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Prof Brian Ganson: It’s time to celebrate small businesses and human rights

By Professor Brian Ganson, head of the Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement (ACDS) at the University of Stellenbosch Business School


In Cape Town’s townships, the inter-relationship between small businesses and human rights is a concrete reality of daily life. Yet, government policies and actions tend to downplay if not outright undermine their important role in social cohesion, human dignity, and economic resilience. Required are changes in attitudes, laws and behaviour that better recognise and nurture the critical place of local businesses in South Africa’s human rights landscape.

To see this, we need only to look at Langa, founded in 1927 as Cape Town’s first township, and where on 21 March 1960 citizens were also killed and wounded as police brutally suppressed peaceful protests against apartheid pass laws. Despite its challenges as one of Cape Town’s poorer and more violent suburbs, today Langa celebrates its rich history and continuing legacy of political and social activism, the arts, and entrepreneurship.

There, Zone 17 is a new entrant to the hospitality industry. It offers Capetonians and others a comfortable base to call home for the weekend, an “integrator” to accompany them, and a curated array of local “eats and hangouts” where visitors can engage in conversations with Langa residents, immerse themselves in Langa culture, and, importantly, spend on truly local businesses. Operating in stark contrast to large-scale commercial tour operators that engage in drive-through “poverty porn” ¹, Zone 17 emerges from a family with deep roots in the community, committed simultaneously to local upliftment and to reconciliation across South Africa’s geographic, economic, and racial divides.

Zone 17 joins other, similarly socially-minded Langa enterprises, including the 16 on Lerotholi Gallery “that uses art as an essential tool to foster understanding, empathy and solidarity within the Langa community”, and Jordan’s Way of Cooking, which serves local fare to international standards while providing employment, training, and job placement to local youth.

These local examples mirror global research finding that small businesses are often key peace and development actors, both as vital job creators and because of their deep ties in their communities.² They have been found to be more likely to play a role in conflict prevention activities³ or reconciliation than their larger counterparts.

Yet, government at many levels does not appear to have recognised their critical role in advancing human rights, and in many instances, is experienced as hostile to their aspirations.

Complaints we heard in our research on small businesses in Langa range from zoning that favours corporate developers of shopping malls and supermarket chains in the townships over informal traders and small businesses; to government agencies that seek to suppress and control rather than to develop and support emerging businesses; to police engaging in theft and racketeering that undermine honest enterprise.

At the core of government policy and action may be counterproductive mindsets and beliefs. “Growth will come from big companies, with their scale economies, financial muscle and market access opportunities”, said DA MP Toby Chance, Shadow Minister of Small Business Development until 2019, who also stated that “leaving the townships”—to be “absorbed” into “formal and often export-focused businesses”—“is necessary to achieve upliftment”.

These statements echo uncomfortably close to those that led to the creation of Langa as a “concentration camp” meant only to supply—and control—black labour for South Africa’s larger enterprises.

And yet, even globally, such attitudes towards small, local businesses appear common among those whose focus is GDP growth, as well as among those who see businesses primarily as generators of tax revenues that government will then re-distribute to provide for the poor. They lead to a preference for investment in large over small, formal over informal, export-oriented over locally relevant—blind to small businesses’ more profound social role.

Small businesses in the township are demonstrably much more than minor cogs in the larger economic machine.

Rather, they are community institutions deeply embedded in social networks—including families, churches, neighbourhood associations, sports clubs, jazz clubs, and other civic organisations and businesses in Langa and elsewhere—that provide people a port of call for emergency child or elder care, hunger relief, emotional support, employment leads, legal and political advocacy, and business development support. Small businesses are both dependant on, and contributors to, these webs of multi-faceted relationships.

If we want to unleash the potential of business to help address violence, social ills, and economic decline, then we must abandon excessively technocratic views of the role of small businesses in our society. We must acknowledge their special potential as economic actors embedded within the township social system to—in ways that outside and large enterprises never can—recognise trauma, celebrate resilience, build community, and situate economic development within a more humane context of empowerment and healing.

When we embrace this broader perspective on small businesses, we will be more true to our Constitution’s imperative to “heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights”.

  • The research article on which this opinion piece was based (Ganson & Hoelscher), was written as part of the project Working Through Violence: SMEs and the SDGs in Fragile Urban Spaces (UrbanSMEs) funded by the Research Council of Norway under the NORGLOBAL program. 

¹Doward, J. 2020. Slumming it? Township tour reviews ‘gloss over poverty’. The Guardian (UK), 16 August 2020.

² World Bank. 2018. Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict. Washington, DC: World Bank.

³ Felgenhauer, K. 2007. Peace Economic: Private Sector Business Involvement in Conflict Prevention. New School Economic Review, 2(1): 38–48

 Strachan, AL. 2017. Linkages between private sector development and peace. K4D Helpdesk Report. Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies.

 Ganson, B and Hoelscher, K. 2021. Theorising MSMEs in Contexts of Urban Violence. Journal of Illicit Economies and Development, 2(2), pp. 222–241.

 Coetzer, N. 2016. Building Apartheid: On Architecture and Order in Imperial Cape Town. Routledge. DOI: