The fate of a black entrepreneur in modern South Africa – the democratic country of Tata Nelson Mandela and the rainbow nation of Archbishop Desmond Tata – is in the hands of people who are either uncaring, ruthless, clueless or point-blank prejudiced. Thus, if you are to survive as a black entrepreneur in this country, you first have to kick down stubborn corporate doors, throw boardroom tables over and stare down a few people here and there, before you are taken seriously. This is not a fable; this is a reality that some of us live with every second of each day we are in the streets, trying hard to increase our chances at a better life for ourselves and our loved ones. I am of course alluding to those of us who do not enjoy the fruitful fortune of having political connections – an uncle who is a senior politician, or an aunt who is a minister.
When senior government officials get on the podium – for politicians are never ones to miss a moment of spotlight – their mouths never dry up when they praise government for supporting small businesses, especially those which are owned by black entrepreneurs; however reality is not even close to the truth. In other words, our own government is continuously failing us while telling lies with the gusto and confidence of a city charmer at a village funeral.
At times, when one is fortunate to have their request for a meeting granted to pitch their business or idea, an air of disbelief and suspicion seems to always linger. Eyes and sophisticated speech always suggesting that there must be a glitch in a system, for brilliant and innovative ideas are not a province of Africans. Africans belong in farms performing hard labour, or in the baas’ house doing laundry. Therefore, at the end of the meeting, when that polite rejection comes dressed in a pretentious, wide smile, it also conveys a subtle, yet powerful message: ‘What do kaffirs know about owning and running businesses? Your place is in the farm. Not in a boardroom.’
Business is not easy, but business should not be made deliberately difficult just because the former is true. In a recent paper I wrote I made the following observation about the entrepreneurship landscape in South Africa. I said: ‘South Africa is notorious for being hostile to entrepreneurs. While the government might have officially declared support for entrepreneurs, in reality the opposite is true. Unlike in countries such as China, Germany, Kenya, Nigeria, South Korea and Rwanda, South African entrepreneurs that operate in a cultural landscape where one is expected to finish school, look for a job, work for thirty-to-forty years and then retire at age 60, find it extremely difficult to break through or find success. Not to say entrepreneurship in general is easy, however, in South Africa one is faced with a tougher battle, if not an outright war.’
To bring my point a little bit closer to home, I further commented thus: ‘Black entrepreneurs find it especially hard to start and run successful businesses as their background requires them to constantly provide, and provide now. Having assured their families – a feat that is not easy – of the path they have chosen, black entrepreneurs are faced with external challenges of having to convince the world that being black is not synonymous with incompetency. Only the brave and ‘mentally disturbed’ survive in this lonely, difficult and rough road of entrepreneurship.’
What I neglected to say in that paper is: black entrepreneurs face a much hostile audience – that’s if they are lucky to be granted one – out there when they have to present their ideas. The doors of funding houses are shut in their faces. Eventually, which is seemingly the plan, their companies fail before they can even start operating.
What happens to these entrepreneurs? They are forced to locate their resumes, dust them off, and off they go to queue in a long, winding line of job seekers that have not even been invited to a single interview in twelve months. For those who had hoped to one day quit their jobs and start their own businesses, having seen their mates struggle to get their companies off the ground and finally giving up, a permanent message is etched in their psyche: maybe, just maybe, a black person is not meant to own a company. Theirs is to slave away, in most cases for peanuts, until such a time that old age comes knocking. This is nothing but the cheap condition of a black life in modern South Africa – the democratic country of Tata Nelson Mandela and the rainbow nation of Archbishop Desmond Tata.
Those of us who are stubborn, every day looking into the abyss of suffering and torture and saying, ‘Do your worst’, have come to learn that in South Africa, if you are black, you can no longer be polite when you want a seat at the table. You have to demand it, otherwise the door will constantly be slammed in your face. You have to force you way through to be given what could have been easily handed to you in the beginning. Once again, this is not fiction. This is the reality that some of us live through each and every day in South Africa. We are denied a point of entry everywhere we knock; hence we have become hostile. We resort to aggression, not because we are inherently violent nor are we animals. We do so out of desperation. South Africa is a country that is built on the foundation of violence, brought up by brutality and shaped by aggression. For you to be heard and taken seriously, at times, instruments of aggression have to be employed. History has often times proven that this is the only language people in this country understand.
Black entrepreneurs in South Africa, just like any other entrepreneur in this country, start businesses to better their livelihoods and those of their families, and of course to contribute to the socio-economic fabric of this fine land. Therefore, like all these other entrepreneurs who are given the benefit of the doubt for their ideas and brilliance, black entrepreneurs deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect. Otherwise, if such dignity and respect is not forthcoming, then black entrepreneurs have no choice but to kick down doors, and throw over boardroom tables, because their livelihood and dignity is on the line. Pula!