Koos Kombuis

The Spring of our Discontent

2015-09-10 14:10

Koos Kombuis

Spring has finally arrived after a long, wet Cape winter. Yet, even though the Namaqualand flowers are in bloom, even though the streets are filled with happy birdsong, our hearts are still heavy with gloom. 

Spring has arrived in South Africa, but what kind of spring is this? Is it a Prague spring? What if this spring turns into a cruel summer, a season of disruption? Instead of drinking in the sweetness of the new season, will we be forced to down bitter dregs from a cauldron of despair?

I am sitting at my desk. It is early September. My monthly column for this website is due. My fingers find it hard to type the words on the keyboard. I don’t really feel like drinking the cup of coffee that is waiting within arm’s reach. I don’t really feel like doing anything. The only words going through my mind is the famous line from the movie Apocalypse Now: “The horror…. the horror.”

Self-insight is supposed to bring liberation. It has been said that, in order to deal with depression one needs to discover the root causes of one’s depression. Indeed, I know exactly what the cause of my unhappiness is. I can place my finger exactly on the place where it hurts, I know the origin of my pain.

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” the author of Proverbs wrote many centuries ago. That is still true.

My hope has been deferred.

Frankly, I feel let down.

In front of me, next to the untouched cup of coffee, lies the latest Big Issue magazine. I purchased my copy on a street corner mere hours ago. The magazine is open at page 28, displaying an article entitled “Cornered – The Social Cleansing of Street Entrepreneurs”. It includes a collection of excerpts from interviews done by Kim Harrisberg with the most important members of the informal sector: people who make a living from selling a diversity of products on the streets of South Africa.

According to every street entrepreneur interviewed by Harrisberg, they are targeted, fined or simply chased away, on a daily basis, by members of the South African Police.

Take note: these people are not beggars. They don’t want something for nothing. They are craftsmen and managers of home industries. They are middlemen in the food produce chain, who often sell produce that are cheaper and fresher than the stuff available in nearby shops.

The manner in which street vendors are prevented from doing their job, is just a symptom of a bigger problem. That problem is the general bias of the government towards small businesses and beginner entrepreneurs.

Just the other day I heard over the radio how someone said that, if you want to start a private company in America, all it takes is about an hour of completing the necessary paperwork in your nearest bank. In South Africa, young business owners face a daunting set of at least 35 of rules and regulations telling them how to run their enterprise.  

I attribute this to the government’s socialistic mind-set. The government share the sentiments of many trade union leaders and other organisations and groups who regularly and sometimes publicly, take a critical stance on what they call the evils of “capitalism”.

Of course we have all seen the evils of capitalism. The capitalist system is full of all-powerful monopolies who create an often synthetic consumer culture in which products are forced down the throats of the public at often inflated prices without sharing a reasonable cut of their profits to their own workers.

Yet, it is principle of common sense that the opposite of rampant capitalistic exploitation does not lie in socialism or even communism. We do not need more state control, we need less. The monopolies need to be challenged constantly by young entrepreneurs with new ideas. The more level the playing field, the more job opportunities and investment incentives will open up.

Why does the government borrow second-hand ideas from countries like Russia, modern-day China and Cuba? Why do they base their policies on the alien models provided by these mentors?

I use the word “alien” here specifically, not only because these models are alien to my own culture, but because, in truth, they are alien to all the nations of Africa. If we ever want to get serious about the African Renaissance, the way Thabo Mbeki challenged us to get serious about this, we need to remind ourselves that, before the arrival of Western imperialism, Africa had a rich tradition of healthy trade relations with countries in the East. 

Ironically enough, it was the very same Thabo Mbeki who, while throwing around grand words like “Renaissance”, became the first head of state in the new South Africa to clamp down on street vendors in a big way. It is open question whether he truly understood what he was talking about when he promoted his so-called “African Renaissance”.

Did Mbeki not realise that the spirit of entrepreneurship had been alive and well all through Africa for centuries? Do the ANC and Cosatu realise this?

Africa, before the havoc wreaked by the slave trade and other practices of some Western countries, was a continent filled with creativity and ideas. Even today, travelling through this vast continent, one finds markets, street industries and spaza-type shops virtually everywhere.

It is the duty of government to encourage this kind of entrepreneurship instead of thwarting it with a clumsy and top-heavy system of state control and perpetual interference – interference, not just in the activities of small businesses, but also interference in our private lives. They are even threatening to start meddling with the freedom of social media and the press, not to mention the un-asked-for planned interference with sponsorships by liquor companies.

I would rather sit across a table and engage with a man who can bake his own bread than with a man who unrightfully enriches himself through wrongful tender practices and political corruption. I would rather do business with the first man than to be told what to do by the second.

Spring has arrived, it’s true. Spring is traditionally seen as a time of exuberance, creativity and optimism. Thinking of what spring means to me, however, I am also reminded of a sentence recently uttered by the poet Antjie Krog in a ground-breaking address:

“We need to have all the conversations, deferred from 1994, with as much courageous imagination, new vocabulary and wild dreams as possible.”

Many of us already have courageous imagination and wild dreams. It is because of this courageous imagination and wild dreams that we felt compelled to stand up against the constraints and rigidity of apartheid.

Today, however, we are facing new constraints, new rigidity. The present-day powers-that-be seem to be hell-bent to smother everything that is innovative and original and interesting in the name of the dull and boring conformity of their predictable ideologies. 

Will this spring herald a new era of sunshine and progress, or will it simply drag on into a prolonged period of decay, poverty, and blind cynicism?

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.


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