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African excellence can drive economic transformation

Dr Lehohla says that only African excellence, such as when the taxi industry was at its peak, can drive economic transformation.
Dr Lehohla says that only African excellence, such as when the taxi industry was at its peak, can drive economic transformation.
Image: Gallo Images/Foto24/Lulama Zenzile

Unavoidably black economic empowerment is brought into sharper focus as we enter and exit 25 years of democracy.

In this regard the critical question of what portion of the economy do black people generally, and in particular Africans, control is apt.

What became the genesis of control and what forms of control existed and what we may learn from these in relation to how this empowerment can be achieved and the challenges that remain are matters worth investigating.

I would hazard that there are two sub-sectors of the economy that had a significant African proximity and lent themselves to possible control and could represent a clear framework for black economic empowerment. I would also suggest that these sectors have not progressed to the level they should and their strategic import continues to falter, undermining prospects for African excellence.

The history of rail in SA is undisputed in how it contributed to the development, competitiveness and modernisation of the country.

At the end of World War II and the demise of Japanese domination, Korea could not be compared to SA. While by 1970 SA had at least a century of experience in rail, Korea was setting a solid long-term strategy for such infrastructure with an imaginary line. The then president of Korea asked the World Bank to fund a rail line between Seoul and Busan. The technocrats declined.

Korea is proud of this rail line to connect not only the two cities but join the two Koreas.

However, rail infrastructure in SA, especially for haulage and passenger, is a shadow of its peak in the 1970s. Within a very short space of time minibus taxis unseated Spoornet rail and bus infrastructure dominating passenger transport.

Within five years the taxi industry had grown so firmly that the South African Black Taxi Association was formed and became a dominant force in the transport sector.

The two-day trip from Wepener to Johannesburg was reduced to only six hours. The three-day one from Wepener to Cape Town came under 15 hours.

The rail and bus infrastructure was disrupted to the level never witnessed. The 200,000-strong "Zola Buds" donning the black-and-white stripe dominated the landscape, attracted interest from capital but also rivalry from emergent taxi associations.

Within 10 years the taxi industry declined into rivalry existential to this day and thus undermining what could have emerged as African excellence.

While this industry is not wholly owned in terms of manufacturing, petrol and finance, the most critical elements, it is however one where in terms of mobility Africans have the biggest share of the market.

The other resilient sector under African control is football. Most of the clubs are owned by Africans, the game is played by Africans and the spectators are largely Africans. The likes of Kaizer Motaung and Jomo Sono showed that they cannot only play the game, they in fact can be entrepreneurial about it.

However, fundamental economic flaws and significant value chains fall outside these sectors that have played and should continue to play a role of hope for Africans in SA.

Our policy space has not exploited where radical economic transformation would have been possible in execution and consumption.

In part this is to be placed at the doorstep of government. If this is not urgently addressed taxi wars are far from over. On the sports field, soccer regalia and sponsorship is big business which should have placed Africans in the space for radical economic transformation.

As we enter the next quarter of a century we should ask what will constitute African excellence.

Dr Lehohla is the former statistician-general.

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