The upcoming state of the nation address to be delivered by President Jacob Zuma on Thursday evening needs to be directed primarily at the 9-million unemployed South Africans. For them, the state of the nation is dire.

Without a truly visionary plan for the country to come together to create opportunities for those seeking work, the AHI believes our nation is in trouble. What the 9-million unemployed want to, need to, hear this week is what the government is doing to reach out to the private sector to create a real partnership for sustainable job creation.

The private sector has on many occasions over the past year made it clear that it is more than willing to help tackle the challenge, provided government policy enables it to do so. Government and the private sector have together been hugely successful in drawing millions of the country’s previously disadvantaged citizens into what is generally regarded as the middle class over the past 20 years. However, millions of others, often handicapped by insufficient education, poor infrastructure and access to markets are increasingly being left on the sidelines.

The theme of this year’s address is The Year of Oliver Reginald Tambo: Unity in Action Together Moving SA Forward. From the huge multinationals, which have grown from South African roots, to the smallest of small business chambers in the country’s rural areas, all have repeatedly declared themselves willing to help rejuvenate the country’s economy and in the process grow job opportunities for those less fortunate.

So, while commemorating the greats of the past, we need to encourage the greats of the future. The president’s address should be clear and concise about government’s plans for building a more inclusive economy, relying heavily on what economists and researchers know to be true: that small and medium-enterprises contribute 30%, conservatively, to our GDP and as many as 60% of new jobs. Without encouraging and enabling the SME sector, the greats of the future may be people we’ll never hear about. The government must resist restrictive legislation and regulations.

It must enhance stability and certainty. Certainty that stable government policy will always be aimed at growth and ease of market entry. At enabling fair competition. And certainty that the government — in co-operation with the private sector — will ensure an education system delivering people well-trained and suitably skilled for the demands of a growing economy. The president will likely tell us about a new minimum wage. In principle, the AHI welcomes the dialogue around this issue at Nedlac and awaits the period for public comment.

But we encourage participants in the debate to pay heed to the precarious needs of businesses gaining a toehold. While economists have indeed pointed out that not all businesses will be hampered or sunk by a legislated minimum wage, a level that one employer can afford, could destroy the next. The president is also expected to provide an update on the implementation of the programme of action based on the National Development Plan (NDP). But even the NDP barely paid lip service to the SME sector, stating merely that it required “an enabling environment”.

Since its announcement in 2013, much has been written and said by a wide range of experts on what needs to be done to implement this plan aimed at eradicating poverty by 2030. What one hopes to hear on Thursday is what the government will be doing to jump-start the NDP, urgently, and we look forward to hearing whether he will more fully commit the nation’s development into the hands of private sector job creators with appropriate policy. If members of his Cabinet are stymieing this process, those are the ones he needs to remove in his much-rumoured Cabinet reshuffle. Not the minister of finance.

The AHI believes that this is not the time to destabilise the already pressured confidence in the country’s economy. We cannot afford another round of devastating uncertainty as witnessed after the forced departure of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister. We urge the president to err on the side of caution. How to suitably honour the name of Oliver Tambo? By placing the country solidly on the road to recovery for all its citizen. This has to include job creation on a mass scale.

We hope the president recognises and will tell us that the Department of Small Business Development needs resources and strong leadership. It must orchestrate a national conversation about what obstructs the SME sector and move to clear the path. Rigid labour policies and more bureaucratic red tape are not the answer. Similarly, we hope the president recognises that education, too, will need a huge and urgent effort to turn around, but turn around it will have to if we are to grow the economy — and employment — to the benefit of all South Africans.

This is not negotiable. The government must realise by now that economic growth and good education offer the only long-term solution to unemployment. But growth will come only if the private sector is assured of the safety of its investments, stability of monetary and fiscal policy, and ease of entry into the market. This year we are commemorating Oliver Tambo. How will President Zuma be remembered when he is no longer in office? The president who enabled the country’s dramatic recovery? Or the president who finally brought down the house of cards?

Mr President, the poor, the unemployed, and the people with the tenacity to start a business need you to demonstrate statesmanship and compassion. It is within you power to enable those who can deliver. The private sector of SA and, more to the point, the small business sector, would like to be part of the challenge. Small and medium-sized businesses and 9-million job seekers are waiting to hear you.

• Swanepoel is president of the AHI, which represents small business.

Article published in The Business Day:


Our troubled nation needs a compassionate statesman as its leader

President Jacob Zuma could honour Oliver Tambo in his speech by placing SA solidly on the road to recovery for all its citizens, writes Bernard Swanepoel