economic development entrepreneurship Fanon small business violence

Business Day column: Empty economic nationalism does spaza shops no favour

In this column, I turn to Fanon as I reflect on the toxic competition that has fermented between locally-owned and foreign-owned informal retailers:

YOU might have seen those voluminous, woven plastic bags with plaid patterns that many South Africans use to carry their luggage across the country, particularly during the Easter and Christmas breaks. They teeter on minibus taxi roofs or peep out from overloaded trailers. In West Africa, they are called “Ghana must go”, in ironic remembrance of Nigeria’s expulsion of immigrants in the 1980s. In SA, they go by names such as Khumbul’ekhaya bag or Mashangaanbag.

“These alienating names reveal something of the anxiety expressed towards the carriers of these bags in the communities they relocate to. These bags have become global symbols of migration,” writes Nobukho Nqaba about her photographic work, Umaskhenkethe Likhaya Lam.

In a country so marked by migrancy and movement, perhaps the economic ambition of the newcomer is all too familiar. A couple of days ago, I had a tense exchange on Twitter with someone who was unimpressed with my take on the grievances against foreign-owned businesses in our townships. My debater took particular offence to my argument that suppressing such businesses will not improve the economic lot of South Africans.

In his view, I was beholden to what he called “textbook” economics. His characterisation of fellow Africans was quite harsh, despite the red beret featured on his profile picture. And so I appealed not to “textbook economics” but to Frantz Fanon.

The rest of the column is here:

BRICS competition inequality violence

Rio de Janeiro/City of God

View from the Sheraton Hotel, Leblon, Rio de Janeiro

Image: Trudi Makhaya

Bela vista: crumbling mansions teetering off a dramatic hill, the restless sea, Favela do Vidigal in the distance. Having flown into Rio tired at night, this is quite a sight to wake up to.

I spent a week in the land that is joined with South Africa in discussions of that terrible condition – extreme inequality. Entrepreneurship takes a certain dynamic in such divided economies. There is that perpetual challenge of how to link the “first” and the “second” economy. These are economic networks that exist within one country yet may be divided by language, education and geography. This manifests itself in different levels of formality, productivity and ultimately wealth. And so, in a five star hotel that could be anywhere in the world, one is met with views of utter poverty.

Another expensive hotel close to a favela, the Royal Tulip, hosted the International Competition Network’s Annual conference. This gathering brings together competition authorities from around the world, including various authorities from the African continent such as the Competition Commission of South Africa and its counterparts in Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia, Tanzania, Kenya, Morocco: International Competition Network

A short while after returning from Rio, I watched the movie City of God again. This must be like watching Tsotsi after a visit to Johannesburg spent largely in Sandton – so close to drama, yet so far away. In my case, I did get some taste of the drama in Rio after having had a scary moment in a taxi. As my colleagues and I settled into this taxi, the driver got into a spat with a rival taxi and tried to ram into it. The rival taxi had picked up passengers that our driver was aiming for. A local lady sitting next to me let out a scream. I knew it was on. But it wasn’t. But that brief episode of travelling like the locals do brought to mind what I was told when I brought up the prospects of a favela tour: bullets don’t know tourists.

I feel dissatisfied that I did not stray much from the affluent or tourist-friendly areas. But of what use would it have been for me to do so? To witness life in the favela? To show solidarity with poor people of colour? But does that amount to anything?

City of God, which takes its title from a favela in Rio, depicts awful gang violence in a forgotten resettlement area in Rio in the 1960s and 1970s. The favela looks much like a township, endless rows of small houses in an area that the government settles people in but that soon becomes a slum with limited recreational facilities, poor provision of basic amenities such as water and electricity and limited enforcement of law and order. Lawlessness generates drug-lords who control violence and create a parallel system of ‘justice’. This system cannot end the cycle of violence. After endless shootouts, it’s impossible to discern victims of violence seeking vengeance from criminals.

City of God is aesthetically pleasing but comes off as a superficial portrayal of a traumatised community. There is no context to the chaos, just a bloodfest with one escapee, Rocket who is a budding photographer. His only asset is access to the violent favela and its images, which are then reproduced for middle and upper class Rio to consume. Paulo Lins, the author whose book the movie is based on, is quoted as saying: “Brazil is a racist country and a racist society,” he said. “But the funny thing is that nobody will admit to being a racist, and that’s the problem. Blacks in Brazil are always in an inferior, subaltern position, but you can’t find a white person who is a racist.” (see interview here: Paulo Lins interview ).