Obituary: Bethuel Setai, underground ANC operative and academic

31 May 2015 - 02:00 By Chris Barron

Bethuel Setai, who has died in Bloemfontein at the age of 76, was an underground ANC operative and one of the first black South Africans to achieve a doctorate in economics. He attained his PhD in economics at New York University in 1973, 13 years after leaving South Africa to join the ANC in exile.Heeding a call from the ANC to fight apartheid from outside the country, he left South Africa in 1960 with 11 schoolmates who were members of the same ANC Youth League cell. They were dubbed "the 12 disciples of Nelson Mandela" in a documentary of that name made 10 years ago by the American stepson of one of them. Only three are still alive.After arriving in Tanzania via Botswana, Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia) and Malawi (Nyasaland), Setai formed a close relationship with ANC president Oliver Tambo, whom he looked on as a father figure. Tambo recognised his potential, and in 1962 sent him to the US, "into the belly of the beast", said Setai later, to further his education.He completed a BSc in economics at Columbia University in 1966 and then both his Master's and PhD in New York.story_article_left1He taught economics at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, founded in 1854 by the Quakers for people of African descent. His students included South Africans, Namibians and Zimbabweans, as well as African-Americans.He became a professor and head of the department.In 1980, the ANC instructed him to go to the National University of Lesotho and use his academic post there as a cover for underground ANC work.His students included future labour minister and governor of the Reserve Bank Tito Mboweni, future deputy governor of the Reserve Bank Renosi Mokate, the Minister of Mineral Resources Ngoako Ramatlhodi and the future head of the National Prosecuting Authority, Vusi Pikoli.When his South African students, many of whom combined their studies with underground work for the ANC, were expelled by Lesotho in 1986 under pressure from the apartheid government, Setai went to see Tambo, who arranged for them to finish their studies at the University of Zimbabwe.They remembered Setai as erudite, quiet, humble and a good listener. They only discovered many years later that he, too, was leading a double life as an undercover ANC operative.In 1987, the ANC sent him back to the US. He lectured at Yale University and was a member of the South African economic policy unit there.From Yale he went to the University of Vermont and then back to South Africa in 1991, where he became associate director of the centre for policy analysis at the Development Bank of Southern Africa. From there he was seconded to the Transitional Executive Council. He was director-general of the Free State provincial administration from 1994 to 1998.Setai published a number of academic papers in the US and in 1977 a book called The Political Economy of South Africa. In 1998, he published The Making of Poverty in South Africa, which was essentially a revised version of his first book.Throughout his stay in the US he was involved in building support for the disinvestment campaign. He spoke at public rallies and on university campuses and got celebrities such as actor Sidney Poitier to support the campaign. People remarked on how alike they looked and they became good friends.story_article_right2How influential Setai was in shaping ANC economic policy is hard to say.He was trained as a neoclassical economist and never debunked neoclassical economics. The command economy had no place in his thinking.Years before it came to power, Setai said the ANC needed to understand how the American economic system worked and why it had been so influential. More recently he thought South Africa should look at South Korea and Singapore as models.As a visiting professor at Free State University he was involved in researching the civil service, which in South Africa he believed was dysfunctional and contributing to the country's economic problems.He spoke a lot about the collapse of the Greek economy and said the lesson South Africa needed to take from it was that a bad public service ultimately leads to economic collapse. He stressed the need for the public service to be economically literate and understand how an economic system functioned.He blamed the disaster he saw unfolding in South Africa on a limited understanding of basic economics.Setai was born on April 30 1939 on a farm outside Bloemfontein. He attended a farm school, which is now named after him, before going on to high school in Bloemfontein where one of his teachers was future Free State premier Winkie Direko. Three years before he died Setai bought a cattle farm in the eastern Free State to which he devoted most of his time.He died in hospital from complications following an operation. He is survived by Agnes, his wife of 45 years, and three children.1939-2015..

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