Nineteen years after the end of apartheid many things are forgotten. It is forgotten that no business was supposed to be conducted in the townships and the people living there were expected to buy everything they needed from the white-owned shops in the formal licensed business areas. So the townships were planned to have no real shopping areas, no places of entertainment, and no entrepreneurs to produce goods and services for sale to other residents.
Despite the prohibitions, there were spaza shops, hair salons, taverns and other businesses run from homes, all actually illegal, but mostly left alone during the last decades of apartheid. Provinces and local governments are now applying formal zoning laws to the apartheid-created townships, which is really targeting the shebeens and taverns but is resulting in the closure of other businesses. We are witnessing an unbelievable event, our democratic government destroying black-owned businesses that even the apartheid government allowed to continue to exist. Instead of “formalising” they should make them “free trade areas” and “job creation zones” so that they can normalise themselves under “neighbourhood laws” that prevent people from disturbing their neighbours.
In job creation zones there should be no prohibitions on the use of properties except for dangerous activities and those that disturb neighbours. A process and conditions must be put in place to allow township dwellers, through their activities, to re-shape and normalise their environments into living, trading, manufacturing and mixed-use areas, through entrepreneurial activity. The town planning method is generally to create what the town planner believes to be good and functional, and not what the people prefer. This transformation should be left in the hands of the people.
What is missing from government policy is a self-help philosophy that recognises the abilities and the will of unemployed and low income people to improve their incomes and circumstances. Instead of focusing entirely on handouts, the focus should change to hand-ups. Government should ask the people what kind of environment will be conducive to rapid improvements in their income-earning abilities. For instance, what changes would they like to see in the labour laws to improve their chances of success in business or of getting jobs?
Government and other supporters of the labour laws say that the laws do not cause unemployment. I appeal to the government to test their contention by suspending the most restrictive laws in job creation zones. For instance, areas such as Soweto, or even better, in all former designated black areas. The suspension of the laws must continue for a long enough period for people to actually set up businesses to hire the unemployed people in the area.
Creating employment-friendly areas would spur entrepreneurship, we would again see economic activity returning to the townships, and the measure would uplift many depressed areas. It is time for government to turn to the entrepreneurs, especially small entrepreneurs, to solve the labour crisis. The activists talk about “slave labour”, “decent jobs” and other such terms to prevent government from following the humane course of giving the unemployed unrestricted access to the labour market. Government should ignore these job-killing labels and focus on creating environments in which entrepreneurs will thrive and there will be a huge and growing demand for labour.
What small business person in Soweto, Tembisa or Mamelodi has the knowledge or the time to comply with the labour laws? The two options available to them are the same as that followed by many small businesses, either to ignore the laws and risk prosecution and fines, or not to hire anyone. The first option is unwise and the second option is the one that is causing the huge level of unemployment in the country.
Workers know better than government officials what will be best for them and their families. If the workers can find jobs with small firms at low wages but where they can learn valuable skills no one has the right to stop them by force from doing the jobs. Of course the force is exerted through the imposition of wages and conditions that will destroy their jobs because of the inability of their employers to meet the imposed wages and conditions.
As a result of potential prosecution, employers avoid the consequences of the labour laws and there are currently more than seven million people unemployed in South Africa. Suspending the most restrictive labour laws in job creation zones in the former designated “black” areas would at least allow unrestricted job creation in some of the most badly affected areas in the country. It would make a major contribution towards correcting some of the harm caused by apartheid.
Designating job creation zones, that have an increased level of freedom of activity, will allow entrepreneurs to create businesses that can offer jobs to the unemployed free of the fear of prosecution under laws and regulations that make no sense under our crisis conditions of unemployment. I am convinced that the results will be so spectacular, if tried in a few test areas, that government will be encouraged to follow the same policy across the whole country.
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