For a long time, successive governments in this country have struggled to characterise the township economy. It is not that they did not acknowledge the existence of the township economy; the reason is that this economy was not recognised as a standalone economy towards which funds could be directed and projects undertaken to enhance and grow it. That is changing, however, and it would seem different levels of government are recognising the township economy and what it can do for the country.
“Government has identified rural and township economies as vehicles for achieving radi- cal economic transformation. The face of transformation is the creation of employment for the youth, empowerment of local businesses and inclusive growth.” These are the words of Trade and Industry Deputy Minister Bulelani Magwanishe. He was speaking at a breakfast event hosted by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in Kabokweni, Mpumalanga. He added that the department had decided to prioritise its rural and township industrial and economic development programme to boost enterprise development in various regions of the country.
Magwanishe’s remarks, taken in isolation, would mean very little. On many different occasions, Premiers and MECs have spoken of efforts to boost township industries, but nothing has come of it. But a trend is emerging whereby, in a short space of time, different leaders have identified the township economy as the main front where the scourge of unemployment, particularly among the youth, can be fought.
Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba has admitted that there is a need to “diversify peripheral townships to include more jobs and amenities”. This followed earlier remarks by Gauteng Premier David Makhura when he delivered his State of the Province address, during which he indicated that procurement linked to township businesses had grown from R600-million in 2014 to R17-billion in 2017. The result, he added, was that Gauteng had witnessed more youth-headed start-ups being founded than any other province. The real winner, though, is the township economy because, when two tiers of government in the same province focus on the same thing, this can only result in phenomenal growth.
In April, Trade and Industry Minister Dr Rob Davies addressed a breakfast event on the rural and township economy in Atlantis, in the Western Cape, which was aimed at creating a platform for collaboration between the public and private sectors regarding the rural and township economy.
It is heartening to note that Magwanishe echoed the words of his political principal. Davies identified programmes such as the revitalisation of industrial parks and the establishment of special economic zones (SEZs) as initiatives that would drive the economy and create sustainable jobs. He explained that SEZs were aimed at attracting international investors to support local entrepreneurs. It is, thus, not entirely far-fetched to imagine that the four special envoys appointed recently by President Cyril Ramaphosa to spearhead the search for international investment would also be briefed to attract investment into the township economy through programmes run by the DTI.
It is also heartening to note that Davies and Magwanishe chose to host their events in different areas of the country and that the programmes they initiated were not cut-and-paste in nature. At the Mpumalanga event, the focus was on developing township infrastructure related to the nearby national park, whereas, in Atlantis, the focus was on renewable energy. This will ensure that the respective township economies are moving along with related developments in the mainstream economies of their geographical locations. This is important because, in the past, industrial developments on the edges of townships were linked to the availability of cheap labour in the townships only, while ignoring the needs of the townships. The sad result is the existence of ghost towns alongside most major townships.
One can only hope that the involvement of the Broad-Based Black Economic-Empower- ment Advisory Council in these provincial Industry Breakfast sessions means that the council’s Rural and Township Economy Summit, to be held in East London in July, will yield sustainable programmes.