S. Africa's black capitalists push different vision of power

Chris Khoza is, unabashedly, a black capitalist. In a nation whose race conflict has drawn many black leaders toward a vaguely, yet militantly, defined preference for socialism, he and hundreds of other entrepreneurs represent a different vision of black power. They are, says Mr. Khoza from his bustling Soweto office, ``people with a stake in stability - people who have worked hard for what they've gained.''

To encourage - replicate - them is becoming a priority for the South African government and for reform-minded businessmen who want South Africa to shelve the system of forced race segregation known as apartheid - without shelving a Western-style free-market society. Opposing such programs is a priority for many black activists.

At least one prominent white businessman here, Bob Tucker of the SA Perm, a savings and loan corporation, finds nothing strange in such opposition. ``For millions of black people, apartheid and capitalism are synonymous,'' he says.

``Capitalism is a jolly good idea if a person has some capital.'' But most blacks, notes Mr. Tucker, are hard pressed to overcome social, economic, and educational disadvantages and compete as equals in a free-market system. ``In this context, any black who enters the capitalist system is seen as looking to advance himself at the expense of others. Outsiders who encourage this are seen as trying to ameliorate apartheid, and create a black middle class to bolster a system of economic domination,'' Tucker says.

Still, he figures, one has to start somewhere. With 13 others, white and black, he sits on the executive board of South Africa's recently established Small Business Development Corporation. The corporation is privately run, but gets matching funds from the government.

Since its birth in 1981, SBDC has put together a nationwide network of business advisers, talent scouts, and ``entrepreneur training'' facilities where capital-short capitalists are given low-rent premises, machinery, and expert advice on how to start a small business.

Most, but not all, of the applicants are black. The emphasis is on helping members of the black community's small army of unemployed parlay their skills into a workable business and, if all goes well, employ others.

Young Tsubane, assembling wooden toys in an alcove at one of the SBDC entrepreneurs' centers, lost his job as recession hit South Africa in 1982. For a while, he made wooden toys at home. Now, using factory-surplus wood, he assembles seven or eight tiny wooden scooters daily, at a cost of 30 rand ($15) apiece. They sell for 45 rand.

In another of the subdivided alcove factories, Henry Johnson, a mixed-race ``Colored,'' is assembling wooden shoeshine boxes. Each box, he and the SBDC figure, could mean a job for the jobless - now that the government seems ready to back off from a crackdown that drove black shoeshiners from city streets.

``I was down and out,'' Mr. Johnson says, ``after I lost my job as a foreman in a factory - until I saw an SBDC advertisement in a newspaper.'' Now he has taken on one employee - to paint the boxes he makes - and plans to branch out by making garage doors. ``When I get on my feet, I hope to move out into a workshop of my own.''

That, says SBDC official Jan Prinsloo, is just the idea. ``Most [people] here are skilled, but unemployed. Our role is to help them become entrepreneurs, to provide facilities, finance, advice to help them cross that bridge.''

So far, the SBDC has provided some 8,500 easy-term loans worth some $100 million for infant ventures.

Much of its funding helps establish mini-businesses in the black townships near large cities. It is in an SBDC-supported Soweto industrial park that Mr. Khoza, a former Johannesburg bank clerk, recently set up offices for his clothing and building management firms.

He and his fellow entrepreneurs, he says, are like capitalists anywhere. ``The idea is not to plan to create jobs. The idea is to do business, make money. ... and this automatically creates jobs.'' Though he says he's not involved in politics, he draws political implications from small business. ``People in business have a stake, security ... something to protect.'' For each young black entrepreneur, Khoza notes, there are many more who are unemployed. ``The people who talk about the need for a redistribution of wealth are those who don't have wealth. They have nothing to lose.... If someone comes to them talking revolution, they fly for it,'' Khoza says.

In another black township, the SBDC has helped plan black-run supermarkets, bakeries, even funeral parlors, and granted some 900 home loans.

``The aim,'' a black entrepreneur says, ``is to create stability - and to give blacks economic power.

``I am worried,'' he adds, ``about how others in the township view us. I myself have problems with the SBDC. In a way, I feel they are trying to cheat us, co-opt us. But I feel that the black people must put themselves in a position where they have economic power. Then, we will be in a position to use that power as we see fit.''

This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.

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