Mohammad Karaan was united practical experience with academic excellence
He remained friends with people across the spectrum, including those who would not shake his hand before February 1990
We lost a very good friend on January 13 and the country lost one of its pre-eminent policy advisers in the fields of agricultural development and land reform, yet another victim of the Covid-19 scourge.
Mohammad Karaan was one of those rare policy advisers who combined practical experience with academic excellence: as a farmer (first in essential oils in the Caledon district, then in olives in Robertson); as a policy analyst (at the Development Bank of Southern Africa and the Rural Foundation) as an administrator (as chair of the National Agricultural Marketing Council and dean of the faculty of agri-sciences and vice-rector at Stellenbosch University), and as a business person (director of numerous public, private and state entities and executive manager of a range of medium to small enterprises).
Academics are not often able to combine practice with theory, and those who succeed in doing so don’t always succeed in translating this into sound policy advice to the powers that be. Karaan succeeded at both because he had vision, because he understood what had to be done and when it should be done to gain support for his ideas, and because he was a good listener, all skills that were drilled into him by his father from a young age.
He joined the DBSA in 1992 as an intern, moving between the operations and policy analysis divisions in an institution where the interface between policy and practice was large. After a stint as head of research at the Rural Foundation he joined the department of agricultural economics at Stellenbosch University in 1996, where he gained his PhD in 2006, served as chair of the National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC) between 2005 and 2007, became dean of the faculty of agri-sciences in 2008, almost simultaneously serving as a commissioner of the National Planning Commission for two terms starting in 2010.
These are the bare bones of his career. His relevance, on the other hand, came from what he made of these opportunities. If you knew him long enough you learnt to recognise the pattern. When he was charged with responsibility for an institution he would always first look for the appropriate person to take over the day-to-day operations, freeing him to do what he did best, namely to build coalitions of support for the initiative among its internal and external stakeholders, ensure strong administrative systems were in place, then set the stakeholders free to do what they did best, as long as they supported the common goal.
The results were sometimes visible (the NAMC always had clean audits, the number of students in the faculty of agri-sciences doubled during his tenure, he was mainly responsible for drafting chapter six of the National Development Plan) but just as often invisible, in the form of a happier, more diverse and more committed staff, for example.
Because we must never forget that Karaan grew up under apartheid, with all that that meant to him and to his country, and that he succeeded in overcoming the disadvantages this entailed without rancour. He remained friends with people across the spectrum, including those who would not shake his hand before February 1990, and he remained fond of his mother tongue, never forgetting his roots in Afrikaans.
A large measure of Karaan's success is also to be found in the fact that he was a family man, serving his immediate family of Basheerah and their five children, acting as the pater familias over his extended family after his father passed, and spending time searching for his roots, as a multi-generation South African, in remote corners of India and Indonesia where his ancestors originated. We are all part of that extended family, and we mourn his passing.
• Vink is emeritus professor in agricultural economics at Stellenbosch University (SU), Sihlobo chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of SA, and Kirsten professor in agricultural economics at SU and director of the Bureau of Economic Research.
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