Exploiting individual skills to break cycles of poverty: Free enterprise in Soweto

On Monday our class spent the day in Soweto, a township approximately 30 minutes southwest of Johannesburg. Soweto is home to over 6 million residents, and its 154 km2 land area is divided into 54 different locations or neighborhoods. One of these neighborhoods, Orlando West, is home to many of the powerful political activists of the apartheid era. Additionally, the famous Soweto Student Uprising of 1976 occurred in this neighborhood. We learned about the student led movement protesting the use of Afrikaans in township schools during a visit to the Hector Pieterson Museum. Hector Pieterson was a 13 year old Sowetan boy who was shot by the police during what started as a peaceful march. His death has historically been used as a symbol of all of the lives lost, though he was far from the only child killed during the uprising. The events of June 16-18, 1976 caught the world’s attention and comprised the “straw that broke the camel’s back” in terms of foreign attitudes towards the apartheid regime. After the Soweto Student Uprisings, many nations called for economic sanctions and divestment. In addition to learning all about the events and motives preceding and surrounding the student led movement in Soweto, we also made stops at Soccer City, the Nelson Mandela House Museum, and Regina Mundi Church, as well as drove by Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s home and Winnie Mandela’s current residence.

Amidst the various tour stops, we had several opportunities to observe the way people are making their livings in the free market climate of Soweto. Similar to many of the other sites we visited during our time in South Africa, there were several little market areas where various residents were selling trinkets for tourists. Because the souvenirs were largely the same as at every other market we visited, the Sowetan street merchants were trying very hard to make the experience of buying their products unique. What I found different about street market shopping in Soweto than in other areas we visited was that every single person selling products made a strong attempt to appeal to tourists’ emotions. As I browsed the different stalls, almost every man selling souvenirs asked my name and talked to me about how his products were “symbolic” of peace, love, friendship, etc. One of the most striking examples of this type of salesmanship was a gentleman selling mosaics he claimed he helped local schoolchildren make. He said if I did not purchase his products, the kids wouldn’t eat or have clothes to wear to school. It was clear that these mosaics were not really made by kids, but he tried to convince me of why purchasing one of his trinkets would be an investment in some child’s future. Although I started to get pretty annoyed with his story, I understand why folks like him do what they do. In an effort to one-up the vendor next door, some of these locals are willing to say or do just about anything to try to market their products as unique or important. Another man we passed was in full Zulu warrior garb, showing another example of some of the type of gimmicks street vendors in South Africa, but particularly in Soweto, employ.

In addition to the street market set ups, we drove by many businesses residents had started up in old shipping containers. These were similar to the types of businesses we saw in Langa and the other townships we visited. Businesses ranged from hair salons to take out restaurants to cycling tour companies. Intermixed with fruit stands and butcher shops, these container businesses lined the streets of Soweto. Advertisements for these and other businesses were painted on the sides of buildings, street medians, and signs all over Soweto. The diversity of businesses and the shear number of operations shed light on the entrepreneurial spirit clearly present in many Sowetans.

Through the range of businesses we saw, we observed the philosophy of “Vuka Uzenzele” first introduced to many of us by our walking tour guide in Langa. Vuka Uzenzele, which means “Don’t wait for tomorrow” in Xhosa, refers to the concept of “waking up and doing something for yourself”. The idea of Vuka Uzenzele was clearly present in Soweto and was evident in the businesses people were starting that exploited their individual talents and served greater purposes in the Sowetan community. People in Soweto are using their talents to start some sort of enterprise to better their lives and break the cycles of marginalization introduced by racism and cemented by apartheid. Our tour guide in Soweto told us that many members of the Sowetan middle class are starting to own their own homes, which has allowed them to make changes and repairs as well as take more ownership of the community. In this respect, it is clear that the prosperity some business owners in Soweto are experiencing is helping to reshape the community and better the lives of its members.

This prosperity clearly comes from effectively harnessing one’s creativity and drive. In his 2006 article, “Chasing the Rainbow: A survey of South Africa”, Richard Cockett states, “That creativity is South Africa’s most impressive asset, and increasingly comes from the poorest and historically most disadvantaged of South Africa’s communities, who are now building their own ladders out of poverty”. The creativity Cockett references is embodied in the vast array of businesses in Soweto and the sales tactics of their owners. All over South Africa we saw the historically marginalized doing what they could to make their situations better. However, as Cockett discusses later in his article, we also saw so many members of the community in South Africa who were not doing anything to break the cycles of poverty, oppression, and despair. The national unemployment rate was hovering around 27% at the time of publication of Cockett’s article, which shows that there are still big problems in South Africa’s communities, including Soweto. In order to more effectively move onwards and upwards from the economic drain of Apartheid, more people need to employ their creativity to build businesses and in turn employ others. The small businesses in Soweto should serve as an example for the rest of the country to “wake up and do something for themselves”, and help to usher in a new age of prosperity for South Africa. What is the best way to develop the entrepreneurs of Soweto as business owners and leaders for their nation?

 

Tweet: Spent the day in Soweto, exploring its rich history and diverse businesses! As always, impressed by the resilience and creativity of South Africans.

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6 Responses to Exploiting individual skills to break cycles of poverty: Free enterprise in Soweto

  1. avillani says:

    It seems that no matter where we went there were markets! People were selling items that were not that different from their neighbors, but the ones that could show differentiated products were in high demand! The culture of bargaining for the prices was something that I have no really seen in America, but seems to be a part of the way business is done.

  2. Emily Cable says:

    I agree that in almost every place we visited, there were vendors selling artwork and other crafts. I think it’s interesting how you noted that these people used their individual creativity as a means for income. This is interesting to note because it is clearly apparent in South Africa today, but it is not an entirely new concept. We learned of prisoners combining their talents on Robben Island in order to come together. Since many prisoners had differing talents and abilities, they benefited from sharing their abilities to teach educate one another.

  3. Adam Shapiro says:

    Do you think this idea of “Vuka Uzenzele” could benefit people in the United States as it does those of South Africa. Unemployment in the United States is a growing problem and I think people can learn a lot from this concept of “get up and do something.” This idea seems so simple and I think South Africa is a country that will continue to create jobs through this type of entrepreneurship and free enterprise. I agree with what you said about the importance of harnessing ones individual creativity and talent. Everyone has different talents and finding and embracing your skills is a big step to creating long term success no matter what part of the world your in.

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