Sicel’amalizo, Nal’ithemba

Last year, I met a guy online who was making and selling very nice, afrocentric jackets. The guy was from the USA, a black guy. We spoke at length, and my aim was to create a market for his product here in South Africa, guided by the idea of #BuyBlack. We ended up discussing wether he would give me rights to manufacture his product locally in South Africa and work out a cost-benefit arrangement between me and himself, or some other party that would have liked to get involved. The reason for this is to import from the USA would mean we sell locally at R2500 per jacket. Considering the socioeconomic condition of black people in my country, I knew that this was not going to work. Anyway, what ended up happening is nothing. The reason is, I had no capital, I had no land, and I had no influence. Now capital and land are the most important means of production, and the current reality is that we, black people, have access to neither.

I again had an idea, an entrepreneurial idea, which I thought was brilliant. I still do. But again, I am black in a system that denies black people access to means of production. I browsed the NEF (National Empowerment Fund) website. I found that they require that, first of all, a person asking for a grant must be free from credit bureau blacklists (interesting name this, blacklist). Strange, considering the fact that South Africa is an economy that promotes debt, an economy that I believe is largely debt driven. In light of this, and also considering the black condition (black tax, landlessness, generational poverty, etc), there is bound to be a significant number of black people who will default on some of their payments, and consequently land themselves on the blacklist. This group of people, those in the blacklist, are automatically excluded from the services of NEF.

The NEF also requires that applicants for funding and assistance draw up financial projections that stretch five years, even for start ups. Now there is nothing wrong in performing financial due diligence which will determine feasibility, except that there is a significant number of people who do not have access to the tools to perform this complex financial work, nor do they have access to money to pay those who do have access to these tools. I know this sounds like some form of dependency complex, but how must a 22 year old from Ezitandini eCala who did not finish matric do financial projections that stretch 5 years for a business idea he or she has? Automatically, he is excluded from the services of the NEF.

These are but two of the requirements at the NEF. This points to a problem with our institutions: they are operating like institutions of a first world country, in a developing country with race and class redress long overdue.

The problem is lack of black participation in the mainstream economy. And that lack of participation stems from the fact that we simply do not possess the means required to produce. Now, one will hear a lot of opinion leaders driving an idea that we are not participating in our economy because we need to fix our minds and mentalities as black people. To me, that is absurd. We have been innovating. We have been creating. Only for those innovations and creations to be stolen and passed off as someone else’s. What we need is not corrected mentalities, what we need is access to means of production, qha.

The day I first went into the NEF website, I was humming a tune to myself. Its an old choral tune that goes: “Sicel’amalizo, nal’ithemba.” In English (because we constantly have to explain ourselves in English) it means “We are asking for donations and empathy, we bring herewith hope.” I saw my business idea as hope, and all I needed was the resources to make this hope come to life.

We cannot continue to talk about radical economic transformation when black people are still denied opportunities because of a socioeconomic condition that was engineered by the very same people who now hold a monopoly over means of production. There are numerous practical business ideas out there, innovated by black people. But without the necessary means to produce that idea and make it come to life, it will remain just that: an idea.

Resourcing black entrepreneurs is an advantage even for the state, because it would mean increased entrepreneurial activity, which translates to an expanded revenue and tax base for the state.

We cannot be begging for these things. The money that NEF and other supposed change angencies administer does not belong to them, it belongs to the people of South Africa. It is the people’s investment in themselves. Yes, granted, NEF et al do give out grants and assistance, but my problem is the framework within which they do so, and that framework is a bit exclusionary and systematically denies access to some, to most.

I once heard somewhere that if it is inaccessible to the poor, it is neither radical nor revolutionary.

Nal’ithemba!

Linda Sidumo is a BCom graduate, a public servant, a social activist, a voice for black business, Chairperson of the Education Access campaign, and an emerging black participant in the South African economy. Views expressed are strictly his individual views, and do not, in any way, represent the views of any organisation or group of persons.

Language: A Useful Tool in Exclusion

A broad, and socially accepted definition of commerce is simply the activity of buying and selling. Trade, is defined as the act of buying and selling goods and services. These are but two of many terms which, used collectively, make up the jargon used to construct the South African economy. This jargon, language, is the point of departure in attempting to understand why the majority of black South Africans are still excluded in South Africa’s mainstream economy and, consequently, its benefits.

When playing economics in South Africa, one often hears, and utters, words like hawkers, informal traders, the black market, oonoztand (stand people), street pedlars, without observing the (deliberately) negative connotations these labels have on black men and women who, more than anyone, live the economic principle of scarcity. Its one thing to have scarce or limited resources, these men and women have nothing at all, yet they still manage establish themselves, albeit at the periphery, in a system that is designed to exclude them.

The legitimate business people we call hawkers and informal traders are not only excluded structurally and institutionally in our economy, but the everyday language we use in business seeks to delegitimise their legitimate and legal business activities. Take fruit and vegetable stalls for instance, the owners buy or produce fruit and vegetables, and then sell them to willing buyers on the street; an act of buying (or producing) and selling. Why is that not called commerce? Why is it called informal trade, instead of just trade? Is it because they have no access to land nor capital to build the fancy air conditioned fruit and veg cities of this world?

The other day, while loitering around Pretoria CBD looking  for a retailer for my monthly supply of veggies, I walked past Shoprite in Church Square. In front of Shoprite are a number of fruit and vegetable traders with stalls set up (in a formal shopping mall, they would be called pop up stores). I decide to buy from the stalls outside instead of inside Shoprite. The first thing I noticed is that: fruit is fruit and veg is veg, as long as they are not rotten. Onions from the stalls outside are just the same as the onions inside Shoprite. The second thing I noticed is that the onions on the stalls outside are much cheaper than the formal onions of Shoprite. I bought more than a month’s supply of vegetables for less than R100! And, something you would not believe, they are still in my fresh in my fridge. OMG! Who would have thought!

What I am trying to say is, the use of language in the South African trade and commerce front suggests that there is a distinction and segregation between black business and white business. Anyway, besides language, that distinction and segregation is clear in terms of access to capital and markets.

Above that, these business people not only face a focused attempt to delegitimise their commercial activities, they also face an attempt to criminalise their activities. It has become a familiar sight to see these business people being harassed by police, being the subjects of random searches and all. I have never heard of any of the big corporates, even those ones who outrightly break the law, being subjected to random searches.

As if that is not enough, even legislation is against these business people. take, for example, some of the municipal by laws of the Joburg metro with respect to informal traders:

  • The (municipal) council may declare any place in its area of jurisdiction to be an area in which informal trading is prohibited.
  • An authorised official may remove or impound any property of an informal trader which (a) he or she reasonably suspects is being used or which is intended to be used or has been used for or in connection with informal trading and (b) is found at a place where informal trading is prohibited.
  • Informal traders are not permitted to create smoke, fumes, odours, noise, or pollution of any kind.

These are just 3 by laws among quite a few. And one can immediately observe the difference in treatment of informal traders and mainstream, formal, business. There are areas where informal traders are prohibited from operating, notwithstanding the possibility of any demand for their goods and services in these areas. Yet mainstream business is allowed to operate almost anywhere, anytime, and as we see everyday, anyhow.

The property of an informal trader is not protected, as is that of mainstream, formal, business.

Informal traders, oomama noo tata bethu (our mothers and fathers), may not, under any circumstances, create smoke, fumes, noise, even if those elements are products of the fusing of inputs to their operations. Needless to say, it is only formal business that can do this. They are the only ones who are allowed to poison the environment and make a profit from it.

The reason I wrote this, is, that I would like to make a call to lovers of progress in general, and black people in particular, to observe the language we use. The black men and women who weather the storms and sit everyday along the side of the road in the name of commerce and trade, are legitimate business people. And that is what we should start calling them, instead of words that are deliberately used to denigrate and malign their commercial activity.

Considering the fact that these business people have very little to no resources, I would say they are more advanced business people than most, if the respected economic principle is anything to go by.

They are business people. Qha.

 

Linda Sidumo is a BCom graduate, a public servant, and chairperson of the Education Access Campaign (www.educationaccesscampaign.org). Views expressed are strictly his views and do not represent the views of any organisation or group of persons.

Neo Liberalism: An Enemy of Black Power in Africa?

There are quite a number of definitions of what neo liberalism really means. Since German scholar Alexander Rustow coined the term in 1938, it has had a number of different definitions through the years until now. Broadly speaking, neoliberalism incorporates policies such as the elimination of price controls, a deregulating of capital markets, privatisation, a considerable reduction in state influence and control on the economy, etc. This means that protagonists of neoliberalism will usually push an agenda where the market is free to do what it likes without any state intervention. And more often than not, neoliberalism and capitalism are inseperable. Some scholars have even suggested that neoliberalism is ‘hyper capitalism’.

In South Africa, it is interesting to note that protagonists of neoliberalism are mostly white people who, ironically enough, are generational beneficiaries of state control during Apartheid and the colonial period. It is no secret that the Apartheid government in South Africa intervened to make sure that white people prospered and black people barely even participated in the economy. There are some white owned multinationals that exist today, that were actively assisted by the Apartheid state. Yet when the democratic government introduces policies such as BEE and EE, policies necessitated by the fact that black people were deliberately prohibited from participating in the mainstream economy, the same people call it reverse racism and too much state intervention. But, is neoliberalism really the answer to the problems of Africa? Or is it just a hedge that shields white supremacy and provides a barrier to the accumulation of black power?

Many antagonists of neoliberalism prefer a socialist flavour to policies, especially in Africa where we are dealing with a mass base of people, black people and Africans, who are previously oppressed and were deliberately banned from accumulating wealth. Africans have been living a life of legislated regression and deterioration for centuries. Indeed, I am one of the antagonists of neoliberalism.

Such antagonism is met with fierce critique of any thought patterns with socialist propensity. Everyday we hear about the failures of socialist states and policies. to protagonists of neoliberalism, one failed socialist state is a failure of all socialism. Conveniently, no one mentions the failures of neo liberalism in the world.

Scholars agree that the Great Depression of the 1930s, which brought about high unemployment and extensive poverty, was as a result of economic liberalism. Intellectuals were organised in Paris in 1938 to renew liberalism. Among them were Louis Rouger, Walter Lippmann, Friedrich von Hayek, and Alexander Rustow. While they agreed on the failure of liberalism, they did not move away from it. Instead, they proposed a ‘new kind of liberalism’. Interestingly, when we analyse failed socialist states, we never propose a ‘new kind of socialism’. We rubbish socialism in its entirety.

Post World War II, Chile embarked on neoliberal reforms, led by a group of students that were exposed to Friedman, Arnold Harberger, and Hayek. These included privatisation, deregulation, and a reduction in the role of the state. The policies resulted in widened inequality, a negative impact on wages and working conditions of Chile’s working class. Germany, while embracing neoliberalism, insisted on placing humanistic and social values on par with economic prosperity. They aimed for both market economy and social justice. Protagonists of neoliberalism were outraged, calling this ‘inconsistent aims’.

David Harvey described neoliberalism as a class project designed to impose class on society through liberalism. David M Kotz informed that neoliberalism is “based on the thorough domination of labour by capital”. Sociologist Loic Wacquant argued that neoliberal policy for dealing with social instability among economically marginalised populations following the retrenchment of the social welfare state and rise of the punitive workforce, privatisation of public functions, decrease in collective working class protection via deregulation, rise of underpaid labour is the criminalisation of poverty and mass incarceration in the USA”. And that “by contrast, it is extremely lenient in dealing with those in the upper echelons of society, particularly when it comes to the economic crimes of the priviledged class”.

Neo liberalism promotes, consciously or sub consciously (I believe the former), exploitation and social injustice. It increases inequality, which, in South Africa, is racial. It promotes self over social collective.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the most influential proponent of neoliberalism for over five decades, has also admitted the failures of neoliberalism in its article titled Neoliberalism: Oversold?.  In this article, the IMF concedes that instead of delivering growth, some neoliberal policies have increased inequality.

Also, neoliberal economics have a negative distributional effect. In a country like South Africa that has a mass base of people that still have to ‘catch up’ economically, and a white and elite minority that enjoys a bulk of the wealth unjustly, the playing field will never be level if we continue to insist on the current neoliberal capitalist agenda.

Furthermore, in South Africa, where deregulation still exists to an extent, the private sector refuses to transform and transfer skills and wealth despite the albeit weak regulation system we have. I do not want to imagine the fate of the poor and working class in a completely deregulated South Africa.

Maybe it is time people rethink liberalism. Our right to self determination is at stake.

Linda Sidumo is a BCom graduate, a public servant, and chairperson of the Education Access Campaign (www.educationaccesscampaign.org). Views expressed are strictly his views and do not represent the views of any organisation or group of persons.

 

Mandela Day and The Politics of Absolution

What would the children of the rich do with themselves without the poor?

An interesting question.

As we are nearing the 18th of July, the birthdate of the world’s most loved statesman, Nelson Mandela, and International Mandela Day, all sectors of South African society are busy, none more than the private sector. Orphanage homes are going to be painted, groceries are going to be bought and sent to poor households, one day soup kitchens will be run, parks will be cleaned, and more. The day is usually eventful, as we will probably see on social media and company websites, television, we will even hear about it on radio. For one day in 365, the citizens of South Africa and the world will be ‘helping the poor’. Its the ONE DAY the world goes crazy in public displays of compassion.

The actual impact of this day, however, in my opinion, is grossly exaggerated. Especially when one weighs the resources that are available against the actual impact achieved. Very few of the acts and deeds performed on Mandela day are sustainable. And I refuse to believe that this is an oversight on the part of Mandela Day philantropists. So, why is Mandela day, and all it comes with, so important to those in power, especially the rich?

The answer lies in the history of South Africa, and also the class dynamics and relations between the haves and the have nots in neo liberal capitalist South Africa.

The country we see as South Africa was built on the backs of cheap black working class labour. The foundations of our country were cemented with oppression. The walls of the buildings that tower over our cities were plastered with the desperation of poor black migrant labourers. Centuries of oppressive white rule engineered a white supremacist system so sophisticated that even 22 years into democratic rule we are still living with the inequality and poverty that were the core of anti black Apartheid ideology.

Poverty_SA(Aidc_org_za)

South Africa currently tops the world inequality rankings. We are the most unequal society in the world. And the inequality of South Africa is racialised, that is a point we must never get tired of emphasising. Where there is inequality, within a framework of neo liberal capitalist politics, there is bound to be exploitation. And we need look no further than the private sector to witness such exploitation.

Exploitation is so ubiquitous in South Africa that in some industries it has become a pandemic. The working class literally lose their lives working to create wealth they will never taste. A case in point would be the silicosis issue in the mining, construction, ceramic, and other industries, where those who die get peanuts while the corporates continue making billions. These workers have to threaten war just to get a 5% salary increase, while managers and the upper echelons of corporates give themselves salary increases well above any inflation. Our people battle just to receive a living wage. Is it not a wonder, that they are still alive? That is the reality of the relationship between corporates and workers in South Africa, all through the year, year after year.

Why am I saying all this? I don’t really know, but somehow I think Mandela day and exploitation are linked in a way.

Picture this for a moment, and ask yourself if it makes sense. A corporate that exploits workers and gives them wages that are just enough to get them to work every shift, goes out and gives groceries to a poor woman and her children and does all the things that gives us butterflies in our stomachs on Mandela day, and then the very next day goes back to its modus operandi: exploitation of the man who is the husband of the woman and the father of the children who are recipients of the oh so generous gift of groceries. The thought certainly does something to my stomach, and I am not sure I want to call it butterflies.

poverty_is_not_a_disease

Mandela Day is an opportunity for the exploiting class to give themselves a sense that they have been absolved of their exploitive practices. It is an occasion that gives corporates a platform to mitigate the very inequalities that their presence compounds.

So, what I am saying is, the sincerity of the efforts of corporates on Mandela day are questionable. Sure, if their aim is to give a poor person a grocery pack for one day in a year, then they are on the right track. But if their aim is to contribute to ending inequality, fighting poverty, and building a more inclusive economy, then its going to take more than Mandela day orphanage painting activities. It will take them dismantling the structural, institutionalised, and systemic racism and inequality which are the basis of all their decisions, individual and collective.

It will take corporate SA realising that workers are co creators of the wealth they (corporate SA) enjoy. It will take white CEOs realising that transformation is not reverse racism, but a method to correct the injustices and inequalities their (white CEOs) forefathers engineered. It will take them realising that human life, black human life, is more important than profits. Mandela day means absolutely nothing without structural, institutional, and systemic change in South Africa. Surely we cannot attempt to change the material conditions of the poor by painting their homes for one day and go home to Sandton thinking that we have made a difference in the lives of the people of Alexandra. What the poor need is not Mandela day, what the poor need is a lifetime of living within or above a certain quality of life deemed proper for humanity.

I am not saying Mandela day is bad. No. It is always a good thing to do good. But when the rich perpetuate poverty and inequality and pacify the poor under the guise of Mandela day philanthropy, it becomes a big problem.

Before we take as granted the sincerity and genuineness of the efforts of corporate South Africa on Mandela day, let us ask ourselves: What will the rich do with themselves without the poor?

Linda Sidumo is a BCom graduate, a public servant, and chairperson of the Education Access Campaign NPO. Views expressed are strictly his own and do not represent the views of any organisation or group of persons.