BOOK REVIEW

Native Merchants:

The Building of the Black Business Class in South Africa by Phakamisa Ndzamela

A dominating narrative in South Africa is that for black people, 1994 brought them everything under the sun, including business opportunities. The proponents of this narrative claim that Black Economic Empowerment and government tenders are the only means through which black people could start and run businesses. In Native Merchants: The Building of the Black Business Class in South Africa, Phakamisa Ndzamela challenges this notion with well-researched evidence that paints a very different picture. “By the fifth century AD, black people in southern Africa had demonstrated the skills to sink a shaft and excavate base and precious metals. These mineral resources were processed through indigenous smelters, while some of the raw stock was traded locally and internationally,” he states in his book. Ndzamela then moves forward in time to show the early involvement of black people in businesses which ranged across sectors such as hospitality, media, agriculture and finance. This book offers proof that while black people were keen to build their businesses – and some did – there were deliberate attempts to stop them, through concocted policies and even cruel and direct attacks on successful black industrialists. Ndzamela offers insight into and appreciation of the history and roots of black business. His is among the few publications to accurately document the real history of black business. Through its pages, you get to read about the black people who founded media companies and hotels; more importantly, it paints a very clear picture of how many ended up with nothing. Ndzamela guides the reader to appreciate the fact that it was not laziness or lack of courage, but prevailing hostile conditions that stopped black people from running successful businesses. He does not shy away from how black business people themselves undermined the rise of their businesses, highlighting a lack of succession planning as one of the key failures. The book also examines the historical disunity among black business associations, a factor that persists to this day.

Native Merchants will prove a valuable reference for those seeking an understanding of the factors contributing to the current state of black business ownership in South Africa. It also explains why, today, there is not a single black-owned business with a 100-year history. Ndzamela has written a pioneering work that will leave readers wanting to learn more about the early history of black business in South Africa. In so doing, he has laid a foundation upon which others can build. He has left space for this, particularly around the role of black business organisations. This book ensures that black business history is not forgotten, but preserved for future generations to understand the background and context around which black businesses are built.

By Wesley Diphoko

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