Obituary: Professor S. Herbert Frankel

S. Herbert Frankel was a Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, and Professor in the Economics of Underdeveloped Countries at Oxford University from 1946 until 1971. Born in South Africa in 1903, he lived a life closely intertwined with the fate of the British Empire, with its triumphant expansion following the First World War and its rapid contraction after the Second.

His father, a German-Jewish immigrant, had arrived in Johannesburg in 1896; as an "enemy alien" had fled the country during the First World War to escape internment, leaving his wife to bring up the children alone from 1915 to 1920; and then managed to build up a small produce company. (Under the leadership of Frankel's brother, Rudy, this business eventually developed into a major South African conglomerate, the Tiger Oats and National Milling Company.)

With an MA from Johannesburg and a PhD from the LSE, Frankel was appointed professor of economics at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg at the age of 28 and, over the next 15 years, led an extraordinarily active life, combining the roles of academic economist, economic adviser and social critic. It was in this period that he formed that complex of beliefs to which he would remain firmly loyal thereafter, regardless of changing academic fashions and political constellations.

To ensure both economic growth and public welfare, he always maintained, it was essential that governments encourage an environment - political, social, cultural - in which private enterprise, individual initiative and capital accumulation could freely develop at every level of society. This credo, of course, put him at odds not only with various monopolistic enterprises (the railway company, for example), but also with the entire system of racial discrimination which, even before the official establishment of apartheid in 1948, denied the vast majority of the population in South Africa any chance of advancement.

Frankel developed his views in a series of books - Co- operation and Competition in the Marketing of Maize in South Africa (1926); Railway Policy of South Africa (1928); and Capital Investment in Africa: its course and effects (1938); as an economic adviser over a 20-year period to the South African statesman and liberal, Jan Hofmeyr (Minister of Finance during the Second World War under General Smuts); and as a founding editor of the Forum, a weekly committed to the gradual destruction of race barriers, speaking (as Frankel put it) for "the conscience of South Africa". As a member of Hof-meyr's inner circle, Frankel wrote for and helped produce Coming of Age (1930), a collection of articles on the future of South Africa which called for a "political system [built] not upon the treacherous basis of sectional interest but upon the broad and sure foundation of a common civilisation". One of Frankel's contributions (co-authored) to the book was characteristically on "The Poor White and Native". Among his students, and later colleagues, at Witwatersrand was Helen Suzman, in future years to become the leader of the anti-apartheid Progressive Party, and who always remained a close friend.

It was during his South African years that Frankel first began to serve frequently as a member of official inquiry commissions - a duty that took up much of his time throughout the 1940s and 1950s. He was certainly well aware that the reports arduously produced by such inquiries were most often fated to be ignored and shelved. But one could not be sure, and the work suited his temperament perfectly, taking him out of the ivory tower and into the workplace and the farm, to the homes of district commissioners and to meetings with tribal chiefs, across the vast stretches of the African continent.

He enjoyed the give-and-take of the committees and the challenge of hammering out a consensus among the members. Mention can be made of three among many such commissions: the Committee on Miners' Phthisis (1941) which recommended - in vain - a system of social insurance based on loss of earnings; the working party on the East African groundnut scheme (1950), which successfully called for the project's abandonment; and the Royal Commission on East Africa (1953-55) which, among other things, recommended the gradual replacement of tribal by individual land tenure.

It was something of an irony that with his move to England immediately after the Second World War, Frankel once again found himself in a rather embattled position - the same system of beliefs which had made him a critic of incipient apartheid now led to his relative isolation among Oxford economists, who tended to see in him if not a downright reactionary, then at least an anachronistic colonial. He remained the sceptic at a time when the take-off of underdeveloped countries was widely understood in terms of econometric models, central planning, massive inputs of aid and the extrapolation of growth rates.

Development in the Third World, Frankel insisted, depended not so much on the application of general theories as on the specific cultural, social and economic heritage of a given country; on its ability to apply an equitable and stable system of finance and law enforcement. Or as he himself put it: "Those who would wish to develop Africa must hasten slowly, working with nature and not against it." Or again: "Economic progress results from the curbing of political power."

Looking for forums where he could share common ground with fellow academics, Frankel in 1950 became a member of the Mont Pelerin Society (F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman were among its members); and for some years he served as a visiting professor at the University of Virginia where the economics department, under the direction of Warren Nutter (later an Assistant Secretary of Defence in the Reagan administration), was conservatively - or as Frankel would have preferred it, "liberally" - inclined. In his autobiography, An Economist's Testimony (1992), Frankel expressed regret that over the years the philosophers and historians had largely dropped out of the Mont Pelerin Society, leaving it to the economists. And much of his own writing in later years straddled these various disciplines, most notably perhaps his Money: two philosophies (the conflict of trust and authority) (1977) and Money and Liberty (1980).

In Oxford, he found his most congenial settings first in Nuffield College, where he felt able to contribute actively to the development of what was then (just after the war) a still very new institution (and indeed still not built); and second - after his retirement in 1971 - in the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies. Here, too, he enjoyed the challenge of new beginnings and Oxford has become an important centre of Jewish studies.

By no means an observant Jew, Frankel was none the less committed to the ideas of Jewish peoplehood and he dated his Zionist beliefs back to the First World War. In 1936, he went to Jerusalem to help Chaim Weizmann prepare the evidence to be presented by the Jewish Agency to the Royal Commission on Palestine chaired by Earl Peel (it eventually recommended partition of the country). Of his draft report, Frankel later wrote self- deprecatingly that Lewis Namier, another adviser, "reduced what I had written by a half without the omission of a single idea".

During and immediately after the Second World War, Frankel did much to safeguard the infant diamond-cutting production in Palestine and Israel, now a major export industry.

Herbert Frankel was a man of great charm: a natural raconteur, with a remarkable memory for a telling anecdote from his varied life. He made friends easily and from all walks of life; and his friendships were long- lasting. For many years the home of Herbert and his wife, Ilse, on Hinksey Hill, Oxford, was a centre of hospitality for colleagues, students, friends and family. In recent years, he continued to follow events closely and to keep his spirits high. He found a certain satisfaction in the respective achievements of Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher.

Sally Herbert Frankel, economist: born 22 November 1903; Professor of Economics, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg 1931-46; Professor in the Economics of Underdeveloped Countries, Oxford University 1946-71 (Emeritus); married 1928 Ilse Frankel (one son, one daughter); died 12 December 1996.