Thomas Piketty to deliver Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture

22 September 2015

French economist Thomas Piketty has been called a rock star economist, but Britain’s The Guardian newspaper described him as actually being “boyish” and “shy”. Piketty garnered international acclaim after his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century became a best seller.

Now he is heading to South Africa to deliver the 13th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, to take place on 3 October at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto Campus.

Piketty is a professor of economics at the Paris School of Economics, and has also penned articles in journals such as the Quarterly Journal of Economics and Journal of Political Economy, among others.

“In 2014, the Nelson Mandela Foundation identified inequality and poverty as critical issues affecting South Africa, the African continent and the rest of the world,” the foundation said. “This informed the theme for the 13th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture. We are in discussions with a cross-sectoral group of institutions to convene a national conversation on the issue and to start considering mitigating strategies.”

Sello Hatang, the chief executive of the foundation, said Piketty was a natural choice to deliver the lecture. “He is currently the world’s most recognised academic who has produced seminal work on the political economy of poverty and inequality in the modern world.

“We were keen to find a voice who could speak eloquently to a new global economic model and who is well equipped to engage fruitfully with the South African and African political economy today. Professor Piketty is ideal for this purpose,” said Hatang.

Professor Njabulo Ndebele, the chairperson of the Board of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said the organisation was fortunate to have Piketty deliver the lecture. “Professor Piketty’s deep research into global economic development since the birth of capitalism to its current control of the global economy, and his assessment of the challenges confronting all of us, offer valuable lines of enquiry for stimulating and raising the debate in South Africa and on the African continent.”

Piketty’s best seller

The foundation said Piketty was one of the most influential thinkers of our time, based on his research and findings in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

“Piketty, through the painstaking collection and analysis of tax and other data, tracks back income and wealth over the last century in Britain and the United States and over a longer period in France, where tax records have existed for longer,” the foundation explained.

“He shows that income inequality rose until the Great Depression in 1929 before falling sharply for the next 15 years and then stabilising from the end of the Second World War through to the mid-1970s. After this, however, inequality has risen sharply, hitting 1929 levels again by 2008.”

The central theme of the book is that equality in societies increases when the rate of return to capital outstrips the rate of growth. The Guardian wrote about Piketty’s premise: “The wealthy are getting wealthier while everybody else is struggling. Inequality will widen to the point where it becomes unsustainable – both politically and economically – unless action is taken to redistribute income and wealth. Piketty favours a graduated wealth tax and 80% income tax for those on the highest salaries.”

Piketty notes that developing countries are also affected by rising inequality. In countries such as South Africa, Columbia and China, wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated at the top, and not trickling down to the rest of society.

The first chapter of Capital in the Twenty-First Century starts with the tragedy in Marikana in South Africa. “This episode reminds us,” he wrote, “that the question of what share of output should go to wages and what share to profit – in other words how should the income from production be divided between labour and capital? – has always been at the heart of distributional conflict.”

Growing inequality had an effect on political stability and democracy and so, Piketty’s lecture “is timely and a fitting voice in the debate about development, inequality and democracy in South Africa”, said the foundation. It also ties in with the country’s National Development Plan, Vision 2030, which looks at creating decent employment through inclusive economic growth.

Don’t miss it

Everyone can watch the lecture, which will be broadcast live on SABC 2 from 3pm to 4.30pm. It will also be live streamed on the Nelson Mandela Foundation YouTube account and website.

Previous speakers

The first Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture was delivered in 2003. The people who have spoken are those who have left their mark on the world:

  • 2003: Former US president, Bill Clinton
  • 2004: Social rights activist, Archbishop Desmond Tutu
  • 2005: Former South African president, Thabo Mbeki
  • 2006: Chilean-American author, activist and professor of literature and Latin-American studies, Ariel Dorfman
  • 2007: Kenyan Nobel laureate, Professor Wangari Maathai
  • 2008: Former secretary-general of the UN, Kofi Annan
  • 2009: President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
  • 2010: Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Grameen Bank, Professor Muhammad Yunus
  • 2011: Director of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, Ismail Serageldin
  • 2012: Former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson
  • 2013: Founder and chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, Dr Mo Ibrahim
  • 2014: President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet

Watch last year’s lecture:

SAinfo reporter