Entrepreneurs play crucial role as nation-builders with a keen edge

This 1938 file photo shows German chancellor Adolf Hitler and his personal representative Rudolf Hess. The Third Reich promulgated two laws that prohibited the establishment of new start-ups in retail and greatly constrained already existing small retailers, says the author.

This 1938 file photo shows German chancellor Adolf Hitler and his personal representative Rudolf Hess. The Third Reich promulgated two laws that prohibited the establishment of new start-ups in retail and greatly constrained already existing small retailers, says the author.

Published Jul 11, 2024


By Zinhle Mncube

Yes, this is a post-elections hangover piece but no, I won’t be drawing parallels such as how like nation-building, entrepreneurship requires work and unrelenting dedication. No. In this VUCA world (that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous), we may need to catch a wake-up on certain realities.

An aside to my Nguni-understanding friends: kindly nudge the non-Nguni language speakers towards the right direction with my play on words there, thanks! The purpose of this article is to speak on where entrepreneurship finds itself in the national democratic project.

Like millions of South Africans, I was part of the snaky queues to have a shoddy permanent marker painted on my thumb in selecting the government of the 7th administration. What is worth noting is that no party had a strong small business or entrepreneurship bent about them or a spirited advocacy around entrepreneurship in their campaigning.

This is not to say they were against entrepreneurs. But they weren’t that vocal about them either. No one’s voice went hoarse chanting for small businesses. Part of me thinks it’s because of the difficulty in finding a word rhyming with entrepreneurs.

While they did not outrightly sing for them, none of the parties dare not appreciate their importance if the country is ever to course correct. Globally, development goals and ambitions have leaders in firm lock-step with entrepreneurs.

However, I wonder to what extent entrepreneurs and (small) business owners see themselves as part and parcel of nation-building or the national democratic project of an emerging country such as ours.

South Africa’s categorisation in its emerging status is true both in its sprightly age (30 years is a toddler in nation years) and in its promise of economic growth. There are certain quarters that would insist our entrance into the BRICS countries is that of a small letter “s”, but we are nevertheless part of the collective as arguably the biggest economy on the continent.

Historically, entrepreneurs have been one of the key thrusts in advancing economic and societal welfare in countries. There are obvious means in which entrepreneurship does this. These include job creation and increased tax contributions through company taxes, and personal income taxes from salaried workers employed by entrepreneurial endeavours.

This leads to an increased fiscus that, when used responsibly assists in the development of societal nets for the marginalised, and develops key economic and social infrastructure. This is well known. However, entrepreneurs do far more for societies in building and sustaining democracy, which makes them vital cogs when a country as young as South Africa seeks to mature.

To better reflect on my assertion, I would like to reference a paper written by David Audretsch and Petra Moog titled, “Democracy and Entrepreneurship” (2020), which looks at three country scenarios of how entrepreneurship was used as a lever to advance or even regress democracy.

Their first case study they used was quite morbid, but necessary: Adolf Hitler and his National Socialism party’s ascension. One of the first sets of laws the Third Reich introduced was targeted at entrepreneurs and small business owners. These laws were the Law to Protect Retail Trade and the Law to Eliminate Independent Handwork Entrepreneurs. Both these laws prohibited the establishment of new start-ups in retail and greatly constrained already existing small retailers.

By not allowing them to advertise or market their goods, a well-constructed road to business failure was paved. These and many other laws concerning entrepreneurs would effectively bring enterprise to a halt, legalise cartels, and ultimately remove independent thinking, self-determination and autonomous decision-making – key tenets of a healthy democracy.

This does not simply mean that for entrepreneurship to thrive democracy needs to be healthy; China is an example of a nation with no democratic foundation, but has a robust state-encouraged entrepreneurship ecosystem .

What I am positioning though is that in a democratic society like ours, entrepreneurs make a significant contribution towards freedom of expression. which is showcased in their business ventures. Without this principle being actualised, we run the risk of our society being on autopilot and relying on benevolent leaders to do what is best for nations.

This freedom provides a platform for critiquing, independence of thought to problem solve, innovation, engaging robustly, failing forwards, progressively iterating, and relishing (and looking to outdo) competition. These entrepreneurial values, when part of the societal fabric, spill over to the formation of a government and its use of laws and policies to create what Michael Porter refers to as nations with a competitive advantage.

We have often overlooked entrepreneurs by unfortunately categorising them as a by-product of a conducive environment. This would explain why they are not front and centre of any national campaigns or voting points. This view counters history.

In entrepreneurship as we have established, resides economic, social and democratic welfare because building a business is a comprehensive exercise on commercial, human, and political intersectionality.

Our youth as a country does show itself in many ways and while exciting at times, we cannot be juvenile for long. As a country we are the12-year old allowed to play with the first rugby team. Daunting, but we have the talent and natural qualities that put us in the mix with the big boys. Sooner rather later though we do need to build up some muscle and learn a few tricks.

As more start-ups and SMMEs build up their ventures, there are direct and indirect qualities being inculcated that are critical in the development of nations being formed. With that understanding and acceptance, I firmly believe “whatever” can rhyme well with entrepreneur; I will leave it to the copy-writing experts to formulate a winning slogan. My gumboots are ready.

Zinhle Mncube is head of Business and Partnerships at 22 On Sloane, Africa’s largest entrepreneurship campus