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South Africa: 'Foreign business owners are not the enemy'

Mmusi Maimane, the DA's leader in the National Assembly

By Lisa Steyn
Monday, February 2, 2015

Foreign business owners are not the problem in South Africa – corruption is. This was the message delivered by the Democratic Alliance at a meeting at the litter-strewn Monometsie Park in Soweto on Sunday.

A speech to the modestly-sized crowd dressed in blue was delivered by Mmusi Maimane, the opposition party’s leader in the National Assembly, and touched on all the areas where political points could be scored: it ranged from the electricity crisis to the contentious suspension of Hawks boss Anwa Dramat.

But the crux of the message was that anger at foreign nationals was misplaced and really ought to be aimed at the ANC-led government and its failure to create jobs and to help South Africans to start small businesses.

“Foreign business owners are not the enemy. The real enemy is a corrupt government that has taken the power from the people in order to make themselves rich,” Maimane said. This particular meeting place was chosen, Maimane said, because he had grown up here walking the streets of Dobsonville where businesses were once all owned and managed by South Africans.

“Thirty-five percent of South Africans can’t find work, that is a crime,” said Maimane who added that six years into Jacob Zuma’s presidency there are two million more jobless citizens. “Why is it that South Africans can’t start a business in the country of their birth?” Maimane went on to say that the reasons were that ANC policies were what had made it difficult – not necessarily foreigners.

He suggested that e-tolling of South Africa’s highways also added to the difficulty of starting and running a business, particularly a small one.

The owner of a dry cleaner at the Dobsonville centre, which sits on the perimeter of Monometsie Park, said he took over the business from his father, but now that he wants to expand it and open new branches, registration has become a trying process.

“From pillar to post there is red tape. It is frustrating,” he said. Minister of Small Business Development Lindiwe Zulu has recognised that some regulation can be too restrictive for small business owners but at the same time the Licensing of Businesses Bill sits in Parliament, and requires that all businesses must be registered with their municipalities, which will have the power to impose restrictions and conditions.

This is despite pleas from concerned business organisations and other critics that the minister scraps it.  The issue of property ownership and the struggle to get title deeds was another barrier for businesses, particularly in the townships. The owner of the dry cleaner said the struggle to get title deeds for the property his family business has occupied for 50 years has exacerbated the problems in registering the entity.

Inability to keep the lights on

Under apartheid legislation, often in the townships property was leased for up to 99 years. Occupancy certificates that allow people to live on municipal land are also commonplace. But government have made some strides, particularly in this area when after 1994, for example, it sold four-bedroomed council houses in Soweto to the occupants for a total discounted amount of R3-billion when the accumulated value was estimated to be R24-billion.

Business owners in Dobsonville told the Mail & Guardian that they experienced power cuts as a result of Eskom’s inability to keep the lights on. The stadiums for the football world cup were built “quick quick”, Maimane told the crowd, yet the completion of mega power stations Medupi and Kusile have been delayed by four years, so far, and have cost overruns of billions.

The constrained energy supply, which is expected to result in load shedding for the next few years, was a burden from small business owners, Maimane said. “If you want to start a business in this country, you also have to buy a generator.” Mention of President Zumas’s comments that apartheid was to blame for the energy crisis elicited laughs from the crowd.

“Soon he is going to blame apartheid for Bafana Bafana losing,” Maimane said. South Africans need to be better assisted in starting up businesses, Maimane concluded, saying things should be made easier for entrepreneurs when it comes to tax, regulations and ownership.

“We are also here as South Africans concerned about the issue of xenophobia,” said Maimane. “We can’t live with criminals ... you can’t steal from other people.”

Sparked violence

The violence and looting was sparked by the death of a 14-year-old boy who was allegedly shot by a Somali shop owner when attempting to rob a store in Soweto. Since then the incidents targeting foreign-owned businesses have spread to numerous areas including Diepsloot and Kagiso on Johannesburg’s Westrand, Langlaagte and Alexandra.

South African businesses remain open at the Dobsonville centre, located on the perimeter of the park where the meeting was held. But two stores which are owned by foreign nationals (locals say one is owned by Pakistanis and the other by Somalis) have shut their doors after looters began to target foreign-owned businesses, particularly spaza shops, in Soweto over two weeks ago.

One business owner at the Dobsonville centre points to the Somali-owned store named Solly’s Supermarket. “The guys over there came with the police and took the stock,” he said. “But the other one the boys were looting. They came through the roof. They took everything.” He said people have mixed feelings about foreign nationals owning businesses. “For us as business people it is not helpful for us to create jobs. These guys come with big money.”

“The government is telling us to create jobs [but] the government is really the problem,” said the owner of the dry cleaner, but added that the resentment toward foreign nationals was a situation just “waiting to explode”.

But DA member and Dobsonville resident Themba Chauke said he did not think there would be resistance to foreign-owned shops opening up again imminently, “Because now the problem is that people have to walk long distances to buy bread.”


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