Let’s support taxi industry in taking flight

2011-09-24 11:56

I do not mean to generalise the ­sentiments of a select group of black people who have access to the internet and who are active in the virtual social networks of the day.

These are mostly middle class people who have acquired certain tastes and illusions.

But among this select group of presumably educated black people, I have detected a disturbing tendency; the best description I can think of is “economic immaturity”.

Who could resist the obvious jokes that naturally came to mind when one was told that Santaco, the national taxi association, planned on launching a low-cost airline?

I had tears in my eyes as I read comments about “four-four masihlalisane” being implemented on the planes, getting from Johannesburg to Cape Town in just 30 minutes or, as one commentator on Facebook put it succinctly, “suicide fela” (this is just suicide). Hilarious.

But after the jokes were made, there was very little discussion on the ­economic fundamentals behind this move – the financial model and the business strategy.

Like any business, this venture could fail. I am not attempting to sing the praises of Santaco.

I am simply ­astounded that so many people have nothing but ridicule for an industry that represents quite possibly the most significant participation of black people as entrepreneurs in this economy.

It seems as though the illusion of prosperity acquired from a salary and a credit-based economic life has given some among us the arrogance to ­trivialise the entrepreneurial efforts of those who do not participate in the “formal” economy.

Granted, the taxi industry does not have enough regard for customer service and road safety.

But this is also an industry that moves about 15 million people every day.

It has come to know its customers very well. The move into the airline industry is in many ways an unsurprising diversification move.

The real business innovation comes in drawing insights from passenger movements to recognise a business case for no-frills air travel on under-serviced routes such as Johannesburg to the Eastern Cape, what Santaco has referred to as the “awkward routes”.

As for capabilities, the association has identified partners who will equip it with the technical skills to back up the operations for a defined period.

Humour reveals a lot. It goes without saying that we are a people scarred by centuries of subjugation.

When the victim starts to participate in her ­marginalisation and thus legitimises it with great enthusiasm and mirth, then screw it, it’s time to ask to ask her some tough questions.

Our frame of reference has become completely externalised.

Our dreams for ourselves are formulated not in terms of what will fulfil our potential and our needs, but what we think is acceptable in the world view of our former masters.

Instead of seeing our own way through our poverty, chaos and fractured infrastructure, we pull each other down through careless words.

This article is not about asking black people to instinctively support a black business initiative.

The airline business is notoriously loss-making and budget airlines are facing tough times ahead. But the path to wealth is paved with bold risk-taking, a lot of failure, and only then, success.

If, as black people, we are unable to “put ourselves out there” or celebrate those who do, then we have no business advocating for black economic empowerment and affirmative action.

We cannot be brave with other people’s money yet be coy when it comes to raw initiative.

The taxi industry, true to its roots, is making an attempt at real business: identifying an unfulfilled consumer need, putting together a sound ­proposition and hopefully, growing the economic pie.

And all we can do, instead of offering constructive input and criticism of the business case on its merits, is laugh?

I’m afraid that if this is our best response, then we still have a long way to go towards economic freedom.

» Makhaya is an economist in the public service. She blogs at trudimakhaya.com

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