Small steps towards total transformation

22nd January 2016 By: Sydney Majoko

The Gauteng provincial government recently announced the nominees for the recently launched Township Entrepreneur Awards, the winners of which will be announced on February 20.

It is tempting to dismiss the awards as just another excuse to hold a gala event without any real meaning, but an examination of the provincial government’s steps in developing and revitalising township businesses will reveal that this is the culmination of a well-intentioned process that will surely bear fruit.

A 2014 government-commissioned study aimed at determining the size, spread and ownership of township businesses set the ball rolling in terms of revitalising the township economy. Gauteng Economic Development, Environment, Agriculture and Rural Development MEC Lebogang Maile stated at a recent ceremony to announce the nominees in the various catergories: “By now, we are all familiar with the troubles and challenges of township businesses. Infrastructure needs, such as operational space, water and electricity, market access, training and incubation . . .” This points to success in the strategy that government has adopted to place the township economy at the centre of its economic growth strategy.

Looked at in isolation, the awards might seem like a drop in the ocean. But one needs only to take a drive through some of Gauteng’s townships, such as Soweto and Tembisa, to see how this revitalisation strategy is taking shape. Tembisa’s main access road, Zuurfontein road, which links the township to industrial hubs like Isando and Kempton Park, is currently unrecognisable. This is due to the intensive work on the bus rapid transit system. While Soweto’s ReaVaya and Tshwane’s Areyeng are already operational, it is very clear that cost-effective transport is being made a reality in this strategy. This will not only allow residents access to jobs in the cities but also unintended benefits like a boost to the tourism sector in the townships.

One of the factors that contribute to a lot of failures for many township economy start-ups is the need to make physical trips to towns in order to submit whatever documentation is required for their proper registration. A liquor licence application requires physical submission of more than five sets of documents and this can frustrate an entrepreneur who is just starting out. One of the recent moves by the Gauteng government is to ensure that documents related to environmental-impact assessments can be submitted online. Surely, such initiatives can be easily extended to other documents required for in processes like liquor licence applications, thus taking out a whole level of red tape and frustration for would-be entrepreneurs.

Although still in its infancy, the move to provide free WiFi is also taking shape across most townships. Teething problems like slow speeds are to be expected, but there can be no doubt that central to bringing the township economy into the mainstream will be a fully functional WiFi service that will provide township entrepreneurs with a direct link to the information that is easily available to their counterparts in the mainstream economy. Moving towards online submission of documents only makes sense if the Internet to make this a reality is provided.

It is fairly easy to commission studies that will produce figures, but it is quite another thing to act on those results. The numerous studies that have shown the township economy as being central to any efforts by government to fight unemployment can only be given teeth by efforts such as those of Maile in encouraging township entrepreneurs to view themselves as being vital to the economy. In this way, entrepreneurs will be motivated to move from being mere survivalists to building sustainable businesses.

The great divide between South Africa’s formal economy and the township economy requires total transformation of not only how things are done, but also how the formal economy views the township economy. In 2014, the World Bank suggested that “effective growth in the South African economy will require capital to flow from the mainstream economy into the informal economy”. One of the greatest ways of ensuring that capital flows in the suggested direction is to highlight areas of excellence in the township economy through excellence awards.