Over the last seven weeks I have been witnessing my clients and peers going through an impossible process. Most of the business owners I work with have taken years to develop teams and to grow their business with incredibly hard work. Building value in the world is not for sissies and it takes a great deal of courage. It is only for the lion hearted.
I have been watching these brave, committed people struggling with the incredible responsibility of being employers in the current situation. They have had to pay people not knowing if or when the money from TERS or UIF would come. They have had sleepless nights and panic attacks worrying about their staff and how they were going to make it all work.
Many of these businesses survived the 2008 crash, built themselves and their teams up again, only to deal with the reality of having their businesses taken from them at this time. I have listened to people who in the past have been the first to talk about opportunity and how South Africa is the place to be. People who were loyal and committed to being here, creating jobs and making a life for themselves and others.
In the last two weeks I have watched a number of these brave people break down under the financial pressure of having to pay staff that are not working and retrench people they were committed to because they can no longer hold out. The runway is gone. I have seen their desperate attempts to hold it together fail in the face of decisions made that they have no control over. I have been witnessing this and I am sad beyond words for them, for the staff they had to let go and for the lives that get shattered in this way.
Acknowledge the grief and distress
I would like to acknowledge publicly how much we owe these people. How much of our economy is created and generated by people who want to make things, do things and build businesses. I have always been in awe of the possibility-thinking and creative production that these small business owners represent for me. They are my favourite people and I have dedicated myself to serving them. I am ashes. I am ashes witnessing what they are having to do. Having to decide who they can continue to pay and who they can’t, knowing that those people that they are putting on short time, or retrenching are unlikely to find jobs anytime soon. Sitting and crying with employees who understand and are broken anyway, sitting through the abuse of those who don’t understand and are angry with them, like it’s their fault. Sitting in the middle of the night trying to figure out how to change, pivot and re arrange the business so that it will survive and all the livelihoods with it.
These traumatised people are our economic engine room. These people who make things happen are demoralised in ways I have never seen before in twenty years of working with entrepreneurs. Some are questioning their commitment to a government that is throwing them under the bus. I have heard people say that they would never have thought that they would get to place of not wanting to build their businesses here, where there seems to be so little respect at the decision making level regarding what it takes to build value, products, incomes streams and jobs.
People are giving up
“…for this first time ever, I am seriously considering packing it all in and going to Canada/Spain/ anywhere else to build all over again. I want to take what is left after this train smash and put it somewhere safe, where it can’t be broken by other people’s dithering.”
Something else I am hearing a lot is “I don’t ever want to be responsible for employing people again. I don’t ever want to have the stress and responsibility again. I’m done. I’m closing my business and I’m going to freelance.” This from people who have worked and hustled and been astoundingly resourceful to keep their business going, do what it takes and keep trucking. They don’t want to anymore. Where does that leave our economy?
Those of us who are in the business of supporting entrepreneurs have been incredibly busy in the last 8 weeks helping people strategize, pivot, think through how they can best use their assets and abilities to survive this time, find a new market, re-organise their processes to be leaner etc. This has all happened and many of these businesses in many ways had time to reset, sort out legacy issues and find smarter ways of doing things. But going into the third month of lock down, with unclear reasoning and a government that seems to have stalled at a crucial juncture, and who possibly are not understanding that the patient may die from the medicine, many are unraveling, their last chances disappearing into the confusion. Loss, and the grief of that loss is what I am witnessing.
One client raged, saying “…how can a business with over a million rand in business on its books close down and I have to tell my 18 staff members that I cannot hold it together anymore, in spite of having work – which we are not allowed to do.”
The fabric of small business in South Africa is tearing, possibly irreparably and I think that this is a disaster for our country, when the most innovative, energetic and productive elements of our society are being dismembered. Our best problem solvers and value creators are too traumatised and angry to care.
Saving lives AND the economy
I know there are reasons, I know there are realities. I know that the government is also dealing with impossible choices. I just thought you should know how hard this is for business owners, who may not only lose their own livelihoods, but those of people they care for and feel responsible for – that is a double trauma that I don’t think is properly appreciated.
It is simple to hit the brakes, but vastly more complex to move forward in a way which balances or acknowledges lives and the economy that supports those lives. Over the last decade, in amongst all the corruption and lack of capability, it has been entrepreneurs and business that have made huge contributions to keep the country afloat – creating value and then being taxed on that value.
What I fear is that they will give up and leave. Give up and stop creating value beyond themselves. That will be a terrible outcome for the people of this country. Please can those in decision making places take a moment to think about how this is going to be avoided, please.
I have worked with over 600 entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs in the last twenty years doing strategy planning and organisational development. I have worked in corporates and NGO’s. I have had my own business in one form or another for the last 17 years and have been running groups like this since I started my first business in 2003. I have produced course material for numerous business incubator programmes, and I’m passionate about seeing other entrepreneurs win. View all articles by this author.