I read somewhere that Deputy President Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa, a man who could or could not be South Africa’s head of state come 2019, has said something along the lines of entrepreneurship should be taught as a subject in school. That is a noble idea, one that would one day, hopefully, position South Africa as a ‘truly entrepreneurial nation’. But not to be a pessimist and ruin a party of idealists, I wish to remind the Deputy President that our problem as a nation is not that we are not entrepreneurial. Our problem as my short but very sobering experience has taught me is that access to capital is our stumbling block. A few years back I used to think that South Africans were in general lazy. A foot into the pot has given me a rude awakening; the water is just too hot in the pot of entrepreneurship. It is often professed that entrepreneurship is a province of the brave, bold and mad. In South Africa, with its sordid history and the current funding institutes either slow or in shambles, the odds are steeped against the entrepreneur, especially a black entrepreneur, whom my thesis is based on.
The thing is that 500 years of what I can only describe as an ugly, hateful history has made it a point that a black person – an African – never lifts his or her head to look yonder and appreciate nature and its beauty. That ugly, hateful history that I write of put measures in place to make sure that a black person always has his or her back bent, obediently serving the master. Therefore any black person who harbours ambitions contrary to what this history – the system as Americans tend to say – has prepared for him or her is in for a surprise.
Entrepreneurship can be taught to kids in school until we are all blue in the face, but if there is no money to support their ideas, ambitions and dreams, then we are deluding ourselves as a nation. This is the problem that we are faced with in 2017: access to funding. And when I say access to funding, I am not only referring to the hurdles one has to jump before obtaining the money but the time it takes for the funds to be released. Red tape and bureaucratic processes are crippling entrepreneurs in droves each day in this country.
When a hopeful entrepreneur arrives at the office of the NYDA (National Youth Development Agency) and they are told they would first have to fill a form, run to some office across town to obtain a particular document, return to the NYDA office to get a signature of some NYDA official who might be or might not be present in the premises before running again to the bank to pay a certain fee, little by little hope begins to vanish from their eyes, only to be replaced by heartbreak, doubt and hopelessness. The entrepreneur would have to go back to the NYDA offices to show proof that they have paid before their application is processed. This is assuming that officials assisting them are not as rude and uncouth as the white farmers from the North West and Free State.
After 1994 when reconciliation speeches were made and expensive champagne flowed like the sensational Orange River after the summer rains, the black person of South Africa was supposed to come out of the ditch and finally raise his head to realise the hopes and dreams long held by his forebears. Life was supposed to be better for him. In fact, life should have been better for him now that a new administration was in charge, a black government was now at the helm so it had to be; a government of the people elected by the people. But as life never lacks in disappointments, this was not to be.
Twenty-three years since toasts were made in the name of a promising potential of a new dispensation, a better life appeared on the firmament, visible but still out of reach for the ordinary black person of South Africa. They say when they defend their shortcomings, ‘Bagaetsho, these things take time.’ But that cannot be true. We know that these are just lies fed to us to make us go away while a privileged few eat gluttonously on the gravy train. In the new South Africa, unless your last name is Mandela, Tambo, Sisulu, Mbeki, Zuma or any of those names that are associated with political royalty, a hope for a better life – a yearning to have the means to provide for loved ones – remains just that, a hope. To find a job in South Africa, besides countless hungry nights spent studying in college or university, is as challenging as facing Mike Tyson in a ring in his heyday. How much more difficult if you harbour ambitions of starting a business.
There is a tale of the now famous two PhD students from Stanford University in California, United States of America. The students were working on an idea which they hoped one day would be a company. The problem is that they had run out of cash and therefore needed more money to keep going. With the help of one of their professors, the students managed to get a meeting with an angel investor. That fateful morning sometime in late August 1998 the pair sat on the front porch at the house of their professor waiting for the investor. The investor would later arrive in his sleek silver Porsche and listened to the pitch of the aspiring entrepreneurs. He liked the idea although it was not clear how they would make money from it. He also liked the entrepreneurs, their energy, passion and of course their undeniable brilliance. These were no regular students; these were Computer Science and Mathematics PhD students from the prestigious Stanford University.
Despite his doubts about the commercialisation of the idea presented to him, the angel investor nonetheless took out his cheque book that very morning and wrote out a $100 000 cheque to the two entrepreneurs and he sped off in his German sports car. The two could not believe their luck. ‘The pair of twentysomethings were so excited that they went off to celebrate by eating at Burger King’, writes David A. Vise. Two weeks later the company Google Inc. was registered and as the saying goes, the rest is history.
With all due respect to the Deputy President, he would do well to advise business people – some of whom who are his friends – to write out cheques to black entrepreneurs and tell them to stop whining about government not doing enough in relaxing laws that favour business. Government already pretends not to see that the private sector is exploiting the labour of black people by underpaying them, how much freedom do they want. Mr. Deputy President, a lesson in entrepreneurship is not what is needed. What black entrepreneurs need is access to money as quickly as possible to fund their businesses, and that is it. Pula!