OVER the years various studies have shown that SA has low levels of entrepreneurship. One published last year found that only 15% of the people surveyed in this country had "entrepreneurial intentions", whereas the regional average was more than 58%.

Maybe the studies are counting the wrong thing and underestimating South African entrepreneurship. A recent report in City Press wrote about a 23-year-old entrepreneur whom they named "Thabo". He is an only child, dropped out of school four years ago, lives in the Orlando East suburb of Soweto, has been in business since he was 18 and works mainly at night.

He and his three associates pull in about R12 000 "on an average day". But they split the takings with others, among them security guards and a man with a bakkie.

Thabo, according to City Press, is a "professional cable thief". He says that when he dropped out of school, the only jobs to which he was exposed were criminal activities. Cable theft was the one that paid best. Not any old cable theft: "Me and my boys specialise in railway-line cable…. That’s what we do for a living."

After getting inside information from security guards — who sometimes also act as lookouts for Thabo and his crew — the first thing they do is trip the power. Once the power blows, they remove the cable, haul it into the bushes, peel off the plastic covering and then cut the red copper into smaller pieces. When Thabo and his associates meet their buyer, they weigh the cable to determine the price. Like all entrepreneurs, they take risks.

Thabo says: "I’m aware of the risks of being electrocuted, getting arrested, or being killed by greedy people in this business, but I have no other choice." Thabo also feels "bad" about stealing cable, especially when he sees commuters left stranded. But he consoles himself with the knowledge that "everything will soon be back to normal", and that he is stealing only from the government.

Somebody in the government is talking of declaring cable theft a form of "economic sabotage". Thabo will probably just shrug his shoulders. He is perhaps not a typical "born free" — one of the people born since the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990. At any rate, we must hope not. But he is one of the 49% of grade 10s who drop out before the end of grade 12.

According to official data, 3.3-million 15-to-24-year-olds in SA are not in employment, education or training. Though Thabo has become a criminal because he says he has no other choice, he is certainly gainfully employed — or perhaps more accurately, gainfully self-employed.

With a formal labour market absorption rate among 15-to-24-year-olds of only 13%, crime must be a tempting activity for many "born frees". Juveniles between the ages of 14 and 25 account for 45% of the country’s prison population — though it is obvious that most South African criminals do not get caught.

Pressure is mounting for the introduction of a national minimum wage. But it would have to be set high to tempt Thabo and his accomplices away from their tax-free income of R12 000 a day.

Next month Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president of both the African National Congress and the country, will convene a labour conference. One way of judging its outcome will be the effect of any decisions it takes on SA’s born frees. Will the 65% of youngsters between the ages of 15 and 24 who are jobless find it easier or more difficult to enter the labour market to take up lawful employment?

Enabling people to find lawful jobs is likely to be more productive than merely giving their criminal ones a new label.

Juveniles between the ages of 14 and 25 account for 45% of the country’s prison population — though it is obvious that most South African criminals do not get caught.


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