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OPINION: What Agrizzi's state capture testimony means for entrepreneurs

The small business sector is vibrant and entrepreneurs are passionate, focused and capable of building the kind of companies that will grow our economy. We see it every day at Property Point, a business performance programme that has been running for 10 years.

In the month that we commemorate Human Rights Day, it is clear, though, that the business environment is showing signs of strain.

It is the dream of every entrepreneur to stand on his or her own feet. It’s their right to pursue their business of their choice; they have the right to fight on a level playing field; they have the right to succeed and fail on their own terms.

However, corruption’s shackles are holding back the entrepreneur as they face an increasingly inescapable moral dilemma – pay the bribe for the lucrative tender or opt for legitimacy.

It was cutting watching former Bosasa executive Angelo’s Agrizzi’s testimony before the Zondo Commission into state capture. When millions were allegedly kept aside for bribes every month, it seemed almost farcical with the ease that it was done. What message does it send when a substantial business at the top of the food chain clearly believes that bribery and corruption is the only way to get ahead?

What chance do small business owners and entrepreneurs stand in a game that is so rigged against them?

Entrepreneurs we spoke to were gutted by the testimony at the commission of inquiry into state capture. The experience of watching the video of bundles of cash for bribes being counted was harrowing.

The business owners told us it made them feel foolish for doing things the right way. They felt they were only legitimising an illegitimate process by doing things on the up and up. People who are putting in the hours to build their businesses should not be made to feel this way for doing the right thing.

We know many entrepreneurs putting an enormous amount of time to formulate a tender. All too often it involves compliance issues, copies, stacks of hand-written forms, certified documents and a whole heap of regulations that are onerous on small firms.

Any small oversight on your tender response will get it disqualified. Above all, it takes the businessperson out of the business for days in preparing the documents. It is a massive un-recouped cost in time particularly in a system that now appears to be mostly rigged.

The Bosasa revelations, and there are many similar incidences of such corruption, means that the temptation to shortcut the system is always there. While most of the entrepreneurs we have interacted with shy away from this corrupt path, they cannot blame them for being tempted by a seemingly easier route.

Corruption, though, circumvents these principles for quick riches and short-term gains. Too often entrepreneurs are easy targets for the corrupt - with school fees to be paid and wages due, it is easy to see an entrepreneur cave in to the pressures by participating in the world of the proverbial brown envelopes.

South Africa is standing at the edge of a moral precipice. Entrepreneurs are at risk of bowing to the system of corruption or being bullied out of it. They need our protection or the much-vaunted economic recovery, on the back of the rise of SMMEs, that South Africa is so desperate for, will be nothing more than a pipe dream.

Corruption is against the principles we teach entrepreneurs of reputation, risk, and relationship at Property Point. These values should govern the way entrepreneurs build their business. Being in business is more than cash flow and a snazzy marketing pitch.

It is an expression of ideals, where how we make money is as important as making it.

Shawn Theunissen is an executive at Growthpoint Properties responsible for Corporate Social Responsibility. He is the founder and manager of Property Point, Growthpoint’s enterprise and supplier development programme which focuses on the holistic development of SMMEs. Shawn has over 15 years of experience in senior management roles in both corporate and non-governmental sectors.

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