The Laboratory for the Economics of Africa’s Past (LEAP) is dedicated to the quantitative study of African economic and social history. It brings together scholars and students interested in understanding and explaining the long-term economic development of Africa’s diverse societies. LEAP is affiliated to the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
Stellenbosch University has a proud record of Economic History teaching and research. Prof. Sampie Terreblanche, appointed Professor of Economic History in 1968 and who died in February 2018, may ultimately be remembered for his fearlessness in speaking truth to power, and a public intellectual who constantly reminded apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa of the injustice inherent in economic inequality. The Department of Economics now honours Sampie, as he was widely known, with a dedicated website and repository of his written work.
The global renaissance of African economic history since the early 2000s has spurred a new generation of Stellenbosch economists to carry on the work of Prof. Terreblanche. Instrumental in this was the hosting of the 2012 World Economic History Congress. The Congress, held during a cold July in the picturesque town of Stellenbosch, attracted more than 800 international scholars and positioned Stellenbosch as one of the leading centres of economic history on the African continent. Following the Congress, plans were made to formalise the Economic History group at Stellenbosch University, with the aim of expanding and improving quantitative African economic history research.
Success depended on recruiting high-potential students and exposing them to the leading thinkers in African economic history and economic and social history more generally.
The Department of Economics now teach an undergraduate and graduate Economic History course annually. To build the essential collaborative networks across Europe, North America and Africa, the department has appointed five Research Associates and one Extraordinary Professor in Economic History, Jan Luiten van Zanden, Professor of Economic History at Utrecht University. The economic history cluster, consisting of staff and students interested in African economic history, has met weekly since 2014 for a brown-bag seminar. The cluster was formalised at the beginning of 2015 when LEAP was launched.
In the last five years, LEAP has grown from a handful of students to a group of more than 25 students, postdocs and faculty.
The Biography of an Uncharted People project, generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has facilitated greater interaction with the History department at Stellenbosch University. The scope of work has expanded beyond economic history, to also include social, demographic, financial and family history.
LEAP has identified five traits that characterise our work:
With these exciting developments going on, the future of quantitative African economic and social history research looks extremely promising.