South African kids find their inner Donald Trump

Donald Trump would be so proud.

All across South Africa - in every elementary and middle school - kids are crafting business plans, doing market research, balancing budgets, and hawking everything from hot dogs at 50 cents a pop to car washes for $7 each.

In a dramatic bid to tackle this country's persistent unemployment rate of at least 35 percent, entrepreneurship has become a key part of the evolving postapartheid curriculum. Students can't count on getting good jobs when they graduate, so they're being taught to create their own work - and help forge a kind of Apprentice Nation.

It won't be easy. The latest edition of Global Entrepreneurship Monitor - a survey of 31 countries - ranked South Africa 22nd in entrepreneurial activity, down from 19th last year. Experts say it's partly due to the lingering effects of apartheid, as well as a cultural disinclination toward do-it-yourself capitalism.

Yet in a bustling classroom outside Johannesburg, 32 seventh-graders are hustling to find their inner Donalds. As part of a twice-weekly Economic and Management Sciences class, they're spending several weeks learning what it takes to start a hot dog stand. Today's lesson: the four means of production - resources, capital, labor, and entrepreneurs.

It's all preparation for the annual "Entrepreneurship Day" at Weltevreden Park Primary, a public school in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. Once a year, all sixth- and seventh-graders set up stalls on the athletic field.

They usually sell playful toys like shaving cream pies or "jelly syringes" (plastic sleeves filled with jam). But some kids are more ambitious. Last year one group offered $7 car washes - and then paid other kids to do the washing at $1.50 per car. They reaped more than $300 in profit without even getting wet.

Another group rented an inflatable boxing ring and oversized boxing gloves. They persuaded male teachers to stand in the ring and let kids - who paid $1.50 for two minutes - take some swings at them. The team made about $540.

Despite the moneymaking potential, teacher Ryno Rheeder warns his kids about the hardships of an entrepreneurial life. "I'm a teacher, and I get four lekker vacations a year," he says using an Afrikaans word for "great." "But if you're an entrepreneur you won't go on holiday much." Still, he asks the class, "Would you rather work for the boss - or be the boss?" The chorus responds enthusiastically: "Be the boss!"

Shedding apartheid's legacy

Such sentiment is unusual in South Africa, where decades of apartheid skewed the job market and sapped entrepreneurial spirit. Whites were virtually guaranteed jobs - and thus had little incentive to embark on capitalist ventures. Meanwhile, vast numbers of blacks were unemployed - and thus weren't building job skills. With few exceptions, blacks weren't allowed to own businesses.

Also, the apartheid-era education system - for blacks and whites - emphasized conformist thinking. "The system didn't encourage creativity and independent thought," which are key to an entrepreneurial culture, says John Orford, a University of Cape Town business school professor.

Furthermore, blacks were often denied basic education. In 1996, one-quarter of South African black adults had no education at all, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, which pegged education as a key concern in South Africa.

The survey - headed by a group at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. - found in 2003 that only 4.3 percent of South African adults were part of a business that was less than 3.5 years old. The 31-country average was 8.8 percent. Entrepreneurship leaders included Uganda, Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile. In South Africa's neighboring Uganda, 29.3 percent were involved in new firms.

Uganda's success suggests that the African communal ethic - ubuntu - needn't be a barrier to the individualistic entrepreneurial culture. Ubuntu dictates that people who get rich share much of their money with family and friends. This can be crucial in times of communal need, but it can also make individual saving and investing difficult.

Furthermore, "it doesn't necessarily encourage the very American notion of the individual rising star," says Margie Worthington-Smith, head of the South African Institute for Entrepreneurship in Cape Town. In fact, among blacks, some rising stars are criticized for being uppity.

But such traditions are being challenged by the American-style curriculum now in Grades 1 through 9. Soon it will be available in 10th and 11th grade.

Future hot dogs of business

Back in Mr. Rheeder's mixed-race classroom, talk turns to resources needed for the hot-dog stand. Five boys get into a heated debate over what will power their hot-dog warmer - electricity, gas, or wood fire. "But if we're in a rural area, we won't have electricity," insists Matthew Mokobori, a black kid. "Good point," concedes Sanish Sampath, an Indian.

Entrepreneurship Day may be eight months away, but these boys are already planning. Maybe they'll sell miniburgers, which were a hit last year. Or maybe they'll set up a video-game booth stocked with GameBoys.

"You have to sell something different - not the shaving cream pies and stuff everyone else sells," declares Matthew in a confident tone that might impress even The Donald. He's not sure what he'll be peddling, but he knows his first step: "I'll do some market research to find out what people want - and how much they would pay for it."

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