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A Tale of Two Countries and Two Stages: South Africa, China and the Lewis Model

John Knight

South African Journal of Economics, 2021, vol. 89, issue 2, 143-172

Abstract: The paper compares the economic progress of two countries, South Africa and China, in relation to the Lewis model. These economies are chosen because they have interesting similarities and also interesting differences. At the start of economic reform in China and with the advent of democracy in South Africa, both countries had surplus labour: they were at the first, labour‐surplus, stage of the Lewis model. It is shown that, since then, South Africa has continued to experience surplus labour: the unemployment rate has risen. By contrast, China’s labour market is shown to have tightened, and there is evidence that China has entered the second, labour‐scarce, stage of the Lewis model. The difference lies in their growth rates. There are sections explaining why the South African economy has grown slowly and why the Chinese economy has grown rapidly, in relation to the growth of their labour forces. The Lewis model provides an enlightening framework for explaining how widely the fruits of economic development can be shared.

Date: 2021
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