In the 1980s, many in my native small town of Colesberg in the Northern Cape would have chuckled derisively at a certain Tat’Babini’s unrealistic idea to venture into business.
Apartheid’s incessant mill was grinding on black endeavour, Bantu education was steadfastly honouring its Pretoria-ordained pedagogy – churning out “hewers of wood and drawers of water” by the thousands.
Yet from the cesspit arose an appropriately named Thembalethu (our hope) Cash Store, all big windows and fully stocked shelves. And in no time, a bus and a fleet of taxis stood parked in front of it.
Against all odds, Tat’Babini had become the embodiment of what the streetwise deem a “hustler”, an enterprising man who prevailed despite banks refusing to grant loans to the black hoi polloi, who went on to build one of the pioneering modern homes for his family in our township.
Today, Tat’Babini is no longer behind the till of his shop. In most spazas in town, a foreign national does a bustling trade.
Despite the embarrassing unemployment figures mocking us in the latest Stats SA Quarterly Labour Force Survey, the fate of the black-owned spaza shop is all but sealed.
The message is resounding: what was – alongside the minibus taxi and the shebeen – an industry that put bread on the table and kids through college, is now another man’s amusement.
As recently as 2015, when an exasperated then minister of small business development Lindiwe Zulu blurted that infamously defeated remark, the process of prying away one of those pathetically few anythings still under black ownership was an almost foregone conclusion.
Probably stirred by a spate of xenophobic violence, the minister demanded: “Foreigners need to understand that they are here as a courtesy and our priority is the people of this country. They cannot barricade themselves in and not share their practices with local business owners.”
Zulu had effectively washed her hands and conceded that government had no answers outside of this sublime surrender to the unceremonious onslaught.
Black entrepreneurs, she seemed to be saying, you are on your own. And they have been on their own since.
Every year, they are the miserable face of poverty, unemployment and inequality.
What the statistics tell us is enough to make you want to raid the liquor cabinet.
Data show that 6.5 million South Africans are jobless. More than half of our young people wallow at the unemployment curb.
About 200 000 jobs were shed in the third quarter of this year.
The 800 000 jobs promised by President Cyril Ramaphosa last month smack of yet another great empty promise.
As economist Edwin Arrison put it during an interview on Power Breakfast recently: “The kinds of jobs that I think are often imagined up in these forums are jobs where people stand along the road waving red flags for the whole day.”
Simply put, these are undignified jobs; unsustainable and with crap remuneration. So who takes the rap for this? White monopoly capital? Apartheid, maybe?
These foreign nationals mostly slipped into the country early in our democracy and have no inclination to partner with locals – white or black.
Many of them witnessed such harrowing humanitarian crises that they bravely set up shop with guns going off in the ganglands of the Cape Flats in the Western Cape or in Orange Farm in Gauteng, with nothing but prayer or paying off gangsters.
They arrived mostly clueless about the culture and languages of where they settled.
It might have been easy for us to write them off, but, 26 years later, they are firmly in charge of a R46 billion industry.
Not to undermine their resourcefulness, but surely somebody is fast asleep when an entire industry is snatched like candy from a baby right under the nose of a sovereign state that supposedly looks after its own.
More disconcerting is that, given the prevailing trajectory, in future you will be hard-pressed to find a single spaza shop owned by a local.
In outposts such as Colesberg, this is already the reality. The bigger cities may be holding out, but they are only postponing the inevitable.
It seems the only way the black South African can ever look forward to earning a living is to wait for someone to employ them.
The spaza industry is dead and with it ithembalethu, our hope.
We have to figure out how we can make something meaningful out of the politicians millions of our people vote for every five years.
Mayaba is a graduate and freelance writer