STEVEN ZWANE | Time for SouthAfrica to rethink its approach, prioritise entrepreneurship

The youth of T and R sections protest against unemployment and a lack of service delivery.
The youth of T and R sections protest against unemployment and a lack of service delivery.

As SA prepares for its seventh general election on May 29, we stand at a critical crossroads that demands both reflection and decisive action. Yet, amid the noise of political campaigns, a glaring oversight emerges: a deafening silence on nurturing our nation's entrepreneurial spirit.

The urgency of fostering entrepreneurship is underscored by the staggering unemployment figures, with more than eight million South Africans currently grappling with joblessness. Alarmingly, nearly five million of them are youth aged between 14 and 35 years, highlighting the dire need for targeted strategies to address youth unemployment.

The lack of emphasis on entrepreneurship from the anticipated 70 contesting parties is deeply concerning, given that our economic path and social progress are intricately linked with the vibrancy of our entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Reflecting on the pre-1994 era, we draw inspiration from giants like Richard Maponya, Ephraim Tshabalala, Sam Molope, Agripa Mayaba, Habakuk Shikwane, Thalente Goqo and Dr Sam Motsuenyane, whose entrepreneurial endeavours not only defied the constraints of apartheid but also laid the foundation for industrialisation and economic empowerment. Their stories serve as guiding lights, illuminating the path forward for a new generation of South Africans.

Yet, as we celebrate past triumphs, we must acknowledge the contributions of post-1994 entrepreneurs who have propelled our nation towards industrialisation. Icons like Patrice Motsepe, in mining and beyond, Nonkululeko Gobodo, with her pioneering work in the auditing and consulting sector, Zibusiso Mkhwanazi's innovative approach to advertising  and Judy Dlamini's leadership in the healthcare sector has revolutionised access to quality healthcare services in SA.

Their visionary leadership has not only transformed industries but also inspired a new wave of entrepreneurial endeavours across the country.

However, achieving economic prosperity and social justice requires more than just individual success stories; it necessitates collective action to empower the next generation of entrepreneurs. From the bustling streets of Mpumalanga to the vibrant markets of Soweto, tales of entrepreneurial triumph resonate through our history.

Consider the tale of Nomalizo, aged 55, a rural Mpumalanga street vendor who single-handedly raised seven children by selling fruits and vegetables. Despite having only completed  grade 6, she displayed remarkable determination and resilience, ensuring her family's survival and prioritising her children's education. Through her unwavering efforts, Nomalizo not only reversed cycles of poverty but also paved the way for her children to become the first generation of achievers in their family.

Similarly, Zodwa, aged 65, is renowned in her community for selling fat cakes and kota to support her family. Like Nomalizo, she had limited formal education. However, through her entrepreneurial spirit and hard work, Zodwa secured brighter futures for her children by sending them to multiracial schools. Despite facing numerous challenges, including financial constraints and societal barriers, Zodwa's determination and sacrifice exemplify the transformative power of entrepreneurship in breaking the cycle of poverty and empowering future generations.

There are many other entrepreneurs like Nomalizo and Zodwa. Yet, the lack of support from subsequent governments has left many such enterprises vulnerable, with the next generation struggling to sustain or build upon their parents' accomplishments.

Despite the presence of numerous government institutions purporting to support entrepreneurial endeavours, these services often operate from positions of privilege, leaving many real entrepreneurs, especially those from marginalised communities or rural areas, unaware of or unable to access such support.

Moreover, the current focus on entrepreneurship action over attitude and skills development perpetuates inequalities and fails to address the systemic barriers hindering aspiring entrepreneurs. The government's emphasis on building industrialists rather than cultivating grassroots entrepreneurs overlooks the foundational role of small and medium-sized enterprises in driving sustainable economic growth.

While countries like India, Mexico and Ghana prioritise entrepreneurship as a vehicle for economic development, SA continues to lag behind. These nations have implemented comprehensive strategies that foster entrepreneurship at its grassroots – initiatives to support SMEs, provide access to funding and resources for aspiring entrepreneurs, and created an environment conducive to innovation and business growth – resulting in vibrant ecosystems where innovation thrives, and opportunities abound.

SA can learn valuable lessons from Canada's strong support infrastructure for start-ups, commitment to diversity and inclusion, and strategic initiatives like the Startup Visa Programmes offer valuable insights into fostering an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

To the yet-to-be-voted politicians, I offer this advice: you have a chance to sell a better and real dream. Be exemplary leaders by prioritising entrepreneurship as a vehicle for change.

It's time for SA to rethink its approach and prioritise entrepreneurship as a driver for change. As voters, we must hold our leaders accountable for their manifestos and demand policies that promote innovation, investment, and job creation.

  • Dr Zwane  is  managing executive: group corporate citizenship at Absa. He writes in his personal capacity

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