Different way of thinking about business after July unrest

The Brookside Mall in Pietermaritzburg was one of the retail centres set ablaze by protesters unrest and looting in KwaZulu-Natal in July. File photo.
The Brookside Mall in Pietermaritzburg was one of the retail centres set ablaze by protesters unrest and looting in KwaZulu-Natal in July. File photo.
Image: Twitter

Something remarkable happened in Nelson Mandela Bay in mid-July.

Riots and looting were sweeping through KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, leading to the deaths of more than 300 people, destruction of commercial facilities and public infrastructure, and severe disruption of supply chains for food, fuel, medicine and other essentials.

Fears were high that this unstable, unpredictable situation would spread to the Eastern Cape, affecting public facilities, businesses, logistics and jobs.

That it did not is something that, I’m sure, we are all grateful for.

During this difficult time, our communities and businesses found an unexpected ally in the taxi industry.

The story of these “unlikely heroes” briefly made headlines, but then quickly faded amid the aftermath of mopping-up, restoring supply chains, repairs and reconstruction, questions of insurance liability and attempts to understand the reasons and causes behind the uprising.

Four months on, and with many other issues having occupied the public mind since, it bears reflecting on a situation that led to an unexpected and positive engagement of big business with the informal economy, and what we may have learnt.

With the first stirrings of unrest in KwaZulu-Natal, our company, like many others, went on to high alert — activating emergency and contingency plans, tapping into all our networks to try to get a sense of the lay of the land across SA.

First came the dramatic scenes of destruction, arson and wanton looting from Durban and then, within 48 hours, sporadic outbreaks in Gauteng.

Locally, there were scares at Baywest and Cleary Park malls, and at retailers in Zwide and New Brighton, leading to precautionary closures.

It felt inevitable that the unrest would spread to the rest of SA.

And then, in between videos of looting doing the rounds on WhatsApp and social media, came a different kind of message.

The first to land in my inbox was a video message from the chair of the Despatch Community Policing Forum, calling on residents to unite with the forum, the taxi industry and police to make a statement against looting.

“The little that we have in Despatch is going to be protected.

“We are not going to allow people to come and destroy this place here. ... As residents, let us be united in our diversity,” he said, his message quickly followed by others.

Across the metro, people were reaching out — community leaders, taxi owners and their associations — saying: “Not on our watch.”

The regional body of the national taxi council, Santaco, rallied taxi owners and their community networks to protect malls and shops in our metro as well as in East London, Mthatha, Engcobo and other centres of the province.

It was an enormous community response, aimed at protecting infrastructure, jobs and livelihoods, and it worked.

What stood out was, first, the sense of wisdom, maturity and solidarity of the communities of the Eastern Cape, and second, how the taxi industry mobilised and showed leadership to make sure our communities and businesses remained safe.

In the immediate aftermath, we wanted to do something to express our gratitude, and we reached out to the taxi industry through the business chamber and the mayor’s office.

We could have simply made a donation and taken a photograph, but we decided to do something different, offering a hand-up rather than a handout.

In our engagement with Santaco, we offered to sponsor entrepreneurship training for taxi owners and they accepted.

It has been an enriching experience for both parties.

As much as retailers were initially suspicious of the taxi industry’s offer of protection — understandably, given that conflict in the industry had shut our city down for days just months before — so were the taxi owners hesitant about this offer from a big business.

After the initial hesitancy, the response has been overwhelming, with the taxi owners finding real value in practical skills and insights into how to run their businesses more effectively, so much so that we will offer more training sessions in 2022 and build this initiative into our CSI programme.

So, what have we learnt? Both big business and the taxi industry are often maligned, for different reasons, but in many ways we are reliant on and work in support of each other without ever really acknowledging it.

Our company is in the business of supporting entrepreneurs.

SPAR is effectively a wholesaler — in the Eastern Cape, we supply more than 250 owner-managed stores — and the more successful they are, the more successful we are.

The same goes for the informal economy, be it taxis or street vendors of fresh produce, fast foods and crafts — we all exist in the same system, symbiotically.

If big business can add value in that space, there is a potentially very positive ripple effect on the communities we all serve, on livelihoods, reducing poverty and building greater social cohesion.

It just takes a different way of thinking; of embracing and nurturing the spirit of solidarity that arose out of a dark time in our country.

Let’s not allow that ray of light to be just a flash, but keep it shining.

Angelo Swartz is MD of SPAR Eastern Cape and a board member of the Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber.

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