Bernard Swanepoel: Flowery talk is over, let’s do business

Business

Bernard Swanepoel: Flowery talk is over, let’s do business

If we fix the fact that it is impossible for a small business to compete in SA, we’ll create the jobs

Giulietta Talevi


Former miner Bernard Swanepoel has in recent years become a vocal advocate for the junior mining industry and, latterly, all small business through the Small Business Institute. As President Cyril Ramaphosa mulls his choices for his cabinet, Swanepoel tells us what’s on his SA 2.0 wish list.
The cabinet appointments will demonstrate whether this same ANC that destroyed our economy has got the ability to let go of what didn’t work and start afresh. I like the narrative, I like the smaller cabinet, but it’s not about size.
If you don’t have people that think of business owners as patriotic South Africans who create value for all South Africans through business activity then we’re just going to see more of: let’s redistribute that which was created in the past – as opposed to creating new value which can suck in the unemployed and youth and people who were historically excluded.
You don’t need to be an optimist but you’d really have to be a pessimist not to at least think that we have a chance to reset. The cabinet is going to show exactly how compromised the ANC still is, to what extent the horse-trading to satisfy factional fights will play out. There are four or five critical economy-related departments that are  going to have to have real people.
We have to up our standards. We can’t just say we like Pravin because he’s not corrupt. Clearly we need to look at people’s track records and say: did this person in his or her term as a minister create value or not? I mean, not corrupt should be a given. We have to up our requirements of our public representatives. Let’s assume we’ll have non-corrupt people – and then look for competence, for ability to implement.
Will backing small business help solve SA’s economic problems?SA has historically had an over-concentrated economy. On the one hand you need a big mining company to take on the world but, on the other hand, where are all the small mining companies?That skew-ness contributes significantly to unemployment, especially of young people. A big bank is not suddenly going to employ a matriculant with a bad SA matric, whereas smaller businesses can much more easily create a space where people can work.
And then also, big businesses can only do redistribution of wealth through BEE and ownership schemes – that’s hardly creating new wealth. Whereas small business, where something goes from zero to a billion, is more likely to suck black South Africans into it than the musical chairs in corporate SA.
If we fix the fact that it is impossible for a small business to compete in SA, we’ll create the jobs we all fantasise about. Small business is not a sector of the economy; small business is a segment of every sector of the economy. You can’t put it in a silo with its own minister.
Do you feel like the message from organisations like the Small Business Institute is getting through?
In the run-up to the elections, all high-profile people and business organisations have been keen to be seen in this space. So this is clearly an area that everybody speaks to.
But when it comes to: are we prepared to undo some of the things we so deeply believe in – like we can regulate people into decent jobs – we’ll have to see whether the conclusion of this new administration is going to be that we had good policies but not enough implementation, or a rethink and say: my God, what we do ain’t working.
South Africans don’t really like to deal with facts. We have our perceptions. Today you’ll see people saying that 60% of jobs in SA are created by small business; that’s a total bullshit number – it doesn’t exist. Our research shows only 28% of South Africans are employed by so-called small business; even worse, almost 70% of South Africans are employed by the 1,000 large employers, state-owned enterprises, government and the Anglos of the world.
We’ve got an NDP [National Development Plan] that speaks to stuff but there’s no substance. So one of our obsessions is that we need to, in the next two or three years, influence our policies based on real facts. Let’s do real research. If we hate the answers you can shoot the messenger, but the facts are the facts.

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