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.