By Anton Ressel
There is a song called ‘Traffic in the Sky’ by Jack Johnson that contains a lyric that has always stuck with me. Lamenting our callous disregard for the environment, Johnson sings ‘If you keep adding stones, soon the water will be lost in the well’. I like it because it is stark, simple and impossible to argue with.
I also like it because it offers a sobering analogy for the way that the small business sector is treated in our country these days. Stats show that small business is the ‘Well’ – providing a steady stream not of water but of jobs, opportunity and growth to our struggling economy. Consider that over 80% of all new jobs created in SA in the last five years were in businesses employing less than fifty people, and this Well starts to look like our best solution to warding off the famine that is our growing unemployment challenge.
Consider too, that everyone from Government to the commercial banks to local and international development organisations celebrates this Well at every turn.
Which brings me to the stones. In spite of the ululating and praise singing from all quarters about the Well that is small business in South Africa, fact is our country remains one of the most difficult (and expensive) places in the world to start a business. Klunk! As for our labour law, one would be hard-pressed to find a set of statutes the world over that are more slanted towards protecting the employee at the expense of the employer – Klunk! Klunk! And when last did any of you try and access a small business loan from a commercial bank, at an affordable rate and without having to sign your life away? Klunkety klunk klunk!! Those stones just keep on coming…
I agree wholeheartedly with our government and banks on one thing. The small business sector is indeed the potential saviour of not just our economy, but our nation. One only has to visit a township in SA on any given day to be truly humbled at the amount of entrepreneurial activity (most of it legal) taking place on every corner. Each car wash, sidewalk exhaust repair shop, shebeen, shisanyama stand, hairdresser is putting food on the table for a family, lessening dependence on social grants, paying for school uniforms, employing local youths. So how do we reward these brave and intrepid self-employed entrepreneurs, most of whom fly under the radar, as much by ignorance as by fear of being subject to draconian labour laws, stiff taxes and a general sea of bureaucracy? We tell them that each and every one of them HAS to be registered formally, and that compliance will be enforced. Klunkety klunk!
Moving further up the entrepreneurial ladder, we face a barrage of new stones, such as Skills Development Levies, BB-BEE scorecards, annual audits, bargaining councils, unions, not to mention a general climate of hostility towards ‘bosses’ – a sad and probably justifiable hangover of our colonial and apartheid past, but one that makes being an employer a generally thankless and uncomfortable position to be in. The fact that the Lefties in the tripartite alliance tends to paint ‘business’ with one brush is hugely problematic for me – you cannot equate an entrepreneur who is employing five people and fighting every day to keep them employed, with a corporate Board who own half of the East Rand. Yet somehow, we do – business is the enemy, bosses are bad. Klunk!
So how do we reverse the rising wall of stones that is threatening to dry up the Well that is so crucial to our future prosperity as a nation?
It starts with a realization that paying lip service to the importance of the small business sector is of absolutely no value unless it is backed by positive, brave and decisive action. It starts by having an SME Ministry that is not staffed by just cadres or academics, but by entrepreneurs and business people who have walked the walk. It starts by taking bold steps, like exempting start-up businesses from tax burdens in their formative years, so they can beat the odds and not become one of the 5 out of 7 businesses that fail in SA during this period. It starts by allowing businesses to hire people for a specific job, or for a few hours a week, without having to treat them like a permanent employee, because frankly they are not one – yet, at least. It starts by encouraging a culture that respects and acknowledges ‘bosses’ as the people who help put food on our tables and kids through school, often at great personal sacrifice. It starts by wholeheartedly supporting alternative job creation solutions, like internship as offered by initiatives such as the GAP programme www.gogap.co.za and many others who are trying to get our young people into the workplace.
Most importantly, it starts with a recognition that we are staring down the barrel of a famine, a drought of unemployment that has the potential to lay waste to our nation. The time has come to let the Well flow free, to let it irrigate our land with all the jobs and growth potential lying within its depths, struggling to flow against the weight of all those stones.