Opinionista Aubrey Masango 16 October 2014

A battle for the soul of the townships

There is a disturbing development currently underway in the conversation about the role foreign nationals, particularly African, are to play in the South African economy. I believe it’s time for an honest conversation about foreign traders in townships.

It is a conversation fraught with dangerous xenophobic – in fact, Afrophobic – tendencies, largely by a significant section of black South Africans (and others) intoxicated by nationalistic entitlement, self-hate and massive bureaucratic failures by government.

An honest, nuanced, introspective conversation must be had about the opportunities available in the township retail trade, the reasons for the relative success of foreign nationals in this sector. The reasons for the inability of locals to compete with both foreign traders and large corporate retailers in our townships must be clearly understood. In a word, there needs to be a serious attitudinal overhaul in order to respond effectively to the unique challenges of globalisation and take advantage of a changing and inevitable commercial reality of a free market-driven marketplace on the part of local entrepreneurs.

I recently interviewed Songezo Zibi, editor of Business Day and author of a newly launched book, Raising the Bar: Hope and Renewal in South Africa. In our discussion we reflected on and interrogated some of the challenges faced by post-Apartheid South Africa and some of the solutions he offers, as documented in his book. I was particularly moved by his insightful assertion that South Africa’s woes are not necessarily those of a bureaucratic nature as many would believe, although they may in many instances present as such, but are rather of a deeply traumatised moral and philosophical foundation in desperate need of recalibration.

What has been clear to me is that we are dealing with a broken society that is replicating its damaged nature in the very political institutions that are meant to hold society together and represent its deepest moral values. The politics we see today is the product of long held beliefs that have cast themselves in the mould of old ‘religions’ and is the basis of the deepening polarisation of society that we are witnessing,” he says.

For our democracy to work, it is my view that we have to lay a new foundation, one that is based on the complete recalibration of the values of our nation. We must find a way in which these values can transcend race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and all other forms of perceived difference,” Zibi says. “We must find unity in our common humanity by giving practical expression to all the rights and responsibilities that are enshrined in our Constitution. This inherently political effort begins with an attempt to reshape the soul of the society itself so that it can produce the right politics. To do so, we have to confront head-on some of our most serious challenges.”

Indeed, nowhere in South African discourse have I seen the triune deficit of moral rectitude, philosophical bankruptcy and bureaucratic malfunction so perfectly poised to generate untold mayhem than in the debate about foreign township traders versus local entrepreneurs.

In 2008 we witnessed some of the most harrowing scenes of xenophobic violence in many South African townships. It has been called xenophobic violence, but a more apt way of describing the phenomenon would be ‘Afrophobia’ because the violence was directed mainly at African foreign nationals by local black South Africans. It was a manifestation of a deeply rooted syndrome of self-hate.

The refrain throughout the country was that these foreigners were responsible for the crime and grime in the townships and that they, because of their large numbers, continued to deplete the limited resources and infrastructure meant for locals. That because of their willingness to take lower wages they were being favoured for employment by employers, thus taking away jobs meant for locals but more importantly, because of this, they were reversing the hard-won gains of South African workers in their struggle for better labour relations and wages.

It went as far as foreigners being blamed for “taking our women” because they have jobs and are able to “afford” relationship. So, for these reasons locals felt justified in othering and dehumanising foreigners such that it was easy to simply brutalise and kill them. Many foreign owned spaza shops were targeted for rampant looting and destruction with almost military precision while the authorities in their flimsy response said it was nothing but “criminal elements” who had nefarious agendas, ignoring the pervasive and enabling sentiment of most township dwellers, including some police members, that the foreigners deserved it and had it coming.

No doubt the lack of jobs and resources, the ever-increasing crime and poverty are the lived realities of the local people in the townships. It does not help the situation much when there are droves of immigrants, legal and otherwise, heading for the under-resourced townships because it would be easier to blend in precisely because the people there look like they do. There are deep structural and systemic issues that need major overhaul and correction domestically and internationally. The frustration is warranted but the reaction cannot be acceptable even though it is understandable.

In recent months we have again seen the attack and looting of foreign-owned spaza shops in various townships across the country. The reasoning is very similar to that which we heard in the 2008 attacks. What is of more concern is that they are specifically focused on foreign-owned businesses with the dominant logic being the foreigners are ‘taking” local spaza shop owners business away.

At no point have I witnessed the customers of any locally owned shop being led at gun point or any other form of coercion to a foreign owned shop to make a purchase. I am also aware that the shops run by foreigners in the townships are on locally owned property usually rented out at relatively high monthly rental cost by locals, usually by those who have failed at the spaza venture.

But more disappointing in the local diatribe is the lack of adaptive, creative marketing, innovative resourcefulness one would expect from a real entrepreneur. A debilitating sense of nationalistic entitlement seems to blind them from the opportunities for collaboration, manipulation of the economies of scale and entrepreneurially taking advantage of their home ground benefit. A competitive edge of exponential proportions if taken up with the requisite attitude.

It is estimated that the informal trade sector, particularly spaza shops, have an annual national turnover of R7 billion. This is based on the purchases made at wholesalers such as Macro. It is also estimated that 50% of this sector is run and owned by foreigners.

Very little is said about the advent of the large corporate supermarkets such as Shoprite and Pick ‘n Pay into the townships, which have “taken” a far more significant portion of the traditional market share than those spaza shops owned by foreigners. Most of these large supermarkets are still owned by the “white” corporate companies and not local entrepreneurs, if the absurdity of othering is to be taken to its illogical conclusion.

Even less is said about the migration of the so-called black middle class from townships to suburbia, and how that has diminished intra-township spending. But nothing is said about the entrepreneurial skills and disciplines required in this very competitive setting in order to unlock potential. The conversation is reactionary, victim-centric and infantile. We need to deepen our philosophical worldview and mature our conversations in order to take advantage of this opportunity.

Township trade is a real, game-changing opportunity for all concerned. It has the potential of creating a truly home-grown, vibrant, Afropolitan business environment with local, pan-African and indeed international business experience. It is encouraging to see MEC Lebogang Maile and his provincial department of economic development making an effort to revitalise township business.

It is important that while there are plans underway to increase funding options and provide infrastructure and required technology for township business, all of this is in vain if entrepreneurs in the township seek artificial insulation from the reality of market forces by seeking legal victimisation of foreign competition. Also, it is important for government to clarify and enforce issues of legislative business compliance for all participants and to be consistent and even handed in the implementation of laws.

We cannot be calling for tax compliance for foreign business owners while we turn a blind eye to the taxi industries’ flouting of the same responsibility. The department of home affairs must also be seen to be unambiguous about the immigration laws of this country. Clarity as to the status of asylum seekers, economic migrants and refugees must be made common knowledge and appropriate law enforcement meted out to illegal immigrants.

These are important measures for creating of an environment conducive for stable business activities but the business of business requires people who understand market forces and play within that environment with savvy, courage and cunning. Not cry-babies. Global geopolitical and economic realities are going to ensure the migration of peoples around the world. That is an inevitable reality; foreigners are a global reality in any prosperous country, and South Africa is no exception. We need to appreciate that competition is here to stay at every part of our country where money can be made. An urgent recalibration of our attitudes towards foreigners and the business they bring is imperative. We must adapt or die. DM

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