President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ‘Dear South African’ letter to the people this week had something important to say about why the country doesn’t fold – but what he didn’t say tells us why it doesn’t flourish, either.
To his undoubted credit, the president paid attention for a change to the successes of emerging entrepreneurs, young business-minded people who exploit opportunities, take risks and try to make a go of enterprises that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
Extolling the virtues of the ‘ingenuity … being demonstrated by young entrepreneurs’ in this time of trial, he singled out several examples of what he called ‘the combination of foresight, creativity and business acumen displayed by a number of young South Africans who are coming up with home-grown solutions to the contemporary challenges we face’.
We learned of Cloudy Deliveries in Langa, Cape Town, a group of youths who run a bicycle delivery service ferrying goods from the shops to the homes of residents in the township. Ramaphosa shared the story of 28-year-old Election Xitsakiso Baloyi from Mankweng in Limpopo, ‘whose pizza-making hobby turned into a fully-fledged business after his family started posting pictures of his creations on social media’.
‘With the lockdown preventing people from eating out, he got an avalanche of queries from community members asking if he was selling his pizzas. Now his business, Rabbit’s Pizza, started with his savings of just R1 000 and the baking pans in his kitchen, employs nine other young people and delivers not just in Mankweng but also in nearby Nwamitwa and Giyani.’
‘Linen manufacturing business’
In Alexandra township in Gauteng, Ponani Shikweni, 32, ‘has repurposed her linen manufacturing business to produce face masks’, and now employs 35 people, most under 25, producing more than 1 000 masks a day to order.
Further afield, in Sekhukhune, 18-year-old Judy Jay, ‘a DJ and rising star’, had used her watch parties to gain attention from ‘major local and international radio stations, enabling her to promote and grow her brand’.
Ramaphosa is right that these are all great stories, encouraging signs of the country’s most dependable asset.
There are many more examples in every part of South Africa. And what they represent is the emergent cohort of a relatively small middle class – hard-working, family-orientated, ambitious, and skilled and optimistic enough to make choices they have reasoned will make a better future. These qualities, more than any other agency, are chiefly responsible for keeping the country in one piece.
But the irony is that they are actively impeded by the African National Congress led by Ramaphosa himself.
The president, as he often does, had encouraging things to say in his weekly letter, but it is actions, not words, that count, and the actions that count most for people with ‘foresight, creativity and business acumen’ are those that shape their economic environment.
In mid-2020 it is surely uncontroversial that ours is an economic environment beset by power cuts, services sapped by fraud, mismanagement and waste, dysfunctional schooling, broken municipalities, high crime, excessive regulation, deepening state intrusion, threats to property rights and savings, untempered ideological commitments to – needlessly – putting race above merit, and, worse, putting race above any genuine attempt to address the real disadvantages that continue to burden millions of people.
In spite of, not because of, post-democracy policy-making, entrepreneurs young and old, and all those who buy from them or supply them with the goods and services they need face one obstacle after another in trying to succeed.
When Ramaphosa speaks of the ‘young South Africans who are coming up with home-grown solutions to the contemporary challenges we face’, he should know they are demonstrating remarkable resilience in the face of policy and economic impediments that preceded the pandemic.
He should also know that resilience is not success.
We can be thankful for what the president called the ‘creative and enterprising spirit’ of South Africa’s business people, but without the far-reaching reforms now needed to really make a difference in the day-to-day lives of tax-paying, job-creating entrepreneurs, we can only expect to muddle along in conditions of resigned mediocrity. And that shouldn’t ever be enough.
[Picture: Startaê Team on Unsplash]