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  • Tribute to Trevor Bell
  • Vishnu Padayachee

It was with great sadness that many of us heard the news of the sudden passing on Tuesday morning 17 January 2006 of Robert Trevor Bell. Trevor Bell was arguably the leading South African economist of his generation. His work was anchored in a deep commitment to South African development. It was rooted in an insistence on analytical, theoretical and methodological rigour and it was located within the context of the grand historical and contemporary debates in economics and political economy. And, despite the occasional mis-characterisation of his work as being inward-looking and nationalist, he was deeply cognisant of understanding local and national issues within the context of long-term trends within the global economy.

Trevor will perhaps best be remembered for his work on regional industrial development. His 1972 book entitled Industrial Decentralisation in South Africa (OUP) and his 1973 SAJE article 'Some aspects of industrial decentralisation in South Africa', were important landmarks, especially in the context of the apartheid state's perverse and racially-based plans for regional re-engineering. In a 1997 piece in Transformation, Trevor reopened this debate, defending regional industrial promotion under the new premises of a post-apartheid dispensation.

His trenchant disagreements with the analysis and policy recommendation of the COSATU-backed, Industrial Strategy Project, and the responses to him by Dave Kaplan and Dave Lewis, set out in the pages of Transformation 28, 30 and 31 in the mid-1990s, were important, eagerly awaited and reminiscent of the robust and sharp debates within South African social science in the 1970s and 1980s.

He was deeply appreciative of the real purpose of economics - that of improving the material condition of the majority of a country's population. And he possessed the creative imagination essential for really top notch scholarship, a feature all too often lacking in the work of merely technically competent economists. His influence on a whole generation of younger academic economists, especially in encouraging us to be bold and imaginative [End Page 6] in our thinking, without compromising on analytical rigour, was both profound and enduring.

Rhodes University held a special place in his heart. He obtained a first class Honours and a PhD from Rhodes; his first appointment as an economic lecturer was at Rhodes, and he held this position from 1960 to 1967. He returned to Rhodes as Associate Professor from 1970-1973. Following a senior appointment at Natal University, a Visiting Professorship at Colorado (1977/8), three years at the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver, and a short time at Durban-Westville, he returned to his alma mater, as Professor from 1984 to 1994. Given this long association, it was not surprising that Rhodes University flew its flag at half mast on the day of Trevor's funeral.

I first met Trevor Bell in 1982, when he took up the position of Deputy-Director in the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Durban-Westville and I was a lecturer in the Department of Economics. Trevor was not known for co-authoring papers so it was a pleasant surprise, when after many lengthy informal discussions, he invited me to work with him on a project on unemployment in South Africa, which eventually led to our 1984 Carnegie Conference paper, later published in revised form in Development Southern Africa (Vol 3/4, 1984).

Although he formally retired in 2000, he never stopped writing. He worked for the Johannesburg-based National Institute for Economic Policy until 2003. At the time of his death he was working (with the Reserve Bank's Greg Farrell) on a study provisionally entitled 'Natural Resource Abundance, Commodity Price Cycles, Exchange Rates and South African Economic Performance'.

Trevor was passionate about economics, but he was also passionate about other things; cricket being one of them. He played Nuffield Schools for Eastern Province; and he could talk at length, and with great insight about the game, both then and now.

He will be greatly missed. [End Page 7]



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