Take a good look at yourself before blaming foreigners

2015-02-01 19:00

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The scenes of looting that played out on our TV screens recently were not among South Africa’s proudest moments, but they at least served as a distraction from Bafana Bafana’s poor performance at the Africa Cup of Nations.

A picture is worth a thousand words and social media was abuzz with support for the looters, the foreign entrepreneurs and, in some cases, the police. Very few comments went beyond the symptoms to ascertain the root cause, but this is where sustainable solutions are waiting to be uncovered.

If the reasons are deep-seated, let us address the fundamentals instead of expelling foreign entrepreneurs by our action or inaction.

Let us not throw more regulations at the challenges or expect foreign entrepreneurs to develop their local competitors.

Did Caterpillar, Volvo and Komatsu share their ideas with Bell Equipment? No, the Bell family saw a gap in the market that was suited to their innovative ideas and focused on entrepreneurship.

Our poor school results in maths, science and languages are a big drawback – but are the Somalian, Ethiopian or Bangladeshi education systems much better?

That said, there are few uneducated entrepreneurs creating high-growth jobs, though there are street-smart survivalist dropouts from our education system who could indeed help create them.

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Survey indicates South Africa has a low level of entrepreneurship.

Norwegians also have low levels of entrepreneurship, but that’s because their socialist government provides for them. Despite the socialist dreams of a number of South Africans, we don’t have that luxury.

Foreign entrepreneurs go through rigorous self-selection processes to get here. It starts with determination and a strong desire to improve their lot and that of their families back home.

Obstacles include travel costs, language and cultural differences and many other challenges and risks – but good entrepreneurs will never miss an opportunity, be it on their doorsteps or thousands of kilometres away.

The lack of entrepreneurship in our country, supported by the sense of entitlement many people feel, creates a vacuum foreign entrepreneurs are willing to fill.

It’s no different to Swedes going to Norway or Mexicans going to the US.

Many countries have programmes to attract immigrant entrepreneurs, because they recognise many of them are good job creators. So where do the potential solutions lie for us?

They start with encouraging and rewarding entrepreneurs and job makers, rather than job takers.

They start with you and me. Are we prouder when our Jan, Jabu or Johnny gets a job ata big bank, a big mine, a big union, a big corporation, a big government department or when they start their own businesses?

Maybe addressing our entrepreneurship deficit is more important than addressing our fiscal or trade deficit. If our entrepreneurship deficit is reduced, it will help to reduce our fiscal and trade deficits. But we will also have to simultaneously address our skills deficit in South Africa.

Every student should study for an entrepreneurship course, preferably experiential and practical, before graduating from school or with any tertiary qualification.

Even doctors, sociologists and ministers of religion would benefit from being more entrepreneurial and alive to the many possibilities entrepreneurship offers.

Entrepreneurship can readily be learnt, despite some people asserting it can’t be taught.

When we have our entrepreneurs competing in numbers, there will be less of a vacuum for foreign entrepreneurs to fill. There will be less of a need for local residents to feel threatened and there will certainly be no need for the authorities to get caught up in the tangled mess of xenophobia.

Times like these call for strong leadership, not a knee-jerk reaction. The trend in South Africa is to fall into crisis management instead of proactively managing the conditions that can lead to crisis.

We should not let a good crisis like this go to waste.

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