Pimping the wheel: an anthropologist’s view of entrepreneurship in SA

South Africa is as wrapped up in the myth of the rock star entrepreneur as the rest of the world. But what kind of entrepreneurs are we developing, and why?

This is the question that Melissa Beresford, an anthropologist PhD student from Arizona State University, has set out to answer.

She has spent the last 11 months in SA doing research for her thesis, focusing on the cultural models of entrepreneurship across low-resource and high-resource environments in the country.

This topic wasn’t her original plan. Beresford had spent the last two years working on doing her PhD on the model of collective action in the local rooibos industry.

“I came out to Cape Town and within the month the model completely collapsed and suddenly I didn’t have a thesis,” she says. “Through my original research I had met some incredible entrepreneurs such as the team from BOS and Red Espresso and I realised that everyone was talking about entrepreneurship, so I started to investigate it.”

SA is in an interesting time for anybody, but especially for an anthropologist.

“The country is just one generation into its post-democratic transition. The local context, with its uneasy economic, social and political history, then mixes with the global narrative of Silicon Valley and you have a really interesting piece of research waiting to be tackled,” says Beresford.

Essentially there are two perspectives to investigate in SA. First, that the highly resourced white population is moving towards entrepreneurship because of pressure from the economic and employment landscape. Second, that less resourced people of colour who grew up in an era where their parents couldn’t or struggled to own and run businesses are taking this opportunity to do so.

When discussing some of her initial findings, Beresford reflected that she knew the race conversation would be prominent.

“I expected it to be there, as racial barriers still exist in the economy. When talking to entrepreneurs of colour, it would come up in the first ten minutes of the interview. The barriers were around not having the resources, networks or family connections to ease the journey. White entrepreneurs are aware of race as a barrier, but it’s more theoretical as the results of no resources and networks were not as keenly felt,” says Beresford.

“Everyone felt the need for more integration. One interviewee said: we need to work with and learn from the white business population in SA that has been engaged with this for so long. I don’t want to invent the wheel. I want to pimp it. We have so much to add that can benefit all of us across the entrepreneurial system.”

What surprised Beresford during her interviews was that the vast majority of entrepreneurs she spoke to were not doing it for the money.

“It’s not that they aren’t financially focused, they want to create successful businesses and make lots of money, but it’s not the first priority. Job creation was the most important thing,” says Beresford. “And this was across all resource environments, from the most resourced to the least.”

“A lot of people spoke about justice and social change. Their businesses are vehicles of change, a way of reconceptualising the economy and the core concept of value.”

There is a general sense of disillusionment with the old economic model as it has led to a situation where corporates seem to have all the power and this is not benefiting the people who work for or interact with them. “It’s like everyone is saying ‘I am not a resource to be exploited for the needs of the corporate. I have value beyond the hours I can invest with you and I want that to be respected’,” says Beresford

These entrepreneurs are looking to their businesses to deliver social change.

“NGOs are the previous generation’s model of creating change. For this generation of South Africans it will be the entrepreneurs, who are building with a strong social centre to their models. Profit is no longer a dirty word.”

The greatest opportunity, as far as Beresford can see, is integration.

“There are so many initiatives, really good ones, but no one is talking to each other. It would be so incredible to connect, across high and low resourced environments and see what could be possible when people started to really talk. There is such desire to build a community and if SA could harness that, it would be powerful,” concludes Beresford.

Beresford is back in the US and expects to complete her thesis in 2018.

Feature image: Kevin via Flickr.

Update: correction on the months spent in SA.

Sarah Rice


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