18/02/2018 14:33 SAST | Updated 19/02/2018 09:23 SAST

Prof Sampie: 'Not Just A Maverick Intellectual'

Sampie Terreblanche was one of South Africa's most progressive economists. He died on Saturday.


As tributes continue to pour in for veteran political economist and academic Professor, Johannes Terreblanche, his daughter, Christelle, says to sum up her late father simply as a 'maverick' intellectual would perhaps be unfair.

Sampie, as he was affectionately known, passed away on Saturday afternoon in Stellenbosch, following a brief battle with brain cancer.

"His progression from an Afrikaner nationalist to an advocate of its demise to an ANC supporter to a fierce critic of the ruling party was certainly spectacular and often dramatic," said Christelle, on a website dedicated to her father.


Terreblanche was born in 1933 into an Afrikaner National Party family near the small Free State town of Edenville. He was drawn into the Broederbond early on, of which he would be a rather controversial member – passionately outspoken until his resignation after two decades in 1987, notes Christelle.

His Damascus Road started in the early 1970s when he was appointed a member of the 'Erika Theron' Commission of Inquiry relating to matters concerning the Coloured Population Group (1973-76). Under social welfare intellectual and practitioner, Prof. Theron, he experienced first-hand the pervasive poverty traps and injustice of a racial group that had been cast aside as lesser human beings. He often remarked that this period made him a more humane political economist and deepened his passion for justice.

In later years, he deeply regretted a decision not to leave the ruling National Party establishment behind at that juncture. Instead, at the time, he believed he could use his insights to accelerate reform from the inside.

In February 1986, a last – almost violent – confrontation with P.W. Botha resulted in Sampie resigning from the NP the next day. Along with 27 other members of the Group 85, he issued a Public Declaration that rebuked the NP government's inability to provide hope for the country or to embrace the scant opportunity left for meaningful change.

In the months and years that followed, Sampie worked passionately at several levels to facilitate a transition: calling for sanctions, penning dozens of articles, speeches and proposals and working towards reducing the NPs parliamentary majority. He helped establish the Democratic Party and became its first economic advisor and a council member (1989-90). He also became a member of clandestine "talks about talks" with the ANC in exile in 1987.

How he'll be remembered

Christelle believes Sampie 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." Whether this was the apartheid government under former presidents John Vorster and PW Botha, or the ANC government whom he accused of selling out its own marginalised constituency.

Christelle mentions how her father was in headlines for arguing that a "wealth tax" ought to be levied in South Africa to help the transformation of post-apartheid society. Twenty years ago, Terreblanche said about the redistributive logic of taxing the rich to overcome apartheid: "The income could be used to set up a restitution fund to help alleviate the worst poverty in South Africa". This proposal elicited strong disapproval as he wrote in November 2017: "One newspaper caricatured me as an alien apparition from outer space."

In his last months, he again publicly emphasised the mistake that was the ANCs rejection of a wealth tax to support significant redistribution. Yet, as Sampie wrote shortly before his death – today the distribution of income and wealth is indeed massively more unequal than twenty years earlier.

He was on the campaign trail until the end, agitating for the return of public land (commons) annexed over the years by wealthy property owners in his neighbourhood in Stellenbosch. He also complained about how Stellenbosch has become a town of ostentatious wealth. "There are many rich people here and they act like rich people and that is just horrible (aaklig)". It earned him some wrath, but he was resolute. Fair is fair, and one should fight for it without fear or favour. This is how he lived his life.

How he would want to be remembered — for the thousands of students he tutored and mentored over a near sixty-year period of lecturing, mostly on economic history and economic systems, the bread and butter of his life that gave him intense joy and inspiration, said Christelle. It also earned him three honorary doctorates, among many accolades and awards.

He authored several books, including History of Inequality in South Africa, 1652 - 2002.

A social democrat to the very end

Although many detractors labelled Sampie as a 'socialist' or 'communist', he maintained to the end that he was a social democrat. He regarded it his duty as political economist to foster the common good in society and to relentlessly test the strength of governance and power structures that ought to protect it, wrote Christelle.

Christelle believes it's unfortunate that her dad could not fully appreciate the tumultuous events in South Africa since early December 2017 – "the sheer greed exposed in corporate scandals and the potential implosion of the ANC".

He had predicted these turns, she points out, while being vilified as an eccentric. "But the stark reality of the poorest being neglected by the ruling elite reminds us again how South Africa ought to take to heart Sampie's proposals for a more just and equitable society," she concluded.

Sampie is survived by four daughters, Christelle Terreblanche, Marié Kirsten, Louise van Zyl and Carine Terreblanche, and a son, Sampie Terreblanche. He also has five grandchildren.