Let’s start build­ing com­mu­ni­ties rather than cor­po­rate prof­its

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES -

THE IN­TER­NET is the new Kaf­feeklatsch, a dig­i­tal clear­ing house of fact, hearsay, humour, folksy wis­dom and cal­cu­lated mal­ice, all in prodi­gious quan­tity.

The vi­ral e-mail, in turn, is the whis­per be­hind cupped hand of old – rip­pling with light­ning speed through the global vil­lage.

Just oc­ca­sion­ally, an in­spired idea does the rounds. One such is the sug­ges­tion that it’s time for a “new Christ­mas tra­di­tion” in SA.

This much-cir­cu­lated e-mail – I’ve re­ceived it three times – starts with a dig at “gi­ant Asian fac­to­ries kick­ing into high gear” to sup­ply “mon­strous piles of cheaply pro­duced mer­chan­dise pro­duced at the ex­pense of our own labour force”.

It then, pre­dictably, goes on to ar­gue that we should buy South African and – less pre­dictably and doubtlessly to the con­ster­na­tion of the chain stores – that we should change our pat­tern of con­sump­tion.

It’s a mes­sage that might just find a re­cep­tive au­di­ence among a pop­u­lace weary of con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion or just plain plat­sak.

It im­plores: stop be­ing “one of those ex­trav­a­gant givers who think noth­ing of plunk­ing down rands on a Chi­nese-made flat screen”, rather gift “a few games at the lo­cal golf course, or a month at the gym”.

“There are a gazil­lion own­errun restau­rants and cof­fee shops. Ask if they have gift vouch­ers. Re­mem­ber, this isn’t about big national chains, this is about sup­port­ing your home­town fel­low South Africans with their fi­nan­cial lives on the line.”

The anony­mous writer – clearly a small-busi­ness owner – points out, ac­cu­rately enough: “When you buy a R50 string of lights, only about R5 stays in the com­mu­nity. Rather stock up on lo­cally-pro­duced can­dles or dec­o­ra­tions and if you have… big bucks to burn, leave the trash guys or se­cu­rity guards a nice big tip.”

The eco­nomics be­hind a plea to buy lo­cally is be­guil­ing. It is a fact that to pro­vide ben­e­fit, money has to cir­cu­late. It best ben­e­fits a neigh­bour­hood, a re­gion or a coun­try if it re­mains there, in­stead of be­ing chan­nelled to for­eign cred­i­tors or off­shore div­i­dends.

How­ever, that con­ve­niently ig­nores the fact that cross-national share­hold­ings make it dif­fi­cult to de­fine a “lo­cal” com­pany. Now that Mass­mart is owned by Wal­mart, is it still an SA com­pany? And what of “SA” com­pa­nies that have their pri­mary list­ings on over­seas bourses?

It also glosses over the co­nun­drum of whether it is ul­ti­mately bet­ter for an econ­omy that its con­sumers pay more for lo­cally pro­duced prod­ucts or max­imise in­di­vid­ual earn­ings by pay­ing less for im­ported prod­ucts.

This is a co­nun­drum that de­feats even the vo­cally pa­tri­otic. Cosatu reg­u­larly yam­mers on at con­gresses about the need to “buy South African”.

The me­dia reg­u­larly ex­pose these self­same del­e­gates to be wear­ing Chi­nese T-shirts and caps, pro­duced abroad for Cosatu far more cheaply than SA’S be­lea­guered high-cost tex­tile mills could hope to man­age.

The pol­i­tics re­gard­ing buy­ing lo­cal is sim­i­larly com­pli­cated. De­spite con­cerns in Bri­tain over its man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor, the govern­ment won’t back a Buy Bri­tish cam­paign be­cause it be­lieves that would be “counter-pro­duc­tive”.

In global mar­kets, any of­fi­cial at­tempt to shape buy­ing pat­terns to na­tion­al­is­tic ends has the dan­ger of spark­ing re­tal­i­a­tion from one’s trad­ing part­ners.

But quib­bles aside, the un­known e-mailer has it right.

It is bet­ter to buy lo­cal than in­ter­na­tional; bet­ter to sup­port the in­di­vid­ual or small busi­ness than the con­glom­er­ate; and bet­ter to buy ser­vices than baubles.

There’s a lot to be said for a “new tra­di­tion” of build­ing com­mu­ni­ties rather than cor­po­rate prof­its.

Un­for­tu­nately, wealth cor­re­lates closely with self­ish­ness, so such a shift is un­likely. The cor­po­rates can prob­a­bly sleep soundly. But it’s your choice.

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