South Africa makes room for a few black entrepreneurs

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The future of capitalism in South Africa may be riding on the likes of Daniel Klaas's transmission repair service, Florina Ntholeng's lingerie shop, and Mr. Dukatholi's window frames.

The businesses run by these three South African blacks are emerging from the shadowy existence to which the federal government previously relegated black commerce. In other words, some black businesses are moving from backyard sheds to proper business sites.

Slowly, around the edges, some of the laws that have suppressed black capitalism are easing, permitting greater rewards and perhaps a better reputation for an economic system now highly suspect among blacks here.

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It remains an open question whether the shift is too little, too late. Many blacks, particularly the young, have rejected capitalism because, as practiced by the white minority government of South Africa, it has offered them very little.

For the most part South African blacks have been legislated into a position of labor servitude to white-run industry. That basic relationship remains, but some blacks have hopes this will change.

That hope is evident in the enterprising spirit of blacks like Messrs. Klaas and Dukatholi, and Mrs. Ntholeng. Across South Africa, black urban townships bustle with backyard businesses that for years have operated outside the law. They are known by reputation rather than a hanging shingle.

What looks like a junk heap of old automobiles may be a thriving car-parts service. A cluttered back porch may be the ''factory'' for metal basins.

Klaas, Dukatholi, and Ntholeng, all former operators of backyard shops, now do business ''aboveboard'' at a new industrial park in the Katlehong township near Johannesburg.

This industrial park houses 25 small businesses in corrugated metal stalls and is the first to be owned by South African blacks. More important, it represents a tentative step forward by black capitalists into an environment where there are better prospects for growth.

These businesses are legal because of a 1979 change of government policy that permits blacks to engage in service industries and small-scale manufacturing in their own townships. The only commerce the government used to tolerate by blacks was business aimed at daily essential needs, such as ''mom and pop'' food stores and small cafes.

Still, huge obstacles to black business remain. Blacks are not allowed to do business in ''white'' areas, where the most lucrative market exists.

Daniel Klaas, clad in grease-smeared blue overalls, says he repaired automobile transmissions in his backyard shop for nine years. He started the business when the company he worked for went broke.

''My wife was worried,'' he says. ''She didn't know I would pick myself up to the standard I have today.'' Mr. Klaas now employs three in his tidy shop at the Katlehong industrial site and draws business from black and white patrons.

He hopes his business will grow ''bigger and bigger,'' not only for financial gain, but also because ''I want to show that Africans can do big business in their own townships.''

Mrs. Ntholeng began sewing slips and petticoats nearly 20 years ago in a corner of her kitchen, while tending six children. She hawked her products on street corners or door to door. She avoided the police, who, she says, harassed her for doing business illegally.

In a small corrugated metal stall with a hanging light fixture, Mrs. Ntholeng works to keep up with growing sales. She needs more sewing machines. But she produces more with electric machines in this location than she did on the manual she used in her home, which had no electricity.

An official of the Urban Foundation, which helped launch the Katlehong industrial park, says the backyard industry in that township remains huge. Many of the businesses are now legal, but probably not licensed. They remain in backyards because there are no other sites for them.

No one knows the number of black-owned backyard businesses in South Africa. But Sam Motsuenyane, chairman of the National African Federated Chambers of Commerce, says they involve a ''vast population'' and ''far outnumber'' registered black businesses.

The idea behind the Katlehong project is to offer budding black entrepreneurs better facilities as well as technical advice so their businesses can expand and tap new markets.

The parastatal Small Business Development Corporation is also establishing business sites for blacks in the townships. The demand is huge. There were 500 applicants for the 44 stalls in the first SBDC business park to open in Soweto.

But the limited funds available for more industrial parks for blacks means ''we can only nibble at the fringes,'' according to Mr. Motsuenyane. The way he sees it, enhancing and developing backyard businesses is the key to developing black capitalism. It can provide jobs and skills training that are essential to economic stability in South Africa.

Just as important, such black-owned businesses provide a measure of independence and self-esteem that is missing when blacks serve mainly as a labor pool for white industry, Motsuenyane says.

''Capitalism is not popular with young blacks. It is seen as exploitive, it is seen as the system responsible for segregation and the basic denial of rights in South Africa,'' he says. ''If more opportunities could be created (for backyard businesses) and the laws amended, the image (of capitalism) could improve in time.''

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