achievement entrepreneurship political economy start-ups wealth

Majority cannot remain bit players

A SENSE of entitlement. Rent-seeking. Poor work ethic. Crony capitalism. Incompetence. Lack of merit. Victimhood. Race-based policies. These are words and phrases that I, and many others, use as we grapple with what ails the South African economy and society. For a high-growth, inclusive and sustainable economy to flourish, we need clean institutions, efficient business and productive employees.

But these words and phrases have also become code words, part of a lexicon that is deployed to demonise black aspiration. They have become weapons in a war of words about black people’s role in the economy.

Chris Hart, a Standard Bank employee who took his musings to Twitter, has been condemned for the kind of insinuations that are dropped blithely in polite conversation. The slur of black people as unproductive is pervasive, rooted in ancient attempts to justify black dispossession. When the conversation turns to those who choose to be takers and makers, those who are dependent on the state, those who are economically illiterate, we know who is being talked about.

The failures of black economic empowerment, the governance disasters at state-owned enterprises, corruption in the public sector are real challenges that need to be tackled. The problem is when these are marshalled in the service of a rhetoric that says black people cannot lead or create wealth; that black economic success is inextricably linked to the harvesting of political connections and parasitism.

Do people who have had to overcome centuries of dispossession to build livelihoods really need lectures on merit and grit? Can the “captains of industry” relate to what it took for black businesspeople to create the little they owned before 1994, when it was illegal to own company stock or property or trade beyond designated sectors and areas?

It is still difficult for black individuals and institutions to achieve economic self-sufficiency by pursuing an independent path. In an essay published in the Mail & Guardian last December, writer Sisonke Msimang describes how the third way, away from tenderpreneurship or employment, was lost. Her late mother’s efforts towards greenfield entrepreneurship came hard against institutionalised racism and corporate gatekeepers. Hers is not a unique story.

But the third way has to prevail. There is no way the majority of the population can remain bit players, minority shareholders or spectators in the economy. High-potential, high-growth entrepreneurship, from the ground up, by black people is rare but necessary.

The idea of black economic self-sufficiency, and trade with others from a position of strength, is not one that racists will embrace. The real work is not to preach to the inconvertible. It is about those in leadership, in the public or private sector, who are interested in building SA, working to remove the barriers to significant black enterprise. The work also means black people and communities have to fight the demon of self-negation, which manifests itself in indifference towards black business. It’s not just black start-ups that are “run like spaza shops”, another term of derision that falls off too easily from the tongue. They all are — from the ones started by my former Oxford classmates to the dormitory room operation run by Mark Zuckerberg in the early 2000s. The difference is that someone is willing to invest in their learning curve.

We cannot rely on racist, ahistorical explanations for why we don’t have more black people building the companies of the future. A highly concentrated, oligopolistic economy with high barriers to entry, lack of social and financial capital, racism and sexism contribute to keeping the “start-up” world pale and male. The cardinal sin of apartheid was to kill black talent. SA cannot move forward without remedying that.

Trudi Makhaya is CEO of Makhaya Advisory.

This column first appeared at Business Day here

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