The highly unequal structure of the South African economy, a remnant of the apartheid legacy which aimed to benefit a small minority and exclude the masses, has not been redressed; this after more than two decades of democracy.
“This is partly because of a lack of political will,” said Fiona Tregenna, a Professor at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) in the Department of Economics and Econometrics and DST/NRF South African Research Chair in Industrial Development.
The remedy to address the high rates of inequality, poverty and unemployment is a complex issue according to Fiona. A more active and interventionist industrial policy and a more expansionary macro-policy are two things that should be looked at as a start.
Fiona set out to do a science degree, but was drawn towards social sciences in her second year opting to complete her undergrad and Honours in economics and politics.
“Economics is fundamental to people’s lives and I wanted to be a part of that, I wanted to be able to influence economic policies and to contribute to changing things for the better.”
Engaged in the big issues
When she enrolled at the then University of Natal in 1991, it was a very interesting time politically in the struggle for democracy. Times were uncertain but Fiona was motivated by the vision of a democratic South Africa.
Fiona joined the ANC and was elected to a number of positions within various student and political structures.
“I was raised in a single-parent household by my mother, Gill, who always taught me to stand up for my beliefs.”
“My mom is a retired biology teacher. She sparked an intellectual curiosity and planted the seeds to study abroad in me.”
Gill taught Fiona to put education above status or material success and impressed upon her to develop her mind, lead a balanced, healthy life and to always aim for the best.
Fiona finished school at the age of 16, then received her undergraduate degree from the University of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal), Honours from the University of the Witwatersrand, Masters from the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) and holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge.
After completing her Honours, Fiona worked for several years at the National Labour and Economic Institute before moving down to Cape Town to take up a post at COSATU. In both positions she was involved in research and worked on economic policy issues.
She had always intended to study further overseas, and took up a place at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) in their graduate programme in economics. After three years at the University of Massachusetts, receiving a Masters’ degree and completing doctoral coursework and writing her comprehensive exams, she got an offer from the University of Cambridge that came with generous funding. Fiona was soon on a plane headed for the UK.
Fiona found Cambridge to be an intellectually stimulating environment. The fact that it was closer to South Africa and in the same time zone made it easier for her to stay in touch with her family and friends too.
“I would absolutely recommend that anyone who has the opportunity to study abroad does so.” She found it valuable not only academically but in terms of life experience.
Fiona said that those people interested in studying abroad would have to plan well ahead of time, especially if needing a bursary, but that it was absolutely worthwhile.
“It is imperative for one to always set high standards,” she said.
Although South Africa’s economy has not fared as well as hoped, an area that has improved markedly, both locally and globally, is the choices women now have in terms of careers.
“There are so many careers available nowadays, don’t confine yourself to the typical jobs you mostly see woman doing. Things have changed, and woman can now be engineers or train drivers or anything. This is not to say that there are no barriers to overcome, but all fields are now open to women.”
Joining South African academia
Once Fiona completed her PhD she returned to South Africa where she took up a post as an Associate Professor at UJ. A mere four years later she was appointed as a full Professor and a year later was awarded a B-rating by the NRF in recognition of the international standing and impact of her research.
In 2015 she was awarded a national research chair, and now holds the position of South African Research Chair in Industrial Development. This is funded by the Department of Science and Technology through the National Research Foundation for an initial five years, renewable for up to fifteen years.
Fiona leads a national research and capacity-building programme on issues of industrial development. An important part of this is in developing the next generation of researchers, and Fiona supervises and funds a group of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows.
“I am especially proud of the doctoral graduates whom I have supervised, some of whom I am now engaged in collaborative research with.”
Fiona also sits on various bodies in different capacities including as a part-time Member of the Competition Tribunal where she adjudicates competition cases, and the Boards of the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS), the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services SETA (MerSETA) and the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO).
She has also been appointed to bodies such as the E-tolls Advisory Panel, the Johannesburg Economic Development Advisory Council (JEDAC) and the Gauteng Premier’s Economic Advisory Panel. Fiona has advised or consulted internationally for institutions such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO), several United Nations bodies and the Venezuelan government, as well as locally for bodies such as Parliament, statutory bodies, and research organisations.
“I love my job as a Professor, being able to inspire and shape young minds and influence economic policy through the research I do. Being in academia also allows one the flexibility to manage one’s time and to have a lot of personal and intellectual autonomy.”
Fiona stresses to all her students that they should do something they are good at and really enjoy because one’s job is very time-consuming. Other than those two important considerations, one of course has to factor in finances and job availability.
Something to always keep in mind is the fact that there are always going to be difficulties in life and in your career; regardless of whether or not you are the smartest or most talented person.
“Don’t get disheartened, just keep working towards your goal until it is realized,” she encourages.