How will the Township Economic Development Act impact the economy?

Bulelani Balabala of the Township Entrepreneur Alliance on the bill creating enabling environments for township businesses to start, run and grow their businesses.

FIFI PETERS: Let’s focus on the township economy right now and the actions that are being taken to develop the township economy. It’s not a small economy by any measure: it’s worth over R400 billion. That is the value. It employs 2.6 million people, including some spaza shops – around 30 000 spaza shops within the township economy across Gauteng, across the country in fact, valued at R200 billion.

Let’s get the tech from Bulelani Balabala, who is the founder of the Township Entrepreneurs Alliance. He’s here to speak about the Gauteng Township Economic Development Act that the premier spoke about recently, as [recently] as last week Friday. Bulelani, thanks so much for your time. What do you make of the new act and its aim to transform the township economy and its ability, I suppose, to do so?

BULELANI BALABALA: Good evening…. Thank you so much for having me on the platform. The bill in itself reads like a novel; I think for the most part it also has encapsulated in it some of the issues that we’ve raised to government at a national level, provincial [level], and I guess municipalities through their local economic development offices. I think when you sort of unpack what it seeks to do, with the assistance of the municipalities to drive and create an enabling environment for township businesses to be able to start, run, and grow their businesses in that you’d be able to amend some of the policies that drive how businesses are done, how businesses are managed, facilitated and operated, where these businesses actually operate.

And I think when you look at the document end to end it sort of covers all ends, in terms of the need of the entrepreneurs. I really think that the real caveat is going to be getting the municipality to come on board to relax some of their bylaws, because I think when you look at townships across the country and various municipalities you find that there is no way that the majority of those businesses are not infringing on the local bylaws. But you look at the fact that the spatial economic zones that were set up in the past had excluded townships as being economic zones. So this document seeks to then enable these (excluded?) townships into becoming economic zones.

FIFI PETERS: It sounds like in the main you are giving it a thumbs-up. It’s a step in the right direction, it’s what you’ve been calling for as an alliance. Is that a correct assessment and, added to that, in its current form any shortfalls?

BULELANI BALABALA: Yes. I think in its current form for us ideally they are no sort of loopholes …. But I think the biggest thing that one going to sit back and sort of look out for is the implementation, because I think we’ve seen quite a few great government programmes and initiatives, but they sort of fail at their implementation. And I think the implementation in this particular case … if you really want to cement the implementation, the government organisation [should] partner up with existing institutions and organisations that have already been doing the work that you need to achieve, because I sort of look at their document with the various points in part one talking about creating a different enabling environment, research and policy. Part two then sort of talks to the programmes that will then be rolled out. Then there’s an element that talks to how we will fund and support these entrepreneurs.

We sort of look at the work that we’ve done in our organisation, which is non-government funded over the past seven years, and we sort of unpack that. I mean, 60% or 70% of the work that we do is encapsulated in that document.

So I think you being able to plug into the immediate economy, the community that supports the community, the small businesses and the formal and informal sectors nationwide, puts you in a great position as local government or rather provincial government in this particular case with this bill to effectively support and in the long term support and monitor the support that you would’ve rolled out.

FIFI PETERS: What do you make of comments that the bill, also in its current form the act, is potentially discriminatory to foreign nationals, because we know that a lot of our spaza shops across the townships in the country are dominated by foreign nationals – people from Somalia, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and those from Bangladesh – who set up their spazas in many instances with their own sweat, their own hard work, with little assistance from the government to do so. What do you make of their view that this bill is discriminatory?

BULELANI BALABALA: For me personally there’s definitely nothing discriminatory about the bill, which is why I think to date I have not heard anyone quote a particular section in the bill, case and point, title and points, that speak to it in a discriminatory [way].

What I congratulate, though, and this is what the bill then speaks to – sort of broad country, a countryman sense, and a patriotic sense, creating an enabling environment for local entrepreneurs is that, I think to what this bill then signifies is a government that’s now actually willing to govern, because I think that’s what we’ve always created. What we’ve always said is we don’t need money in it entirety from departments, whole business.

Let me correct it and say what we need from the Department of  Small Business Development, from provincial government in Gauteng, and from their agency GP and the like, we don’t just need money, but what we need more than the money is we need them to facilitate an enabling environment for small businesses and these township businesses to be able to access bigger markets, better markets, to position their product in better shelves and space for distribution, mass distribution. Then you would’ve solved the funding conversation, because most of the time we get the funding commentary from entrepreneurs. You might find that it’s sort of mispositioned because the entrepreneur is not able to access the right sort of markets to raise capital for growth.

FIFI PETERS: All right, Bulelani, thanks so much for that take. We’ll leave it there. Really, as you say, it’s all about the implementation. It will really be interesting to see how it is implemented and how impactful it will be. But we’ll leave it there.

Bulelani Balabala is the founder of the Township Entrepreneurs Alliance.

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