Defend Truth


Rolling In The Deep: Doing without government, South Africans are going on the hustle


Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

The isiXhosa word vukuzenzele means ‘get up and do it yourself’. And it’s happening across the land.

On 4 September the Facebook page Black Capitalist, which promotes small businesses, shared photographs of “ghetto fabulous” shacks a young man called Tebogo from Mabopane in Pretoria builds.

With the same materials millions use to fashion homes and shelters across South Africa – corrugated iron and wood – Tebogo designs homes that are simple, sturdy, with clean lines and big windows. It is the kind of construction that could easily feature in a fashionable tiny homes curation on Pinterest.

The young designer-builder already employs two people, the administrator informed us. By 12 September Tebogo’s handiwork had received over 5,000 likes and 355 comments and been shared 6,000 times. Everyone wants Tebogo.

In January a group of businesspeople in Pretoria fixed 500 potholes in the city in four days. A team of eight South Africans posed smiling afterwards.

Each day a new self-made success is celebrated. The page is one of dozens on the social media platform that have enabled small entrepreneurs, including backyard and open-field farmers, to grow and make a living. Rules and regulations aside.

From street barbers and carvers of beautiful wooden serving plates tailor-made for shisanyama feasting to chicken and pig farmers and burger joints started during Covid, South Africans are hustling like mad, on their own.

‘… To be their own liberators’

Long ago, and far away, it was former president Thabo Mbeki who once urged South Africans to get up and do things for themselves.

At the 90th anniversary of the ANC in Durban in 2002, Mbeki launched a campaign urging citizens to engage in a spirit of volunteerism and “focus on the mobilisation of our people actually to engage in the process of continuing to be their own liberators, of occupying the front line in the popular struggle for the reconstruction and development of our country”.

For Mbeki, this appeal was part of his vision of the African Renaissance in action. And so it was that 2002 was declared “the year of the volunteer”.


What followed was not an era of Reconstruction and Development, but one of Opportunism and Corruption. A time when government officials and criminal cartels white-anted state-owned enterprises and drained R37-billion from public funds.

Helping ourselves appeared to have been interpreted differently by those deployed governing party ministers and officials who now find themselves at the receiving end of the law for their misdeeds.

Somewhere over the rainbow

“Meet Anna Phosa, one of SA’s very few female black commercial pig farmers. Her company, Dreamland Piggery & Abattoir in the Vaal, was started in 2004 with four piglets and went on to secure a multimillion-rand contract and supply Pick n Pay with pigs (around 100/week)”.

If you are looking for some more cheery news from the ground up, here we go.

“Hi, my name is Siphumelele Mathe and I’m the founder of Ekhayakhulu Grills. I live in Kokstad Bhongweni at an area called Ezibeleni.”

Covid-19 restrictions and a job loss prompted Mathe to do “what I love most, and sell food at my late grandmother’s house. I started off with grilled food and later added traditional meals”.

Two years later, the business has expanded to include pizzas and platters, and a bakery is planned.

Then there is Kgotso Sebata, founder of Impossible Projects based in Alexandra, who makes a living collecting trash at events, schools and shopping centres.

NGOs to the rescue

Non-governmental organisations thrive in countries where politicians and officials do not have the skills or the will to deliver on constitutional obligations.

NGOs show up governments, which is why there is such hostility towards them in countries where leadership has failed. The ANC’s response to the horrific inferno in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, in which 77 people perished, was to blame NGOs.

Meanwhile, it is little wonder that mock-polled South Africans said Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of the NGO Gift of the Givers, would make a great president.

In Nyanga and Khayelitsha, Cape Town, Abalimi Bezekhaya, going strong since 2008, not only supplies vegetables to local retailers, but also teaches home and community gardeners to grow them organically. As we speak, its members are planting for spring.

Privatisation by vacuum

One of the most visible and impactful examples of citizens doing it for themselves is the taxi industry, which grew into the monster economy it is because of government failure.

Private schools like the Curro franchise, which is listed on the JSE, offer a more affordable, quality education than that provided in South Africa’s neglected public schools.

There has been a massive “bottom-up” transition to renewable energy in the country, with investment in rooftop solar of “at least R65-billion”. About R54-billion of this has been made since March last year, according to Professor Mark Swilling, co-director of the Centre for Sustainability Transitions at Stellenbosch University.

Gated communities across the country, too, have essentially taken on the responsibilities of security and public amenities such as parks, gardens, swimming pools and tennis courts. These used to be public.

Making the law work

We even have private prosecutions whereby citizens can obtain justice should the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) decline to press charges.

Successful examples are the first consumer class action against websites conning people into signing up for unwanted debit orders. In August, the Constitutional Court upheld the lawsuit brought by Stellenbosch University’s law clinic on behalf of hundreds of South Africans who were criminally fleeced and found no remedy in public prosecution.

Another application for the certification of a class action was filed on 15 August against South32, BHP Billiton and Seriti Power by coal miners who had contracted incurable lung diseases while employed by these mining giants.

The case was initiated by the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference. Human rights lawyer Richard Spoor promised to soon target Glencore, Exxaro and Anglo Coal (now Thungela Resources).

Back in 2017, former NPA pitbull prosecutor Gerrie Nel was appointed to head up AfriForum’s private prosecutions unit.

Nel is presently chasing ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula based on a 2018 report by the Public Protector that Mbalula, as sports minister, allegedly holidayed in Dubai in 2016, with all expenses paid by Sedgars Sport director Yusuf Dockrat.

Even Jacob Zuma has sought justice in this unique way, deploying a private prosecution not only against President Cyril Ramaphosa, but also against state prosecutor Billy Downer and journalist Karyn Maughan.

In this instance, the law was upheld and Zuma’s abuse of this unique process was shot down.

Feel free, fellow citizens; you are. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

DM168 6 September 2023.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Barrie Lewis says:

    It will certainly take a deep awakening for South Africans to get themselves out of the massive sinkhole that has condemned half of our children in many rural villages to being permanently stunted, mentally and or physically.

    Government is far too concerned about more important things than the stunting of our kids; and big business to making fat profits.

    Just what kind of an earth-shattering quake is it going to take to wake us up and do it ourselves?

    • Libby De Villiers says:

      Where have you been?
      We are doing it ourselves, and have been for a long time, in many small and large ways.
      South Africans, the rich and the poor, men and women, big business and unknown individuals are looking after one another and taking care of the environment without making a fuss about it or asking for help from our so-called government in any way.
      We will be so much better off without the incompetent, work shy big brass parasites, if we could get rid of them. We have been getting along without any form of leadership for a long time, because South Africans are resilient, innovative, hard working and generous people. We just drag the official leeches along, because they won’t let go.
      It is no use complaining. Work is all there is.

  • James Webster says:

    Ms Thamm never fails to belabour the obvious while successfully managing to avoid imputing any blame to a corrupt and incompetent ANC that is at fault for almost everything. Perhaps she lionises the ordinary because her sense of reality has been shrunk by the complete underachievement of South Africans as a people. She, like so many other SA journalists, is conned into praising as meaningful, that which is so unexceptional, why is it only in SA that journalists are intimidated into elevating the mundane into something of significance ? It’s fascinating how Ms Thamm, like other SA journalists, manages to praise and idolise the completely unremarkable and substandard performances of South Africans despite the fact there is massive unemployment, corruption on a scale that leaves the western world staggering, dishonesty, self-aggrandisement, gross incompetence and toxic nepotism in SA, all consequences of the totally underwhelming abilities of the locals. Ms Thamm needs to spend some time in a first world country where things actually function and the leading political party does not embezzle to help her regain her warped sense of perspective.

    • Wow. What venom. When the citizens of a country find a splinter of hope, jueles deficates in their mouths. With people like you around who needs hell. Such misery and darkness makes me think of golem. We are all well aware of the state of play in SA it’s done and dusted, build a bridge and get over it. If we don’t look forward and celebrate little milestones we will sink into your state of despair.

      • Caroline de Braganza says:

        I agree with your opinion 100 percent.

      • James Webster says:

        Oops, another person in rose ( more like black, green and gold ) tinted spectacles. South Africa is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, did it get there because of the sterling qualities of its electorate, of its politicians, of its civil servants, of its “leaders” ? The sample is massively flawed because the substrate too is massively flawed, isn’t that obvious ? If the substrate were honest to a fault, incorruptible, honourable, filled with gravitas and overflowing with Judeo-Christian morality would the sample be otherwise ? Should the average be idolised because it is better than the substandard ? The irony is that South Africans already live in hell because they constantly excuse the underwhelming underperformances they are exposed to on a daily basis. When the country is left a burned-out, bankrupt, starving cinder because everyone tolerates the average and the average voted their REPRESENTATIVES back into power, then the average and their praise singers can go strolling into the smoky sunset boasting of their average feats, that’s of course, if you consider burning, looting, lying, cheating, stealing, raping, embezzling, killing and corrupting, average ?

    • david.edward.franklin says:

      I think we read different articles, mate. She clearly states that the government isn’t doing its job, and that ordinary South Africans are doing it for themselves — and each other. That isn’t so “ordinary”, even in supposedly first world countries. I use the word supposedly, because places like the US, UK, and France have many of the same problems we have, for the same reasons. Whereas the Colombians, who used to have four or five of their cities among the most violent in the world, have turned their nation around. If they could do it, so can we.
      You appear to be good at one thing only: complaining. That will never fix any country, and certainly not ours. No, there is something else you are good at: vitriol.
      Your comment below, where you say that “the substrate too is massively flawed” is a racist dogwhistle. We know what you are insinuating.
      So, I ask you very nicely: kindly leave South Africa. We don’t need you, any more than we need the government.

  • Cedric de Beer says:

    Thank you for these stories. I previously wrote to Daily Maverick suggesting a new section “Maverick Solutions”: – stories about South Africans building the future inside the mess of the present: Those creating worker or community owned enterprises, launching food gardens, creating enterprises that meet a local need and create some jobs. There are local community organisations taking on hard issues, feeding thousands where government is failing. Imtiaz Suleiman is the poster person(???) but there are many others, working in he shadows.
    We don’t need sunshine journalism, but we desperately need role models and practical examples for those who want to build a real “New South Africa” from the ground up but don’t know where to start.

  • Denise Smit says:

    Curro private schools, more affordable than what? Denise Smit

  • I read this article and feel it was too short. It would be great if there was a regular column where entrepreneurs get a mention. They are uplifting, a vision for all to aspire to. Maybe even funded by people willing to give them a hand up. Wholly in favour of doing it yourself. Community action to fix what’s broke is a step towards taking back the pride people had in their surroundings as well as stopping others from destroying their environment. Thanks for a bit of sunshine on the dreary outlook that prevails.

    • Caroline de Braganza says:

      Maverick Citizens features regular articles by Thom Pierce under the sub-title The Actionists. Practical examples of what SAns are doing to help each other.

  • Andre Swart says:

    Let’s think BIG like China!

    800 Million people were lifted out of poverty by a government policy of ONE CHILD PER WOMAN!

    When 7 million foreigners leave SA and return to fix their own countries then poverty in SA can be reduced by 10%. Same % reduction in crime ….

    Prevent unemployment, poverty and crime in the year 2043 by preventing unplanned babies now!

    Over population is the cause of poverty, crime, disease, immoralty etc.

    Every individual must take up responsibility …. as if there’s no state at all.

    • david.edward.franklin says:

      Andre Swart, your comment about 7 million foreigners leaving is incitement to xenophobia and xenophobic violence. May I point out the deep irony of labelling nationals of other African countries “foreigners”, but not applying that label to yourself? Neither you nor I, no matter what our identity documents say, are not indigenous to this continent.
      So cut that nonsense out.
      Did China’s one child policy lift people out of poverty?
      Firstly, it is not the major reason for people being lifted out of poverty, it was the enormous outsourcing of manufacturing to China that accounted for their extraordinary economic growth, which lifted people out of poverty.
      Were South Africa to slash red tape, slash taxes, and generally make this country attractive for foreign manufacturing firms, we would experience the same. We could make it a condition of foreign investment in local factories that locals must be trained and hired. It worked for Mauritius.
      Secondly, China’s one child policy is likely to plunge most of their population back into poverty in the coming decades (and we will see a dramatic decline in China’s population). Their population is aging, there are too few youth to keep the economy going and support their aging parents, and there are 30 million more young men than young women.
      What do you think happened to the female babies?
      And what do angry single young men do? Hint: it starts with v if they do it, and with w if their government use them en masse against another nation…

  • I applaud every single constructive member of society who is making a difference in their own lives whilst making a difference in the lives of their communities and beyond. There is one thing that riles me is that whilst citizens are cleaning up, repairing and helping their communities the current government are still being paid by these businesses and individuals. The incompetent, corrupt and thieving ANC are still raking in millions into their back pockets by the hardworking taxpayer. It’s similar to opening your home door to a gang of thieving thugs, giving them permission to destroy and remove your possessions, whatever takes their fancy, smiling, waving goodbye and saying I’ll replace it at all tomorrow and then doing the same thing again the next month.

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