The struggles of black business

Mugabe Ratshikuni on Dr Richard Maponya and the township economy

Dr Richard Maponya and the Township Economy

Upon hearing of the death of black business legend Dr Richard Maponya this week, I was reminded of those timeless, poignant words from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, “Then out spake brave Horatius, The Captain of the Gate: To every man upon this earth, death cometh soon or late, and how can man die better, than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his gods.”

Dr Richard Maponya was a guru, a father of the township economy who fought against immeasurable odds that apartheid placed against black business at the time and became for the rest of us a shining example of what could be achieved with a bit of entrepreneurial initiative, drive, ambition, innovation and singlemindedness. Having built a successful business empire emanating from Soweto, Dr Maponya’s life was the embodiment of the words of distinguished journalist, editor and media personality Aggrey Klaaste when he said that, “Soweto is a metaphor for black lives in South Africa.”

When reflecting on the life of Dr Maponya, we must of necessity reflect on the struggles of black business to find expression within the mainstream economy of South Africa and ask ourselves whether we are doing enough to inculcate a culture of entrepreneurship in our townships as a means towards facilitating economic and spatial transformation, growing our economy more equitably and sustainably and of course creating much needed jobs.

I was reminded of the argument advanced by renowned scenario planner Clem Sunter, when he opined that government should not be setting itself job creation targets for the economy per se, but rather should be focusing on promoting, supporting and facilitating the growth of sustainable SMMEs, as in the long run, these sustainable SMMEs are the ones that will create the jobs that are needed in the economy in order to deal with unemployment and poverty.

It is a question of focus and prioritisation, more than anything, which is well captured in the words of Dr Maponya himself, when he was talking about the importance of entrepreneurs, “as they grow their businesses, they address poverty as well. Believe you me, with more people creating job opportunities-this country could turn around overnight and the kind of poverty we see will be a thing of the past. I’m hoping I can see this happening in my lifetime.”

Dr Maponya passed away without seeing this vision come to pass, but we owe it to his rich legacy to ensure that we fight to bring it to fruition. We must support and promote entrepreneurship within the townships in honour of his rich legacy and vision. We must aggressively advocate for the development of black businesses, building viable, sustainable, competitive, innovative township enterprises and black owned and managed entities. We must convert our townships from labour reserves and consumption centres into hubs of productive economic activity and entrepreneurial nous that produce enterprises and entities that can capture greater swathes of the value chain within various sectors of our economy.

This requires interventions that will promote the growth and development of manufacturing and productive capacity of township businesses. This is why the Gauteng provincial government, has dedicated itself to investing in catalytic economic infrastructure that will build and develop manufacturing capacity in the townships, through township industrial hubs and agri-hubs that have the potential to boost exports into the rest of Africa and other parts of the world.

Another novel initiative that is in line with the ideals of Dr Maponya as the quintessential township entrepreneur, is efforts by the Gauteng provincial government, working in conjunction with municipalities, to release government-owned land under its Rapid Land Release programme for commercial activities in the townships as well as the work on a Township Development Act that will help address some of the regulatory, legislative and administrative bottlenecks that prevent township businesses from flourishing.

Efforts have also been made to use private and public sector procurement spend to invest in the growth and development of township enterprises, with provincial government spend on township enterprises having grown from R600 million per annum at the beginning of the fifth term of office in 2014 to roughly R22 billion by the end of that term in 2019.

These are all significant steps that show progress, but of course much more still needs to be done to ensure that township enterprises don’t just participate in state procurement as rent-seeking middle men, but rather as value-adding producers. Also, there is a great need for private sector supplier development and enterprise development initiatives to prioritise the development and support of township enterprises in order to open up new markets for them as well as ensure their participation within sectorial value chains in the economy.

Given that Dr Maponya was the brains behind the iconic Maponya Mall in Soweto, one of the critical interventions that needs to be looked into, is the impact of retail developments in the townships on local SMME development as well as on the productive capacity of the township economy as well as the money flow (does money flow into the township and circulate in order to stimulate other economic activities as a result of these retail developments in the townships, or does money just merely flow out of the townships through consumption from these developments?)

Dr Maponya was a fervent believer in investing in and developing the capacity of township enterprises and black business as a means towards building a better, more inclusive, prosperous and equitable South Africa and in honouring his legacy, this is a struggle that we must look to intensify.

Ever the innovator and entrepreneur, at the age of 94 he launched a poultry farm, trying to get small farmers in Winterveldt in Tshwane as one example, to use the land they have access to optimally, as part of his minor contribution to agricultural reform.

Upon receiving a lifetime achievement award at the inaugural Township Entrepreneur Awards launched by the Gauteng provincial government in 2016, Dr Maponya said the following words in his acceptance speech, which are an embodiment of his profound belief in the support and development of black business as one of the key pillars in tackling our socio-economic problems as a country, “we have the power, we have the numbers, we can do it. The future is in our hands. If black people can support one another like we see other racial groups do, we will definitely control the purse strings of this country.”

Mugabe Ratshikuni works for the Gauteng provincial government. He is an activist with a passion for social justice and transformation. He writes here in his personal capacity.