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There is nothing wrong with choosing to buy only from black-owned businesses. If that is what you want to do, you should go ahead, but it is a mistake to think that this is the cure to all our economic problems. This kind of thinking comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of how the market works.

I mention this because my Facebook feed is often filled with people trying to blackmail me into ‘buying black’. One entrepreneur even had a calculation showing how we could make her a millionaire by buying our toilet paper exclusively from her instead of the big retailers. This entrepreneur, Vusi Thembekwayohas spoken a lot about why this kind of thinking is flawed; but it essentially boils down to asking your customers to provide a service to you instead of figuring out how to serve their needs. This is not the path towards progress.

Consumers drive progress through getting companies to compete to serve their needs. That is why someone like Herman Mashaba could still make money during the dark days of apartheid, because he identified and met a need that was not being catered for by anyone else. That is how the taxi industry was born (though it is now sustained by government’s inability to protect the rights of ordinary citizens) and that is how the funeral industry and the PSL (the Premier Soccer League) came about.

It wasn’t consumers feeling sorry for these people and giving them money because they are black. It was ordinary people doing doing what was in their best interests.

In some ways and rather perversely, democratic South Africa’s focus on ‘uplifting’ black people has created a sense of dependency that is killing the entrepreneurial spirit that was present during apartheid when people didn’t expect government to do anything for them. That is why you get these so-called entrepreneurs who think starting a business is about getting a government handout or blackmailing people of the same race into buying from them.

This attitude of dependence saddens me because I see what it is doing to the place I grew up in. Granted, we face burdensome government regulations and this means that the chances of any business succeeding, unless they are favoured by government, are diminished. But that is no excuse for the true entrepreneur.

I speak of the Somali refugee who has to operate in the same environment but still manages to make it even though the odds against them are much greater. They know that they can’t vote for special treatment from government, so they work harder than everyone else. For instance, in the township I grew up in, Somali shops open a full hour and 30 minutes earlier and close 3 hours later than shops owned by South Africans, they also sleep in the shops in order to cut down on the costs of having to rent a second property and also to mitigate the risks of theft.

The township shopkeeper who thrived during apartheid is almost non-existent now because they’ve been out-competed by poor refugees. You often hear people complain about this even though the business model of pooling your resources to buy in bulk and stay open for longer than your competitors is accessible to anyone. These refugee-owned shops are so brilliant that they are effectively competing against the big supermarket chains for township customers; and I often wonder how much more they could achieve if they had full legal rights.

On a side-note – and I know it’s not popular to say this – President Mbeki was probably right when he said the attacks on foreigners was criminality started by shopkeepers who were unable to compete against these foreign-owned businesses. That makes sense if you think about it: In South Africa race relations are much worse than relations between immigrants/refugees and South Africans, yet the attacks were directed at foreigners instead of, say, Indian people in KwaZulu-Natal. This is because business owners got desperate and promised thugs the spoils from these shops (this kind of thinking is much too common in South Africa, as can be observed in the taxi wars; government is failing at its first duty of protecting our rights), but I digress.

The point is the people who exhort us to buy from black-owned businesses fail to mention that people in the townships are already choosing black businesses instead of the big retail chains. It is just that often these black entrepreneurs were born on the wrong side of a line drawn on a map and they are getting our custom by bending over backwards to give us the lowest prices and convenience without expecting anything in return.

Buying black no matter what is a ridiculous premise to start from. These business owners should be getting together (get together with only black people if they want) and strategising about how to corner the market instead of acting like a bunch of cry babies. Begging is not the route to entrepreneurial success.

  • Alex J Nagel

    Thank you Mr Dhlamini, could not agree with you more.

  • Busang Motsepeng

    I find your article thought provoking, and will definitely recommend it. I also thought the number of examples you provided of successful black entrepreneurs was a bit thin. You missed an opportunity to dispel some common myths about the structure of our economy as well. I concur with the essence of your argument though.

    • Mpiyakhe Dhlamini

      Point taken, in my defense, I have only so much space to work with in these articles. All my articles are essentially about one thing but your constructive point is well taken