If SA’s economy is to survive Covid, this is the example we Musk follow

Elon Musk’s founding of Tesla and SpaceX is an example of the kind of entrepreneurial mindset, culture and doggedness South Africa should make a central pillar of rebuilding the country’s post-Covid-19 economy.

Musk made history when his SpaceX launched NASA astronauts into orbit aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft on 30 May.

Reconstructing a post-Covid-19 economy provides a fresh opportunity to put South Africa’s ailing economy on a new dynamic path. The Covid-19 financial crisis offers new opportunities. Covid-19 is changing behavioural patterns, ways of working, products consumed and use of technology – which provide, new economic growth opportunities. The focus must be on starting new industries that South Africa and the world will need.

Promoting an entrepreneurial society should be the fulcrum of the post-Covid-19 reboot of the South African economy. Entrepreneurs change society. They create new industries, new jobs and new wealth – which more people can benefit from. They increase the size of economies. They fuel economic growth. They inspire a virtual cycle of others trying their hand at starting new businesses, developments and initiatives too.

East Asian economies, such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, after colonialism pushed entrepreneurship and they are now far more advanced than African countries, which did not. More recently, China and Vietnam, have determinedly pushed entrepreneurship. They have seen high growth levels, new global companies and millions of jobs created over relatively short periods.

Musk personifies the entrepreneurial spirit individual South Africans should emulate and that government, private sector and civil society should support.

Entrepreneurship often means imagining new ways of doing things, new ideas and new products, not available yet. An entrepreneurial culture has to be fostered to allow new ideas, innovations and industries to flower.

Entrepreneurship can be lonely and tough, with lots of rejections and failures. Creating new things is often also lonely, when many are skeptical of new ideas. This means that entrepreneurs will have to stick it out for long periods with fierce opposition.

Musk in 1999 co-founded PayPal, an online payments system that carries online money transfers; but was fired by the board as chief executive officer the year thereafter over differences between him and them over Musk’s preference to switch the system’s servers from a UNIX to a Microsoft Windows platform.

Musk started SpaceX after he was ousted from PayPal. Musk said in his 2012 commencement speech at the California Institute of Technology: “Going from PayPal, I thought, ‘Well, what are some of the other problems that are likely to most affect the future of humanity?” Musk said he founded Tesla in 2003 to bring cleaner energy into transport.

Musk told Forbes magazine that failure was part of entrepreneurship. “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough,” he said.

In South Africa, entrepreneurship will have to be promoted within the state, private sector and civil society. Currently, not only South African society, but also government is anti-entrepreneurship. Within the ANC government and leadership there appear to be an ideological opposition against entrepreneurship. The ideological opposition against entrepreneurs should be shed.

There is a widespread and wrong belief among many in the ANC, in fact, among many African left-leaning liberation movements that entrepreneurship is something bad, will lead to capitalist “exploitation” and that it will take power from the state. Such movements minimize the impact of entrepreneurial individuals to bring developmental transformation.

In African liberation ideology, the individual often does not matter, and everyone is lumped as part of the “collective” or the “masses”. This is the reason for the misguided phenomenon that anyone can be appointed to run complex organisations, even if they do not have the skill, as long as they are a “cadre”, which has led to the collapse of many African countries, state-owned entities and agencies.

Musk’s transformational industrial achievements show that entrepreneurial individuals matter.

In South Africa, tenderpreneurship, getting a tender, or political entrepreneurship, being middle-men or women based on one’s political connections, rather than competence or skill, is falsely seen as entrepreneurship. It is not. It in fact undermines entrepreneurship.

The South African government has had a reputation of not backing entrepreneurs.

State support for entrepreneurship is crucial. The US government gave Musk’s SpaceX a contract to build spacecraft to send a crew to the International Space Station, a modular space in Earth’s orbit.

The South African public sector should also become entrepreneurial – providing current and new services in more innovative and imaginative ways.

The state should not selectively support entrepreneurship based on colour, political faction or race.

Entrepreneurship should be part of all education at all levels, from nursery schools to higher education. In fact, it should be part of life-long learning.

South Africa’s financial sector is also not geared to support entrepreneurs. Banks more easily give credit to buy cars, rather than for new businesses or homes for that matter. State-owned development finance institutions should similarly fund entrepreneurs who create new industries, new products and new services.

Civil society, whether trade unions or community organisations should also become more entrepreneurial. Entrepreneurial trade unions would for example strike partnerships with businesses, in profit-sharing, increasing productivity and agreeing on downtime during difficult times.

Civil society organisations should become social entrepreneurs, searching for new social innovations to our social problems.

South Africa’s intractable problems, can only be solved by entrepreneurial thinking – not by ideologically fixed or boxed solutions. Only turning South Africa into an entrepreneurial society, will we prosper beyond Covid-19.

This article was originally published on 09/06/2020 by Times Select

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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