Picture: THE TIMES
Picture: THE TIMES

SAA clearly cannot survive in its current form; a well-documented scenario with several calls for restructuring, refinancing, remodelling and retrenchments. However, there has been much less noise about this national problem being turned into an entrepreneurial opportunity.

Predictably, while much pain is likely to be associated with any of the reconfiguration proposals, some individuals are likely to view the scenario unfolding at SAA as an opportunity. Several experts have noted that employees who are not retained or taken over during these restructuring plans at SAA would be retrenched. Indeed, leading litigation experts believe the majority of staff would “snap up an offer of a year’s package and retraining”. Herein lies the entrepreneurial opportunity.

Consider the example of the StartupBoeing initiative. Here a team assists entrepreneurs in launching new airlines. From concept development through to launch, it offers guidance, review, analysis, data, resources, contacts and referrals to qualified start-up airlines. Recognising that starting an airline is tough and that running a profitable airline is even tougher, StartupBoeing provides a toolkit and resources to potential start-ups that include constant learning and adaptation.

Few businesses have as many challenges as airlines. Not only are they capital- and labour-intensive, but also subject to fierce competition and myriad government controls. Airlines are also fossil-fuel dependent, often at the mercy of fuel price volatility and political influence. So clearly not everyone who is retrenched will start an airline business.

However, consider SAA’s large-scale supply chain network with multiple linkages among companies, which can open up many opportunities to alert entrepreneurs. There must be many SAA employees with specialised knowledge and years of experience who can spot gaps and provide solutions to improve internal process dilemmas or customer problems.

Indeed, the entire entrepreneurship process unfolds because some and not others are able to discover and exploit opportunities. Research shows that the entrepreneurs’ actions are not only constrained by different forces in their environment, they are also enabled as opportunities are opened for those who can understand and make the most sense of local developments.

Our trade unions would be wise to appreciate the importance of solidarity groups responsible for building entrepreneurship

The opportunity identification process begins when alert entrepreneurs realise factors in their domain of expertise that result in the recognition and exploitation of opportunities. Recent research emphasises that though most individuals scan their environment, successful entrepreneurs are better at discovering opportunities embedded in that environment as their alertness allows them to spot high-potential opportunities.

Alert individuals possess complex mental frameworks for their environment, which helps them see situations from new perspectives or in unconventional ways. Therefore, it is not necessary to always come up with the next new, big-brand idea, but rather to focus on existing problems and unmet customer needs and exploit these as opportunities.

Many have become disillusioned with entrepreneurship as a way to uplift the economy and provide jobs, but despite the empty promises and start-up rhetoric, entrepreneurship can play a pivotal role in dismantling structural obstacles, to enable a more equitable distribution of opportunities and wealth in our country. A good example is China’s entrepreneurial spirit that runs deeper than merely business; it manifests in the government and in the desires of citizens.

The leading agenda of China’s national economic strategy is the Mass Entrepreneurship and Innovation Strategy launched in 2014. It aims to provide a better environment for popular entrepreneurship and mass innovation by lowering entry barriers, strengthening public services, and encouraging students, scientists and engineers to start new innovative businesses.

South Africans, particularly those facing retrenchment, need to accept a paradigm shift — from being an employee to becoming an employer. Moreover, our trade unions would be wise to appreciate the importance of solidarity groups responsible for building entrepreneurship.

Scholar Frank Young highlights that the entrepreneurial initiatives are conditioned by group level patterns. He not only rejected the psychogenic interpretations of entrepreneurship but noted that entrepreneurial characteristics are observed in clusters, occupational groups and groups with political orientation. In this sense the economic problems faced by individual entrepreneurs are mitigated by the solidarity of entrepreneurial groups. Under these conditions individual entrepreneurs enjoy the confidence of their association with solidarity groups, which help individual entrepreneurs to overcome any sort of economic problems.

Similar to China, we need to find a way of enhancing human resources in the SA economy towards self-employment. Entrepreneurship is urgently needed for renewal of the country’s decaying public institutions and our impoverished economy.

• Urban is a professor at the Wits Business School.