Updated: Nov 21, 2020
My first full time employment in 1981, was at a small manufacturing company employing thirty plus people. I worked in the upstairs design office with a two seventy degree elevated view over the surrounding mini factories. Early mornings started with droves of people making their way in to their places of employment. At 7am, the reliable buzz of equipment and elevated voices, with regular deliveries of materials and collections of locally manufactured product was a given. Products included, golf carts, trolleys, garden furniture, umbrellas, shop interiors, signage and other. I recall a tremendous sense of pride, when recognizing the manufactured goods by this community of producers in the retail stores around the country. I was even more proud in the knowledge that many of the collections were for export abroad.
I have on two occasions, needed to drive past this area in recent weeks. Frankly it is akin to skirting a cemetery on a Monday. Only a handful of people can be observed. The loading zones that used to spill over with goods awaiting dispatch are now barren and lifeless, the normally open roller shutters are down and there is now an abundance of vacant parking.
The products that I used to witness being made are still available, but no longer made in South Africa. Why? In my view, based on my experience of once having once owned a manufacturing business. The trade unions have made it near impossible to operate. Capitalists are the enemy and at times one feels at war with ones workforce. It is thoroughly unpleasant and honestly, I am happy to no longer be part of manufacturing. I have a great admiration for those who remain in manufacturing and are able to make it work.
At that time, an entrepreneur would obtain a loan to equip a business to produce goods. Now one gets the same loan to “import” product from other countries to supply the “same” market as previous. The benefit to the entrepreneur relinquishing manufacture of goods in in favor of importing is; now no longer needing to worry about a salary bill that is 30% of ones turnover, rent on a huge floor space, industrial action, non-delivery of materials, tight margins, bad debt and more. That person is now able to scale down their operation to fewer personnel than the fingers on one hand in a much smaller and cheaper business premises, focus on sales and procurement with less stress for a similar financial return.
The demise of small manufacture in South Africa that previously punched well above its weight as a consequence of a near impossible business environment, largely created by over-regulation and the actions of our trade unions in my view. This serves only to increase the wealth of the offshore workforce that has replaced our own. They are the ones now able to educate their children for a more prosperous future. Not only are fewer South Africans now employed, they are not acquiring the skills that will enable them to start their own enterprises if so inclined. The on going inter generational passing down of innovative knowledge and skills, which is a major factor in the success in countries such as Germany is no longer the norm but the exception.
We live in a country where it is not politically correct to broach certain subjects for fear of being branded. This is likely to be the reason for why there is not enough apparent focus on the actual effect of trade unions on our economy. Whilst it is important to acknowledge the role of trade unions as a bargaining mechanism in our society, it is equally important to call them out for the destruction that they have and continue to inflict on our over-regulated business environment.
Entrepreneurs see possibility, even when broader society has stopped believing. They are the people who action progress, employ people and give others a chance to improve their lives, the lives of their families and broader society via their tax revenue. There needs to be a new narrative where they are supported and not vilified by those in prominent political positions. If this does not happen the people of this beautiful country will continue to wallow in the mess that we have imposed on ourselves at best.
I put pen to paper on this subject to try and make sense of a country that was largely self sufficient in catering for its needs just a few decades ago and now no longer is. It is purely my opinion as a small business owner, based on my personal observation in a business climate that is becoming more challenging by the day. It need not be this way!
Modelart. Founded in 1988. “The Original Modelart”