“I am not a politician, I am an entrepreneur. I believe that capitalism is the only system that can enable economic prosperity and that it allows every single citizen to be an economic participant. It is not capitalism that restrained the economic growth of blacks during apartheid; it is the evil alliance of Bantu education and black dis-empowerment that prevented the entrepreneurial spirit and economic participation. Currently, it is the tripartite alliance that pushes a socialist agenda that is throttling entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency. Entrepreneurship is a natural way out of poverty. The only way that desperate people can feed their families is to use their own skills to earn money”.
HERMAN MASHABA’S ACCEPTANCE SPEECH FOR THE ROTARY ACHIEVER OF THE YEAR AWARD 2014 – 2 JUNE 2015
Ladies and gentlemen
I am truly honoured to be the recipient of the 2014 Rotary Achiever of the Year Award. Thank you for conferring this honour on me. I am privileged to be given this opportunity to address you this evening.
The French moralist, Luc de Clapiers said “The greatest achievement of the human spirit is to live up to one’s opportunities and make the most of one’s resources.” This quote resonates with me because I grew up under the evil system of apartheid, and my very survival depended upon the opportunities and resources that came my way, because apartheid legislation was directly intended to limit my achievement socially, economically, and politically.
The Population Registration Act of 1950 wasn’t just a racial classification; it determined the type of life I was legally entitled to as a black man. Before I’d taken my first breath, this legislation limited my opportunities as a black child.
I would like to present some of the apartheid legislation that limited the lives of millions of black people, not because I wish to give you a history lesson, but because firstly, they illustrate the enormous apartheid machine that sought to grind black people into submission, and secondly, they provide a template for what currently appears to be happening in South Africa.
I was born in Hammanskraal in 1959 when Prime Minister Dr HF Verwoerd, the shameful architect of Apartheid, passed the Promotion of Bantu Self-government Act. This act abolished representation for black people, and relegated the entire black South African population to homelands and townships that were situated in non-urban areas that were situated far from commercial hubs.
The Group Areas Act of 1950 confined all racial groups to their own residential and commercial areas, forcing thousands of blacks into areas that had no cultural or economic significance. Apartheid did not consider black people’s right to live where it was convenient, or to work, or to run their own business where it was financially viable. My father could not buy or own a home in Johannesburg where he worked at, and my mother could not live near us because she could only find domestic work in Johannesburg. From the age of two I was raised in Hammanskraal by my older sisters because our family was irrevocably divided by Apartheid’s evil policies.
The Abolition of Passes Act of 1952 instituted a more limiting pass system that detailed the document holder’s entire personal details, employment history, fingerprints, and their rights of movement within the country. Every black person from the age of 16 was compelled to carry this reference book and to abide by the conditions stated in it. Police recruits at the Police College in Hammanskraal regularly stopped us to practice their intimidation techniques.
The Bantu Education Act, passed in 1953, determined the education I was entitled to. Black education was intentionally designed to reduce the quality of education black children received. It was intended to reflect what the apartheid government deemed our inferior black minds were capable of – menial and unskilled labour. It was specifically designed to break down black morale and enslave us to a white economic ruling class.
The Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 was used extensively to silence critics of the Apartheid regime and racial segregation. This particular Act meant that as a black child I was a communist and justifiably relegated to a life of being enslaved and controlled.
I wonder if the National Party had any idea of the long-term devastating effects that the Apartheid legislation would have on the enduring psyche of millions of South Africans, their social disintegration, and the economic hardship that they would endure.
Living in Hammanskraal, under the Apartheid regime, shaped my life. Apartheid policies determined my family’s miserable living conditions, and without the guidance and support of our absent parents, my sisters and I had to make our own way in the world, and very often our strategies were constructed in reaction to our situation and environment. Hammanskraal did not have water and electricity. If we needed water, we stole it from the nearby farm; we didn’t have money to pay for it. If we required heat for warmth or cooking purposes, we stole the wood from another farm. This theft was not occasioned by greed, but by pure necessity.
During my youth I was extremely resistant to interaction with white people, believing them to be the architects of suppression and responsible for the undignified way in which many blacks were forced to live and survive.
After completing my matric in 1978, I went to the University of the North, with some financial assistance from my brother-in-law and sister. I committed my studies towards becoming a political scientist. However, in 1980 in my second year the university was temporarily closed due to the political unrest of the time. I decided not to return and abandoned my education. I was an angry young man and I desperately wanted to leave the country and join liberation movements outside the country, to be given an AK47 and be trained, and come back and fight for the liberation of my country. My attempts to leave the country were unfortunately unsuccessful, and after a severe bout of depression I realised that I would have to overcome my distrust of whites if I wanted to work.
I took my first job at Spar in Pretoria, where I was employed as a dispatch clerk because I was fortunate to be one of the few blacks who could read and write. It was National Party policy to confine black labour to menial jobs only.
My experience at Spar confirmed that there were indeed racist whites; however, it also confirmed that if I worked hard, I could engineer my own future. Within two and a half years, I had elevated myself from a dispatch clerk to starting my own business.
Whites are often accused of exploiting blacks, and admittedly it does happen. However the white companies I worked for did not exploit me, I used them to elevate myself, working my way through opportunities until I was able to start my own business, which I believed, and later proved, was the road to personal freedom.
I started my business Black Like Me in 1985 during the height of Apartheid. The entire system was designed against a black man getting a job and blacks were even less likely to start their own businesses. Restrictions on blacks were in full force and effect in 1985 when I started my business, but instead of yielding to the law, and being content with being employed, I did the unthinkable. I took on a white partner who was the only man capable of doing the job I needed done. I accepted a loan from a friend when banks would not loan me the money. I obediently opened my business in Bophuthatswana, the black homeland I’d grown up in, adhering to the exclusive business laws of the time – exclusive in the sense that the economy was geared to the establishment of white-owned businesses. I made the system work for me.
By the time democracy was established in South Africa in 1994, I was already a successful capitalist. It was entirely unnecessary for me to seek out the BEE appointments that were elevating black business people. When Parliament started passing legislation to govern this BEE in 2001, I realised with or without me, that BEE was a reality in our country’s economic landscape. Pressure also mounted from white colleagues seeking black investors in their businesses, resulting with the formation of my own investment vehicle to take advantage of such opportunities.
The first 10 years of our democracy, in particular the first five years under the remarkable leadership of President Nelson Mandela, our country made major strides in nation-building, culminating in economic growth that is better than what we are currently experiencing. Today, however, no one can defend our country’s poor economic performance. I am fully aware of global economic challenges, but ours is unfortunately self-inflicted. Some of our current government’s economic policies are disturbing. It appears to me that concern is no longer about national priority, but party leadership and personal agendas.
The late union leader and labour activist Cesar Chavez said “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for community. Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own”. And it is with these words in my mind that I am now concerned about the direction being pursued by Government. I have realised I could no longer sit back and watch the Government drag this country back to its knees.
I am not a politician, I am an entrepreneur. I believe that capitalism is the only system that can enable economic prosperity and that it allows every single citizen to be an economic participant. It is not capitalism that restrained the economic growth of blacks during apartheid; it is the evil alliance of Bantu education and black disempowerment that prevented the entrepreneurial spirit and economic participation. Currently, it is the tripartite alliance that pushes a socialist agenda that is throttling entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency. Entrepreneurship is a natural way out of poverty. The only way that desperate people can feed their families is to use their own skills to earn money.
Just as the Apartheid government imposed policies that were oppressive and devastating, our current government is proposing and enforcing policies that are currently having devastating effects on the country’s economy, and will continue to do so. The economy is my main concern. We will never eradicate the poverty that exists if we don’t protect and enable our economy to function with less government intervention.
The case in point being Section 32 of the Labour Relations Act concerning the bargaining councils. In this piece of legislation, the Minister of Labour is currently compelled to extend bargaining council agreements to non-members of the bargaining councils. This is a draconian and limiting piece of legislation. Most bargaining councils consist of big corporations and labour unions that get together to determine the terms and conditions of employment in a particular sector. These terms and conditions are usually financially onerous on SMEs, usually non-members, making it impossible to conform to the agreements. By forcing the minister to confer these terms and conditions on non-members, the government is effectively preventing SMEs from creating the thousands of jobs needed to alleviate poverty. In partnership with the Free Market Foundation, I have legally challenged Section 32 of the Labour Relations Act, asking that the Minister of Labour ‘may’ extend these terms and conditions to non-members, instead of ‘must’ extend them. If successful, it will immediately free up SMEs to employ workers on their own terms and conditions.
Affirmative action was legislated to redress black participation in the economy. Its intentions were admirable and noble, but its enactment has become very troublesome to me. Troublesome because it is bringing back racist policies to our statute books. It wasn’t okay to have racist economic policies during apartheid, and it isn’t okay to have racist economic policies now. To build an effective workforce, we must eradicate race from the equation – everybody must be given a chance to work if they want to and if they are qualified to do so. Simply allocating jobs specifically according to race is regrettably racist. If we want to build an effective labour force, we must concentrate on improving education and training so that we have employees who are capable of achieving jobs on merit, not on the colour of their skins. This is not a sustainable policy and it is not the inclusive economy envisaged in 1994.
I fully support the transformation of our economy to reflect our citizens’ needs, to redress the damage caused by apartheid, but I urge us to approach such transformation through nation-building programs – incentive-driven activities rather than punitive acts.
Another point of contention is our minimum wage enforcement. These minimum wage policies have created a vast population of unemployed South Africans. The minimum wage has taken away a person’s right to negotiate what they are willing to work for. Unemployed people shouldn’t have their willingness to work circumvented by what the government determines is fair. It precludes them from earning for their families and strips them of their dignity.
It is unacceptable to be prescriptive in wage negotiations. It forces companies who cannot afford the wages to either mechanize or not employ at all, and the economy permanently lose those jobs that might otherwise would have gone to unskilled workers who would have been given the opportunity to learn a trade and move up the employment ladder. Nobody wants to work for a low wage, but most unemployed see a lowly paid job as a stepping-stone into employment, from where they will improve their skills and their wages. The government’s minimum wage policy denies them this opportunity.
In the same way that apartheid sought to enslave blacks economically, so too is the Government enslaving blacks through their tripartite alliance with the labour unions and the SACP. The government seeks to appease labour and capitalists at the same time. It is not viable for Government to make laws that protect the labour aspect of their tripartite alliance.
The government must create an environment that is conducive to business growth, instead of creating an environment that complicates it. If government legislation makes it difficult for SMEs to exist by over-regulating business, by imposing a minimum wage, and by excluding certain groups from employment, it is not facilitating economic growth. This type of legislation is contrary to the employment freedom guaranteed in our Constitution.
One of the proposed policies that will destroy South Africa is that of expropriating agricultural land. The proposed appropriation of agriculture is an issue that needs serious consideration. The government’s proposal to appropriate farms will create uncertainty and fear, and ultimately destroy South Africa’s agricultural industry, and our food security. South Africa’s priority should be poverty alleviation – appropriating farms will not alleviate poverty, it will further exacerbate the plight of the starving poor. We only have to look at the Zimbabwean situation to see what expropriation of land has resulted in. Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of Southern Africa, but now they cannot even feed themselves. If the our government insists on appropriating agricultural land, it will result in South Africans having to import our food, making it unaffordable to the already poor of our country.
Land reform is necessary, but the land reform strategy needs to be undertaken in a mature and controlled way. Instead of alarming our food providers, let’s consider using the vast tracts of state-owned land that are under-utilised. Why don’t we consider using free market principles to create the right environment for a successful agricultural sector? The harsh reality is that if we proceed with an ill-devised plan to appropriate agricultural land to facilitate land reform, the agricultural sector will be destroyed. The economy will be destroyed. And most concerning of all, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to resuscitate our agricultural sector, making the cost of basic necessities well beyond the means of the poor.
In much the same way that I had to find ways to work the system, employees and employers are finding a way to work the system, resulting in even less protection for employees. The government’s current policies are not working, and in no way do they protect the unemployed, who the government is mandated to protect. Over-regulated businesses are necessarily finding a way around the rules, whereas if the government allowed employers and employees to contract freely, then the government could better serve the employed by ensuring that their conditions of employment are complied with.
It’s 21 years since the attainment of our hard-fought democracy. Let us admit, South Africa is a better country than it used to be under apartheid. We have a constitution hailed as the most progressive in the world. We have demonstrated our tenacity by successfully running free and fair elections over this period of our freedom. Our success going forward is totally dependent on all of us South Africans to always demand an accountable, caring and sensitive Government. We need active citizenship, in particular by the privileged members of our society. We need to demonstrate to our less-privileged fellow South African that we also care about their plight.
In conclusion, please allow me once more to express my gratitude to the Rotary Club of Johannesburg for this award and recognition. I promise to treasure it for the rest of my life.
I thank you.