Thami Mazwai | 15 May 2023
Organised business is not aware how close we are to the edge of the cliff
I have been visiting Soweto, and I am frightened by what I saw and heard. Like it or not, we must urgently address the poverty, unemployment and inequality stalking communities.
Regretfully, the latest reports of the broad-based BEE Commission indicate that many companies balk at implementing BEE except for the shareholding, management and skills development legs. When it comes to socioeconomic development, especially procurement and enterprise & supplier development (ESD), there is dololo. Yet ESD makes all the difference in combating poverty and unemployment.
There was a lot of excitement when the broad-based BEE codes were initially discussed and released. There was co-operation between business formations such as Business Leadership SA, Business Unity SA, the Black Business Council, the SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Small Business Initiative and the National Federated African Chambers of Commerce.
Yes, there were also differences, and serious ones at that, but all were at least pulling in the same direction and disagreements were addressed. However, on reading the commission’s report for 2021 and a research report on ESD, it is apparent that organised business is not aware how close we are to the edge of the cliff.
I was in Soweto initially to do research on entrepreneurship, and was thus talking to local business people, who are suffering because of load-shedding, among other reasons. The most critical of these is a surge of new entrants as a result of unemployment and immigrant entrepreneurs, leading to a decline in daily takings. These now average R250 to R750 a day for most. If you think this is an exaggeration and the figure couldn't possibly be so low, check with Finscope.
What struck me as I drove around was that at 11am midweek there were so many young adults milling around with nothing to do. Some standing outside or near shebeens, others near spaza shops and other business outlets, and many more on the sides of main roads hoping to pick up an odd job. The desperate look in their eyes was devastating. People are hungry.
Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities that “hunger was prevalent. Hunger was pushed out of the houses, in the wretched clothing that hung upon poles and lines; ... hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and stared up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat”. It is no different in many a township or village in modern day SA.
What frightened me most was the expressions of desolation and anger. The latter was palpable. It cut through, front to back, and left me on edge. It is in people’s talk, looks and stares. I heard one person mutter loudly “yibo laba abadla bodwa” (he is one of those who eat alone).
We are fiddling while Rome burns, is the message from the stares of anger, if not pure hatred. Frankly, when millions queue overnight for R350 a month even though the food poverty level in SA is R663 a month per person, it does indicate that we do not care. The R350 hardly fills a handbasket at a supermarket, yet some think nothing of spending R1,000 a month on their pets. On a human level, is it surprising that violent crime is on the rise?
Part of the economic solution is in an aggressive, tightly measured and overseen implementation of ESD, combined with procurement from townships and villages. This would also contribute to national cohesion. The Sanlam gauge stresses in agreement: “The concept of procuring from small black-owned businesses, providing other support and developing new enterprises is solid in principle and, if effective, would generate a strong base of small businesses that would grow and hire more people, directly addressing SA’s triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment.”
The new acting head of the commission, Tshediso Matona, should call an urgent meeting with business organisations to get their members to implement ESD aggressively and procure more from black-owned small businesses. He must not mince words; he must make it clear that our country’s future depends on it.
I gape in wonderment when commentators — black and white — argue over whether the national budget can afford relief for the poor, when 2-million South Africans go to bed hungry every night. It is telling that these commentators go to bed on full stomachs.
While we should not be reckless with taxpayers’ money, it is foolhardy to think mothers and fathers will simply sit back and watch their children and themselves starve to death. These parents are putty in the hands of opportunists and anarchists. We know what has happened in the past.
• Dr Mazwai is chair of Mtiya Dynamics, which specialises in ESD and small business development.
‘Disclaimer - The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the BEE CHAMBER’.