We need to unlock potential of collaborative economy

We need to unlock potential of collaborative economy.
We need to unlock potential of collaborative economy.
Image: 123RF/dolgachov

The notion of economic cooperation among and between different households in African communities dates back to pre-colonial times.

It has taken a different form in modern times with the advent of urbanisation in South Africa and elsewhere.

In South Africa, the need for reciprocal community support mechanisms has led to the formation of informal organised groupings like Matsema, Aretsebaneng and stokvels.

These organised groups have been the glue that holds the social fibre of communities together, forming a social cushion for the disadvantaged lingering on the margins of our mainstream economy.

The organic emergence of the sector should be understood against the backdrop of South Africa's history. The apartheid government propped up the co-operatives sector through well-structured support systems, leading to the establishment of financial institutions like Volskas, Saambou and Avbob.

Interestingly, black communities responded by setting up parallel savings and insurance systems in the form of stokvels and burial societies, which form the bedrock of our society to this day.

Stokvels and burial societies are collectively estimated to hold R8-billion in assets, mainly through mainstream banks and financial institutions.

The sector, often regarded as informal, has defied odds and continues to flourish and grow alongside the formal financial system. Like the proverbial rose that grows in the cracks in the concrete, it has thrived without any supportive policy or legislation.

The law (Societies Act) regulating it dates back to 1935 and has become outdated.

Maybe the existence of this sector bears testimony to the chasm that divides the first and the second economies.

The first economy tends to derive more benefits through unfair use of collective savings of stokvel and burial societies' members through on-lending and extension of services to enterprises - even as members are not able to access their savings for productive investment.

These groups continue to serve what is generally referred to as the second economy.

Like the taxi industry, stokvels, burial societies, spaza shops and township retail supermarkets represent the township entrepreneurial impulse and self-sufficiency. All these enterprises beat the odds stacked against them.

The collaborative economy is anchored on the cooperative model and thrives on solidarity and social innovation, thereby generating greater benefits for the local communities and members.

The current global economic situation has heightened the need to re-look at the existing system and consider more sustainable and community- driven solutions and models.

In Gauteng, many communities are beginning to embrace cooperatives by initiating measures aimed at establishing local systems of cooperation and solidarity, thereby strengthening identity, loyalty and participation.

Township enterprises are organising themselves into consumer buying groups, which creates market access for locally produced goods and services that would otherwise not have found shelf space at the big retail shops.

These and many other initiatives hold the promise for a gradual transformation of townships from consumption to production centres that are able to create much-needed jobs.

The Gauteng government will continue to identify and support alternative ownership models in the townships in order to broaden economic participation for the previously marginalised and vulnerable.

These may be small steps in the eyes of many, but as the old adage says, "a journey of thousand miles starts with the first step".

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