Calling for more risk-takers

Recently, while driving between Jamestown and Molteno in the Eastern Cape on our way to visit my in-laws, my family and I came upon an astonishing sight – scores of people cutting grass and picking up litter.

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On our return trip, we saw the result of this effort: kilometres of world-class road and verges. However, on the other side of Molteno, the road to Burgersdorp is one big pothole, with bits of road in between. There is a great deal of work to do to get South Africa’s road network up to standard, and it was satisfying to see that something was being done. And in the process, much needed jobs are being created in the country’s rural areas.

Agriculture, the biggest employer in rural South Africa, has been shedding jobs. Investor uncertainty, wage increases and rising input costs have taken their toll, prompting smaller farmers to sell off farms running at a loss. Yet, production did not take a knock because these farms were incorporated into bigger farms, following the worldwide trend.

These big operations tend to run tight ships. There is no room for inefficiency, and the latest technologies and methods are in place, ensuring optimal profits. Generally, a higher skill level is required from staff, resulting in higher salaries and a lower demand for unskilled labour. This scenario is playing out in various industries across the country.

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Economists say that despite South Africa’s unemployment rate hovering around 25%, skilled workers are virtually all employed. It is mainly the unskilled and poorly educated who are either unemployed or dependent on social grants. I know of farmers struggling to find workers, and yet there are people who appear to prefer living a life of relative poverty and dependence on the largess of an employed sibling or child, rather than working as a manual labourer.

Although there are those who seem able to make money out of thin air, the majority of people are wary of entrepreneurship. The country’s school system is based on memorising facts and conforming to set ways of problem-solving, and job-seeking illustrates how we’ve been taught to think ‘inside the box’.

Upon leaving school, entrepreneurship never entered my mind, and the uncertainty of whether a start-up would see success and whether I would be able to pay the bills at the end of the month, still keeps me from venturing out on my own. Indeed, the fear of risk-taking and the unknown can sneak into the minds of those who did have the guts to go at it on their own.

In farming, those unwilling to take chances are the farmers who are afraid to try new methods and technologies. They don’t want to risk expanding their business, moving into new spaces or entering the value chain. Too many of them are at risk of stagnation, which will lead to the bleeding of jobs.