Chere Molahlehi is a driver for Uber in Johannesburg. Uber is differentiated by its intellectual capital and the professionalism of its drivers. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Chere Molahlehi is a driver for Uber in Johannesburg. Uber is differentiated by its intellectual capital and the professionalism of its drivers. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

THE view implicit in SA’s transformation policy is that societies and economies can be fixed like machines, and past iniquities can be redressed by the redistribution of physical and financial assets alone.

Goodwill represents the intangible but real value of combined skills; the relationships a business has with its suppliers, customers; and communities; and its corporate culture, which shapes how business is conducted.

If it is sold and the new owners lack this human and social capital, the business will probably fail. That is because the network of skills that, over time, create lasting value from money and physical assets cannot be redistributed mechanistically nor can they be created by external intervention. Neither can intangibles such as trading acumen, be measured or divvied up according to master plans.

Still, the physical products of human capital, such as successful businesses or farms, are sometimes mistakenly thought to be transferrable, as happened in Zimbabwe. This caused its catastrophic economic decline.

White South Africans control the majority of the country’s wealth. Separating those who have succeeded because of colonial or apartheid patronage from those who have made it because of their own capabilities would be like trying to unscramble an egg.

Moreover, simplistically attributing their success to the benefits of apartheid and "white monopoly capital" does not explain why some whites succeed, while others do not. Neither does it explain why Somali refugees, who arrive in SA not speaking any local language and penniless, out-compete locals and build vibrant retail trade in the communities they serve.

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THESE qualities of human capital can be encouraged through education and training, and by intelligent allocation of credit and capital. It demands intangible but real skills; ethical conscience that defies redistribution or formulae, that can see beyond stereotypes, and can distinguish worthwhile risk from probable failure.

Regardless of education and experience, to be successful, one must deal with the envy and resentment that are always associated with competition, to take responsibility for one’s own success in business and not rely on fate or political favours.

Competition frequently involves manipulating information to steal a march, which feels unfair to the loser — and often is. But that is how the market operates. Those who learn from their superior rivals’ standards continue to thrive. This demands resilience, and is not easy, but, then again, entrepreneurship is not for everyone.

Trade unions say they oppose what they pejoratively call "white monopoly capital" to promote economic transformation. Yet they impose monopolies in the labour market by excluding the rural poor, the uneducated youth, and the development of viable, competitive labour-intensive industry start-ups.

Like all monopolies, they disingenuously conflate their control agenda — in their case through sectoral wage determinations — with worthy social principles such as worker rights and protection.

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INSTEAD of collaborating with employers to ensure the sustainability of the steel and iron industries, for instance, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA has responded to the crisis by vowing to strike to defend centralised bargaining and the monopolistic labour practices it enables.

Uber has been a worldwide success. Uber drivers or vehicles are differentiated from the metered taxi service not by race, sex or class, but by the intellectual capital implicit in the brand and the distinctive service and professionalism of its partners.

Uber owners and drivers, who are called partners, are ordinary people who have taken calculated risks to build their businesses according to the routes and times that work best for them.

More importantly, Uber’s app has codified the intellectual capital of its founders, rather than fixed capital, to make the service accessible to drivers and customers alike — to provide utmost convenience and flexibility to customer and supplier at a cheaper price.

But steeped in protest tradition as they are, metered taxi drivers resort to violence to protect their turf; they disrespect the fundamentals of free market competition, while doing nothing meaningful to either create an edge over their Uber opposition or to stem their own decline.

SA needs to grow its economy and to do everything possible to reverse the iniquities of the past. These twin challenges must each be afforded the same priority and imply a very complex set of circumstances.

To tackle these, we need all the talent, imagination, energy and goodwill we can muster. Stereotyping and labelling one another will serve only to support those who rely on excuses and patronage to get ahead — adding no value and thus disadvantaging those with real aptitude and potential — and confusing the complex task of building an equitable society and thriving economy.

Those who have something to contribute now must be encouraged, appreciated and respected for their contribution. But if they are intimidated by being labelled, they will look for loopholes and an exit, to nobody’s benefit.

• Yudelowitz is joint MD at YSA and author of Smart Leadership

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