settlement of Modderdam Road in Cape town in 1977, more than half a million people were prosecuted under the pass laws for being in urban areas without the necessary “permits”. That, as he pointed out, meant that a person was arrested every minute of every day and night.

Mud on his boots

For Wilson, a devoted Anglican who also worked with the World Council of Churches Programme to Combat Racism, morality also mattered. His old friend advocate Geoff Budlender recounted at Wilson’s funeral how he, his brother Tim and the late Anglican bishop David Russell were part of a group of white men who made a 1 200km pilgrimage of “penitence” from Grahamstown to Cape Town at Christmas in 1972 to protest against migrant labour. 

“Francis immersed himself in migrant labour not just through study, but also through the lived experience,” said Budlender. He went down mines, he spent time in the migrant hostels “and he was at the heart of the struggle for Crossroads. In Francis’ phrase, he got mud on his boots,” said Budlender.

Wilson founded the Southern African Labour and Development Research Unit (Saldru) at UCT in 1975. His roots in the Eastern Cape also meant a connection with many of the region’s political activists. His mother had been a close friend of ZK Matthews, then an academic at Fort Hare, and the husband of her childhood friend Frieda Bokwe (and the grandfather of Naledi Pandor, minister of international relations). 

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He forged relationships with Black activists such as Fikile Bam, who would later become judge president of the Land Claims Court in a democratic South Africa, and Steve Biko, a leader in the Black Consciousness Movement. It was through Biko that he met Mamphela Ramphele, who was then running a health clinic at the Zanempilo Community Centre in Zinyoka village, outside what was then King William’s Town.

“You could see he was a real motho motho,” said Ramphele, using a Sepedi expression to denote a person with heart, a real human being.

After Biko was killed by police in detention in 1977, Ramphele was banished to Tzaneen in the then northern Transvaal, where she started another clinic in the village of Lenyenye. Wilson visited her whenever he could. “He’d come with his big smile and arms that would wrap around you bringing joy.” He recruited her to come to UCT in 1984 to work on the second Carnegie inquiry and “shaped my professional life”, she said. 

Wide influence 

At that point, it was probably the most wide-ranging investigation of poverty done in the apartheid era. “He went the length and breadth of the country and pulled together this community of researchers, some with experience in data, others in running a farm school,” recalled Murray Leibbrandt, who took over as Saldru director in 2001. “He was an evidence-based person, but he was much more than that. He didn’t distinguish between surveys and real lived experience.”

Wilson sought out people whose experience could contribute to knowledge about the country. One was former trade unionist and political prisoner Christmas Tinto, who found a home in Saldru to recount his memoirs. Another was Ebrahim Patel, now minister of trade and industry, then a student at the University of the Western Cape who had been detained twice and as a result did not complete his degree.

Patel recalled that Wilson never minded Saldru being used as a base for political activity, but he insisted that research form the basis for intervention. So Patel, in support of the union movement, researched such issues as inflation and wage trends to note how they affected people living in the Cape Flats. When the tri-cameral parliamentary elections took place, Patel examined the real percentage poll using the population figure rather than the number of registered voters, who were, as it happened, a minority.

Circa 1955: A gold mine on the Witwatersrand near Johannesburg. (Photograph by Three Lions/ Getty Images)

But Wilson also had an impact on lives through his use of research in pursuit of justice. One such person was Budlender’s wife Aninka Claassens, who heard one of his lectures on migrant labour. “She dropped her courses in French and in logic and metaphysics. She took up Sotho and anthropology and changed the course of her life,” said Budlender. Claassens would become a leading campaigner against forced removals in the apartheid era and for land rights afterwards.

Facts mattered. As did history. In his forthcoming collection, Wilson quotes the American author William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

His argument for a sovereign wealth fund is premised on this. It is an essential part of historical restitution, not only for South Africa but for the region, which supplied hundreds of thousands of men to work on the mines. There is “unfinished business” with the regions that acted as labour reserves, he said, which “we still need to unpick”.

*South Africa: Black, White and Gold: Essays In the Political Economy of South Africa by Francis Wilson will be published in June by KMM Review Publishing.

Correction, 20 May 2022: The blurb was corrected to reflect that Francis Wilson’s birthday was on 17 May and not 19 May as previously reported.

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