How to Become an Economist in South Africa

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Economists play a crucial role in shaping economic policies, driving inclusive growth, and addressing socio-economic challenges in South Africa. With its diverse economy, unique developmental goals, and dynamic socio-political landscape, South Africa presents both opportunities and complexities for economists. This article explores the roles and responsibilities of economists in the South African context, highlighting their contributions to economic analysis, policy development, and decision-making processes.

Here's a comprehensive guide on how to become an economist:

1. Lay the Foundation with Education

High School:

Focus on math, economics heavily relies on mathematical and statistical concepts. Courses in calculus, statistics, and algebra will provide a strong foundation. It will also work in your favour to develop critical thinking skills by doing courses in history and social sciences as they will help you understand the broader context in which economic decisions are made.

Undergraduate Studies:

Pursue a bachelor's degree in economics or a related field such as finance, mathematics, or statistics. A solid understanding of economic theory, quantitative methods, and empirical analysis is essential. Additionally, engage in extracurricular activities such as joining economics clubs and societies available at your school, participate in research projects, and seek internships to gain practical experience and build a network within the field. Consider a double major, so you can pair economics with a complementary discipline like political science, environmental studies, or computer science which will broaden your expertise and career opportunities.

In South Africa, several universities offer strong programs in economics, providing students with a comprehensive education and preparing them for careers in the field.

The best universities in South Africa to study economics and the programs they offer:

University of Cape Town (UCT) 

UCT's Department of Economics offers undergraduate programs leading to a Bachelor of Business Science (BBusSc) degree with a major in Economics. They also provide postgraduate studies including Honours, Master's, and Ph.D. programs in Economics, allowing students to specialize in areas such as development economics, environmental economics, and financial economics.

University of the Witwatersrand (Wits)

Wits School of Economics and Finance offers undergraduate programs leading to a Bachelor of Economic Science (BEconSc) degree with majors in Economics, Economic Science, or Quantitative Finance. At the postgraduate level, they offer Honours, Master's, and Ph.D. programs in Economics, covering topics such as economic policy, international economics, and econometrics.

Stellenbosch University

Stellenbosch University's Department of Economics offers undergraduate programs leading to a Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) degree with majors in Economics and Management Science. They also provide postgraduate studies including Honours, Master's, and Ph.D. programs in Economics, with specializations in areas such as agricultural economics, labour economics, and industrial organization.

University of Pretoria

The University of Pretoria's Department of Economics offers undergraduate programs leading to a Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) degree with majors in Economics and Economic Sciences. They offer postgraduate studies including Honours, Master's, and Ph.D. programs in Economics, covering fields such as monetary economics, public economics, and development economics.

Rhodes University

Rhodes University offers undergraduate programs leading to a Bachelor of Business Science (BBusSci) degree with a major in Economics. They also provide postgraduate studies including Honours and master’s programs in Economics, focusing on areas such as applied microeconomics, econometrics, and economic history.

University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN)

UKZN's School of Economics offers undergraduate programs leading to a Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) degree with majors in Economics and Finance (or any other major of choice). They offer postgraduate studies including Honours, Master's, and Ph.D. programs in Economics, with specializations in areas such as health economics, environmental economics, and urban economics.

These universities are renowned for their strong academic reputation, experienced faculty members, and comprehensive curriculum in economics. Students interested in pursuing a career in economics can choose from a range of programs offered by these institutions to suit their interests and career goals.

2. Graduate Education (Optional, but Recommended)

Master's Degree:

For many entry-level economist positions, a master's degree in economics is increasingly becoming the standard requirement. Graduate programs offer advanced coursework in economic theory, econometrics, and specialized fields like labour economics or international trade. Completing a thesis or research project allows you to delve deep into a specific area of economics and demonstrate your analytical and research skills.

Doctoral Degree (Ph.D.):

Pursuing a Ph.D. in economics is necessary for those interested in academic research or high-level policymaking roles. Doctoral programs involve rigorous coursework, comprehensive exams, and original research leading to a dissertation.

Additionally, partaking in collaboration will help in building strong relationships with professors can lead to research opportunities, mentorship, and letters of recommendation.

3. Gain Practical Experience:


Seek internships with government agencies, research institutions, or private-sector companies to gain hands-on experience applying economic principles to real-world problems. Internships provide valuable insights into different industries and policy areas, helping you identify your interests and strengths within the field of economics.


Engage in independent research projects or assist professors with their research initiatives. Publishing papers or presenting findings at conferences enhances your credibility and opens doors to future opportunities.

4. Develop Key Skills:

·         Analytical Skills

Economists must be adept at analysing complex data sets, identifying patterns, and drawing meaningful conclusions. Develop proficiency in statistical software packages like Stata, R, or Python.

·         Communication Skills

Effective communication is crucial for economists to convey their findings and recommendations to diverse audiences. Hone your writing and presentation skills to communicate complex economic concepts in clear and accessible ways.

·         Critical Thinking

Economics requires critical thinking skills to evaluate arguments, assess evidence, and formulate sound policy recommendations. Engage in debates, discussions, and interdisciplinary coursework to sharpen your analytical thinking abilities.

5. Stay Informed and Engaged

Remaining informed and engaged is essential for economists in South Africa to navigate the dynamic economic landscape and contribute effectively to policy discussions and decision-making processes. Keeping abreast of current events, economic trends, and policy debates specific to South Africa can be achieved through various means. Economists should regularly read reputable publications such as Business Day, Financial Mail, and the South African Reserve Bank Quarterly Bulletin to stay updated on economic developments, market analyses, and policy initiatives. Additionally, attending seminars, workshops, and conferences organized by local research institutions, universities, and professional organizations like the Economic Society of South Africa (ESSA) or the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) provides valuable opportunities to engage with experts, exchange ideas, and deepen understanding of economic issues affecting the country.

Cultivating a lifelong learning mindset is crucial for economists in South Africa to adapt to evolving economic challenges and opportunities. Continuously seeking opportunities to expand knowledge and expertise in economics and related fields ensures relevance and effectiveness in addressing complex socio-economic issues. This can involve pursuing further education through specialized courses, workshops, or certifications, as well as actively participating in online forums, webinars, and professional development programs. Engaging with academic research, policy reports, and data analysis relevant to South Africa's context enables economists to contribute meaningfully to policy formulation, economic analysis, and decision-making processes, fostering sustainable economic development and social progress in the country.

6. Pursue Career Opportunities

Explore diverse career paths in economics, including academia, government, consulting, finance, and nonprofit organizations. Networking, attending career fairs, and leveraging alumni connections can help you uncover job opportunities and advance your career.

Government Institutions:

·         National Treasury

The National Treasury plays a central role in formulating and implementing fiscal and economic policy in South Africa. Economists employed here contribute to budget analysis, tax policy formulation, and macroeconomic forecasting.

·         South African Reserve Bank (SARB)

Economists at the SARB are involved in monetary policy formulation, financial stability analysis, and economic research to support the bank's mandate of price stability and sustainable economic growth.

·         Department of Trade, Industry, and Competition (DTIC)

Economists in the DTIC focus on industrial development, trade policy, and promoting economic competitiveness through initiatives such as industrial financing and export promotion.

Research Institutions:

·         South African Reserve Bank Research Department

Conducting economic research on various topics including monetary policy, financial markets, and economic growth. Economists here contribute to academic journals and provide insights for policymakers.

·         National Research Foundation (NRF)

Research economists at the NRF are involved in funding and promoting research across various disciplines, including economics. They support projects that address socio-economic challenges and contribute to knowledge creation.

·         South African Economic Policy Research Institute (SARERI)

SARERI conducts applied research on economic policy issues facing South Africa. Economists here analyse policy options, evaluate their impacts, and provide evidence-based recommendations to policymakers.

Financial Institutions:

·         Commercial Banks

Banks like Standard Bank, Absa, and Nedbank employ economists to provide economic analysis, forecasting, and market insights to clients, internal stakeholders, and the broader public. They monitor economic trends, assess risks, and inform investment decisions.

·         Development Finance Institutions (DFIs)

Institutions like the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) employ economists to support financing initiatives for infrastructure development, industrial projects, and small business development.

Consulting Firms:

·         Economic Consulting Firms

Firms like Econex and Genesis Analytics provide economic consulting services to government agencies, private-sector clients, and international organizations. Economists here conduct economic impact assessments, regulatory analysis, and market studies.

·         Management Consulting Firms

Consulting firms such as McKinsey & Company and Deloitte employ economists to provide strategic advice to clients on a wide range of economic issues, including market entry strategies, cost-benefit analysis, and policy evaluation.

Nonprofit Organizations and Think Tanks:

·         South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR)

Think tanks like SAIRR conduct research and analysis on social, economic, and political issues affecting South Africa. Economists here contribute to policy debates, publish reports, and advocate for evidence-based policy solutions.

·         Trade Unions and Advocacy Groups

Organizations representing workers' interests, such as COSATU and NEDLAC, employ economists to analyse labour market trends, negotiate wage agreements, and advocate for policies to improve workers' rights and living standards.

Roles and Responsibilities

Economists are integral to understanding and navigating the complexities of economic systems. Their roles encompass a wide array of responsibilities, including economic analysis and research, forecasting, policy development and advocacy, economic consulting, and data analysis. Through rigorous research and analysis, economists examine economic phenomena, forecast future conditions, evaluate policy impacts, and provide evidence-based recommendations to policymakers, businesses, and organizations. They build economic models to simulate processes, conduct scenario analysis, and assess risks, contributing to informed decision-making and strategic planning. Additionally, economists play a vital role in shaping economic policies, advocating for reforms, and fostering economic development by providing advisory services, conducting market research, and evaluating project impacts.

Central to their work is the collection, analysis, and interpretation of economic data from diverse sources. Economists apply statistical techniques and econometric methods to derive insights, identify patterns, and communicate findings through data visualization tools. Whether working in government institutions, research organizations, consulting firms, or academia, economists contribute to advancing understanding of economic phenomena, promoting evidence-based policymaking, and driving sustainable economic growth. Their expertise is instrumental in addressing economic challenges, informing strategic decisions, and shaping policies that foster prosperity and well-being for societies at large.

South Africa's leading universities offer rigorous economics programs, equipping graduates to tackle the nation's economic complexities, from unemployment to inequality. With institutions like the University of Cape Town and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, students gain analytical skills to navigate domestic challenges while contributing to global economic discourse. The country's role as a regional economic leader provides graduates with opportunities to influence broader economic policies and solutions. Pursuing economics education in South Africa demands dedication, curiosity, and a commitment to lifelong learning. By gaining practical experience and developing key skills, students can become economists capable of addressing intricate economic issues in an increasingly interconnected world.

Image by Drazen Zigic on FreePik.

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