Obituary: Jannie Graaff, pioneer of modern welfare economics

25 January 2015 - 02:06 By Chris Barron

1928-2015: Jannie Graaff, who has died in Cape Town at the age of 86, was one of the greatest and certainly most original economists South Africa has produced, and the author of South Africa's current tax legislation.

At the age of 22, he wrote a PhD thesis at Cambridge University which pioneered the concept of welfare economics. This was published as a book, Theoretical Welfare Economics, in 1957.

Ten years and six reprints later, the great US economist and Nobel prize winner Paul Samuelson wrote in the foreword to the second edition that when anyone asked him what modern welfare economics was, he recommended Graaff's book to them.

It was still prescribed reading for Cambridge students in the 1980s and remains a classic text in the field.

He was the first to derive an equilibrium relationship between equity and national income and thus derive the familiar social welfare function which has played a pivotal role in most branches of the economic sciences since the 1950s.

Graaff lectured at Cambridge when it was at the height of its reputation as the academic leader in global economics and attracted the best minds in the discipline. He left in 1953 because, he said later, he had no stomach for the politics and infighting of academia.

He returned to South Africa and bought a farm, causing Samuelson to comment many years later that welfare economics would have been vastly different "if Jannie had not decided to go farming".

In fact, although he left academia - apart from stints as a visiting lecturer at the University of Cape Town (which will be awarding him a posthumous doctorate in economic sciences) and Stellenbosch University, economics remained the centre of his life. He published regularly, sat on former prime minister John Vorster's economic advisory committee in the 1970s and chaired Nedbank for 30 years.

He was the dominant intellectual figure on the Margo commission which reformed tax law in the 1980s. Its central recommendation, driven mainly by him, was to collect more money from a more efficient, indirect tax. This paved the way for the adoption of value added tax some years later.

From 1994 to 1998 Graaff also sat on the Katz commission, which, broadly speaking, looked at how the tax system could be brought into line with the post-1994 government's social democratic policies. This was right up Graaff's street. He believed in the promotion of equity through taxation and in tax as an instrument of redistribution.

Its greatest contribution was to restructure the SA Revenue Service as an independent body.

His fellow commissioners concede that Graaff provided its intellectual fire power.

His style was to propose sometimes deliberately extreme or provocative ideas and invite his colleagues to shoot them down, if they could.

Graaff was born in Muizenberg on February 19 1928. He was the youngest of three brothers. Fifteen years older than him was Sir De Villiers Graaff, who was Leader of the Opposition in the 1960s and early 1970s. They enjoyed a hugely privileged upbringing thanks to their enterprising father, David Graaff.

He started as a butcher's boy at the age of 11 and then ran a few butcheries of his own before introducing refrigeration to South Africa in time to make a fortune selling meat to the British forces during the Anglo-Boer war.

For his services to the crown he was made a baronet, a title inherited by De Villiers.

David became minister of finance in South Africa's First World War government and a great friend of prime ministers Louis Botha and Jan Smuts, who was Jannie's godfather. He died when Jannie was three.

Jannie matriculated at Bishops when he was 15, with the second highest marks in the country.

He graduated from the University of Cape Town and taught at Wits University before completing his PhD at Cambridge in 1950.

When he returned to South Africa he bought a cattle, sheep, forest and fruit farm in the Koue Bokkeveld, and was instrumental in the launch of Ceres Fruit Juices.

Farming was always a hobby for him but, as with everything, he took it seriously. Although he never lived on his farms, he kept a close and expert eye on their management. He became the managing director of Graaff's Trust, which manages the family's considerable wealth, and Milnerton Estates, managing its vast property holdings, which used to include many of today's suburbs along the West Coast as well as most of Milnerton. He ran both companies with an intensity and thoroughness that even the accountants who came to do the annual audits found slightly unnerving.

Graaff was an intrepid rock climber and member of the Mountain Club of South Africa and the British Alpine Club and opened a number of routes on Table Mountain, in the Alps and the Himalayas.

He was a very private, reserved, self-effacing man with a dry, sometimes wicked sense of humour. He had an uncle called "Mal Jan" because of his phobia of being buried alive. When he died, he was installed in a cave in a glass-topped coffin equipped with its own phone. One day Graaff phoned his coffin number through the local telephone exchange and was told by a highly irate exchange lady to go to blazes.

He died a month after falling in Long Street, Cape Town and cracking his skull.

He is survived by his wife, Clare, and six children.