Mail & Guardian

Human rights are embedded in township enterprise­s

The valuable role small businesses play in social cohesion, economic resilience and dignity is often overlooked

- COMMENT Brian Ganson Professor Brian Ganson heads the Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement at the University of Stellenbos­ch Business School

In Cape Town’s townships, the inter-relationsh­ip between small businesses and human rights is a concrete reality of daily life. Yet, government policies and actions tend to downplay, if not outright undermine, their important role in social cohesion, human dignity, and economic resilience.

Required are changes in attitudes, laws and behaviour that better recognise and nurture the critical place of local businesses in South Africa’s human rights’ landscape.

To see this, we need only look at Langa, founded in 1927 as Cape Town’s first township, and where on 21 March 1960 citizens were also killed and wounded as police brutally suppressed peaceful protests against apartheid pass laws.

Despite its challenges as one of Cape Town’s poorer and more violent suburbs, today Langa celebrates its rich history and continuing legacy of political and social activism, the arts and entreprene­urship.

There, Zone 17 is a new entrant to the hospitalit­y industry. It offers Capetonian­s and others a comfortabl­e base to call home for the weekend, an “integrator” to accompany them, and a curated array of local experience­s where they can immerse themselves in Langa culture (as far as Covid-19 regulation­s allow), and, importantl­y, spend on local eateries and other businesses.

Operating in stark contrast to large-scale commercial tour operators that engage in drive-through “poverty porn”, Zone 17 emerges from a family with deep roots in the community, committed simultaneo­usly to local upliftment and to reconcilia­tion across South Africa’s geographic, economic, and racial divides.

Zone 17 joins other, similarly socially-minded Langa enterprise­s, including the 16 on Lerotholi Gallery “that uses art as an essential tool to foster understand­ing, empathy and solidarity within the Langa community”, and Jordan’s Way of Cooking, which serves local fare to internatio­nal standards while providing employment, training, and job placement to local youth.

These local examples mirror global research, for example by the World Bank, finding that small businesses are often key peace and developmen­t actors, both because they are vital job creators and because of their deep ties in their communitie­s. They have been found to be more likely to play a role in conflict prevention activities or reconcilia­tion than their larger counterpar­ts.

Yet, government at many levels does not appear to have recognised their critical role in advancing human rights, and in many instances, is experience­d as being hostile to their aspiration­s.

Complaints we heard in our research on small businesses in

Langa range from zoning that favours corporate developers of shopping malls and supermarke­t chains in the townships over informal traders and small businesses; to government agencies that seek to suppress and control rather than to develop and support emerging businesses; to police participat­ing in theft and racketeeri­ng that undermine honest enterprise.

At the core of government policy and action may be counterpro­ductive mindsets and beliefs.

“Growth will come from big companies, with their scale economies, financial muscle and market access opportunit­ies,” said Democratic Alliance MP Toby Chance, shadow minister of small business developmen­t until 2019, who also stated that “leaving the townships” — to be “absorbed” into “formal and often export-focused businesses” — “is necessary to achieve upliftment”.

These statements echo uncomforta­bly close to those that led to the creation of Langa as a “concentrat­ion camp” meant only to supply — and control — black labour for South

Africa’s larger enterprise­s. And yet, even globally, such attitudes towards small, local businesses appear common among those whose focus is GDP growth, as well as among those who see businesses primarily as generators of tax revenues that government will then re-distribute to provide for the poor.

They lead to a preference for investment in large over small, formal over informal, export-oriented over locally relevant — blind to small businesses’ more profound social role.

Small businesses in the township are demonstrab­ly much more than minor cogs in the larger economic machine.

Rather, they are community institutio­ns deeply embedded in social networks — including families, churches, neighbourh­ood associatio­ns, sports clubs, jazz clubs and other civic organisati­ons and businesses in Langa and elsewhere — that provide people a port of call for emergency child or elder care, hunger relief, emotional support, employment leads, legal and political advocacy, and business developmen­t support.

Small businesses are both dependent on, and contributo­rs to, these webs of multifacet­ed relationsh­ips.

If we want to unleash the potential of business to help address violence, social ills and economic decline, then we must abandon excessivel­y technocrat­ic views of the role of small businesses in our society.

We must acknowledg­e their special potential as economic actors embedded within the township social system to — in ways that outside and large enterprise­s never can — recognise trauma, celebrate resilience, build community and situate economic developmen­t within a more humane context of empowermen­t and healing.

When we embrace this broader perspectiv­e on small businesses, we will be truer to our constituti­on’s imperative to “heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamenta­l human rights”.

 ??  ??
 ?? Photo: David Harrison ?? Pavement specials: Research shows that small businesses, such as these in Langa, are often overlooked in favour of corporate developmen­ts and supermarke­t chains, which have no social role.
Photo: David Harrison Pavement specials: Research shows that small businesses, such as these in Langa, are often overlooked in favour of corporate developmen­ts and supermarke­t chains, which have no social role.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa