NOTHING makes one feel more like hanging one’s head in shame, if not bristling with anger, than to see three elderly women scrummage through rubbish bins for scraps of food. Worse still, what they find must also feed hungry young mouths at home, probably in some shack in a squatter camp.

This was in Grahamstown last week and it is evidently a daily routine. It is also commonplace if we recall that in East London people regularly foraged for food in a city rubbish dump. In fact, this is countrywide, as the University of Cape Town’s African Food Security Unit Network talks of a food crisis that constitutes a "death sentence" for many who are forced to scavenge for scraps.

The unit found that in Johannesburg, for instance, 43% of the poor faced starvation and malnutrition. According to the study, the hungriest people are in Cape Town (80%) and Msunduzi, in KwaZulu-Natal (87%). The situation in Gauteng particularly galls as we just need to look at how Sandton, the richest enclave in Africa, shamelessly lives cheek by jowl with Alexandra, one of SA’s grubbiest spots.

We have such islands of opulence throughout the country surrounded by communities in which unemployed parents watch their children die slowly of starvation or continue to be trapped in the cycle of poverty. This cycle of poverty is a phenomenon that damns families and/or communities to lives of impoverishment from generation to generation as they do not have access to critical resources such as education and financial services.

At times, I recall the rousing speeches of the 1970s and 1980s in which we promised all and sundry a better life after apartheid. Our promises seem to have worked at the political level, but we are yet to create that cohesive society that, of its own volition, creates institutions or social compacts that are a phalanx against poverty and inequality. Conscience is the base for such compacts.

Our past was premised on silos in which the government did its own thing, the universities did theirs, the Setas blithely went their own way, the chambers had their programmes and the private sector prided itself on its market approach.

Thus, as a resident of Sandton, I blushingly ask myself and my neighbours: "Is our conscience that dead that we see nothing wrong?" Yet, this is a time bomb as the hungry and starving will not accept this forever. The case for greater urgency in small business development becomes all the more pertinent. This is a sustainable solution as grants and handouts, which understandably and commendably have lifted millions out of hunger, are of limited duration.

Comments by DA shadow small business minister Toby Chance in the Financial Mail of October 9, underscore the urgency with which new Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu must undertake her mandate. Our immediate duty is to support existing black small businesses to be more viable. Forget the race card but just know that these communities wallow in poverty. We should thus help small businesses in these communities graduate from one level to the next as this makes them hire people.

As an example, the fibre processing and manufacturing sector and training authority (Seta) linked up with the Centre for Entrepreneurship at the Wits Business School and took 42 small business, most from the townships, through a tough enterprise strengthening programme. These entities had been around for more than two years, and were not making headway. Two Fridays ago they graduated and the expressions of gratitude and determination on the faces of the graduates indicated a band of people who now knew what to do. This is the route to take as we must create partnerships and ecosystems that provide much-needed oxygen to small business.

As Chance points out, small business development thrives in an ecosystem approach in which all play their respective roles. Our past was premised on silos in which the government did its own thing, the universities did theirs, the Setas blithely went their own way, the chambers had their programmes and the private sector prided itself on its market approach. This has simply not worked and the evidence, continuing unemployment and inequality, is there for all to see.

Zulu’s task is to turn things around and, among many stratagems, she must make all of us work together to grow small business. After all, if this succeeds, future generations will be eternally grateful.

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