Building communities not corporate profits

2011-12-10 00:00

THE Internet is the new kaffeeklatsch, a digital clearing house of fact, hearsay, humour, folksy wisdom and calculated maliciousness, all in prodigious quantity.

The viral e-mail, in turn, is the whisper behind cupped hand of old — rippling with lightning speed through the global village.

And, just occasionally, an inspired idea does the rounds. One such is the suggestion that it is time for a new Christmas tradition in South Africa.

This much-circulated e-mail — I’ve received it three times — kicks off with a dig at “giant Asian factories kicking into high gear” to supply “monstrous piles of cheaply produced merchandise produced at the expense of our own labour force”. It then predictably goes on to argue that we buy South African and — less predictably and doubtlessly to the consternation of the chain stores — that we change our pattern of consumption.

It’s a message that might just find a receptive audience among a populace weary of conspicuous consumption or just plain platsak. Stop being, it implores, “one of those extravagant givers who think nothing of plunking down rands on a Chinese-made flat-screen”, rather give “a few games at the local golf course, or a month at the gym.

“There are a gazillion owner-run restaurants and coffee shops. Ask if they have gift vouchers. Remember, this isn’t about big national chains, this is about supporting your hometown fellow South Africans with their financial lives on the line.”

The anonymous writer — clearly a small business owner — points out, accurately enough, that “when you buy a R50 string of lights, only about R5 stays in the community. Rather stock up on locally produced candles or decorations and if you have … big bucks to burn, leave the rubbish collectors or security guards a nice, big tip.”

The economics behind a plea to buy locally is beguiling. It is a fact that to provide benefit, money has to circulate, and it best benefits a neighbourhood, a region, or a country if it remains there, instead of being channelled to foreign creditors or offshore dividends.

However, this conveniently ignores the fact that cross-national shareholdings make it difficult to define a local company. Now that Massmart is owned by Walmart, is it still a South African company?

And what of the South African companies that have their primary listings on overseas bourses?

It also glosses over the conundrum of whether it is ultimately better for an economy that its consumers pay more for locally produced products or maximise individual earnings by paying less for imported products.

This is a conundrum that defeats even the vocally patriotic. The Congress of South African Trade Unions regularly yammers on at congresses about the need to buy South African. Regularly these selfsame delegates are exposed by the media to be wearing Chinese T-shirts and caps, produced abroad for Cosatu far more cheaply than SA’s beleaguered high-cost textile mills could hope to manage.

The politics around buying local is similarly complicated.

Despite concerns in Britain over its manufacturing sector, the government won’t back a “buy British” campaign because it believes it would be counterproductive.

In global markets, any official attempt to shape buying patterns to nationalistic ends has the danger of sparking retaliation from one’s trading partners.

But quibbles aside, the unknown e-mailer has it right. It is better to buy local than international, better to support the individual or small business than the conglomerate, and better to buy services than baubles.

There’s a lot to be said for a new tradition of building communities rather than corporate profits. Unfortunately, wealth correlates closely with selfishness, so such a shift is unlikely. The corporates can probably sleep soundly. But it’s your choice.

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