Monday, January 6, 2014

Make Entrepreneurship Central to National Policy

This article first appeared in Finweek, 14 November 2013.
South Africans often criticise their Government for formulating great policies but failing to adequately implement them. While there have been pockets of brilliance in policy formulation that have served the country well, allowing us to navigate the stormy seas of the global economy, there are also a fair number of policies that have had the unintended consequence of restricting progress. Twenty years into democracy, it is time we wake up from denial and shrug off our protectionist outlook and change what doesn’t work while improve what works.

For starters, we must make entrepreneurship central to national economic policy formulation. I am talking about entrepreneurship, and not SMME development. I am talking about a deliberate national economic policy that seeks to back entrepreneurs and innovators on a serious scale, to create new products and services, access new markets, spawn new industries and, over time, create meaningful employment and grow the tax base.

I am not referring to a drive to support small businesses that remain small and only employ the founder and a handful of unskilled labour. I am talking about the state having a mechanism to identify, develop and fund entrepreneurs and innovators who show great potential for the ultimate benefit of South Africa. I am talking about a mechanism that could have identified an Elon Musk. I am talking about a mechanism that should be developing, supporting and funding a Siyabulela Xuza – the former praise singer turned science and technology entrepreneur.

The good news is that we’ve done this before. It wasn’t as structured as I propose, but it yielded unprecedented results – the benefits of which we still enjoy today. I have told the story of this gentleman before. It is very relevant in the context of how a different outlook can lead to great benefits for the state.

Meet Hendrik van der Bijl. Born in 1887, he graduated from what is today known as Stellenbosch University with distinctions in mathematics and chemistry. After university young Van der Bijl decided to further his studies in Germany. After completing his studies, he met Robert Millikan, the eminent American physicist. Millikan was impressed with the young man and recommended the young scientist to executives from the Western Electric Company. Van der Bijl accepted their job offer and moved to New York.

The first successful transmission of speech by radio was made in 1915. Later that year speech was transmitted by radio over a distance of more than 8 000km. Van der Bijl was the young scientist who managed to get the amplifiers to work to the precise tolerances required over this very long distance. By 1917, Van der Bijl had made significant contributions to the development of the photoelectric cell and by these means, also made a significant contribution to the development of the television.

Back in SA, General Jan Smuts had assumed the reins of power in Government. Smuts believed that a scientific adviser would be an asset to his Cabinet. Van der Bijl was persuaded to return to SA and in 1920 he left the US. He soon started making plans for a public utility to provide the South African industry with cheap electricity. The capital would be provided by the State and the company would be run on commercial lines.

In 1923, the Electricity Supply Commission (Escom, now Eskom) was founded. Van der Bijl borrowed R16m from the State and began putting his plans into action. From the outset the undertaking was a success and within 10 years van der Bijl was able to pay the State loan back.

What we know as Vanderbijlpark today is named after this great South African.

We have an opportunity to learn from our history. We have an opportunity to redefine the ideology and bigger purpose of entrepreneurship in re-positioning our nation as the game-changing economic leader of our continent. Let’s make entrepreneurship central to our economic policy.

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