An open letter to SA’s black entrepreneurs

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An open letter to SA’s black entrepreneurs

Dear black entrepreneurs. Why am I singling you out? Why not just entrepreneurs? My answers to these questions are to be found towards the end of this letter.

You see a lot has been said in the past few years regarding race relations in our country. But for context, we shall talk about this year, 2016. We all flew in and got welcomed by one Penny Sparrow and friends. We all know what happened next.

One of the unintended consequences of the racist outburst by Ms Sparrow et al, was that we blacks started appreciating the urgent need for us to support one another; notably, in business.

Not only did the #BuyBlack Movement get rejuvenated, mang kapa mang made sure that they contribute towards this noble idea. Ideas started flowing. Promises were made: “From now on, I’m supporting my black brothers and sisters”, etc. Plenty Facebook pages were set up to support this “revolution”.

As anger turned into business opportunity, questions started to emerge: where and who are the black businesses we’re supposed to support?

Most of the so-called black businesses put forward were unknown to the majority of people. It does not take a rocket scientist to know that you need to market yourself properly if you’re serious about making your business known and making a profit.

So why do black entrepreneurs often ignore marketing? Yes, even other races do, but we’re talking among ourselves, so bear with me. I often find that black business owners express a great deal of scepticism about marketing. Not only do they talk about marketing as if it is a swear word, they actually pride themselves on building their businesses without marketing.

A few years ago, around 2006 to be precise, there was a popular pap and meat eatery in Braamfontein. This joint was so popular, mainly by word of mouth (a form of marketing that, once triggered, needs to be managed), that I once drove from Rosebank during lunchtime to search for this place myself.


This was a shisanyama way before the concept was fashionable. My interest in the place turned professional after I met a brilliant young graphic designer who told me that he was so intrigued by this guy’s business that, on realising that the joint had no respectable branding to speak of, he took it upon himself to develop some branding for it. This he did without a brief. Pure passion.

He went to the owner, showed him a store design, menus, promotion posters even a beautiful logo. The owner was not interested, saying he did not need marketing, as people knew him and knew of his business. Needless to say the place is no longer there, but there’s a brand called Chesanyama now that started less than three years ago. This company is now listed on the JSE and will be opening its first store in the US shortly.

Oh, did I mention that this company is white-owned and managed? And need I remind you, the concept shisanyama is from the black townships?

I always find it unfortunate that every time we talk about black entrepreneurs that built brands in this country, one of the first names that comes to mind is Herman Mashaba.

I don’t mean to take anything away from him; it’s just that I find it very strange that we still use a brand of the 1980s as a benchmark for black-owned brands. Ntate Richard Maponya’s name also comes to mind, yet post-1994 a lot of new black entrepreneurs have taken the baton… or have they? To be sure, there are still a lot of obstacles in the way of black start-ups, but the two gentlemen I just mentioned managed to brand themselves properly despite the difficulties they faced then.

Fast growth

My question therefore is: Where are current black entrepreneurs that are building brands, institutions that will be here in the next 25 to 50 years? At the rate at which we’re going, I doubt if we would be able to do that.

Post-1994 has seen our economy opening up and a lot of new brands launching and growing – fast. Take a look at the new fast food industry brands. None of the new brands are black-owned and run. The so-called black entrepreneurs are just franchisees. When it comes to everyday household products, forget it.

My industry, the advertising industry, is one of the most untransformed industries in this country. There are lots of factors that contribute to this. One of the major ones being that business in the boardroom – decision-making – is largely done across colour lines.

Major brands, whether they are consumed largely by the black population or not, are still owned by the overwhelmingly white corporate sector and big business. It should come as no surprise then that suppliers to big business, such as advertising agencies, are also white-owned.

Even though certain measures have been made by the advertising industry to hire black talent, this has not translated into black agencies getting business.

This has resulted, among other things, with black people being portrayed in countless television adverts as absurdly happy dancing people… dancing for a piece of chicken, airtime or a funeral policy.

Until such time that there are black entrepreneurs (the new word is industrialists, I’m told) that are prepared to build brands, we are still going to see a lot of black people dancing in the adverts. Having outlined the problem, what do I propose by way of a solution, I hear you ask me.

So where to? At June15 Advertising we have developed a concept called Black Labels, African brands by Africans.

We will be working with black entrepreneurs who share our passion to build reputable brands. It’s time every black household in the country consistently uses at least one product from a black-owned and run company.

But consumers are not going to use the product just because it’s from a black entrepreneur’s business. Much needs to be done. We have the know-how and willingness to do much that needs to be done.

Above all, we’re ready to help build African brands by Africans.

* Mxolisi G. Buthelezi is the founder/chief executive of June15 Advertising Agency based in Johannesburg.

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