If anyone can win the coming battle, it is the South African business owner

Any business owner who has started up and run a business is battle hardened to some degree, because business is a hard, constant struggle, if not for survival, then for market share and growth.

South African business owners are perhaps more battle hardened than most because at the best of times this is not always the easiest place to grow a business. Local business owners are used to doing battle in difficult circumstances ranging from a low economic growth environment to late payments from both the government and private sector.

In the coming weeks, months, and indeed years, South Africa is going to need every ounce of the experience, determination and battle readiness of its business owners. The coming fight will not only be for the sake of their own businesses, but for the wellbeing of all South Africans.

We are faced with an unprecedented crisis, of which the coronavirus is but one component. The pandemic is bearing down on us together with the economic shock of the lockdown and the official downgrading of South Africa’s credit rating to junk status, all of it hard on the heels of the Eskom loadshedding crisis which has moved to the background as South Africa’s energy consumption plummets.

For now, the South African fighters deployed on the front line against the onslaught are the doctors, nurses and health practitioners who are standing ready to receive the inevitable wave of the vulnerable who will succumb to the virus. They need all our support, the most important of which at the moment is to keep most of our businesses closed and our staff at home so as to slow down the spread of the virus.

Soon, however, business owners will join them in battle, albeit on a different front. Upon them will fall the Herculean task of resuscitating the economy decimated by the lockdown and the downgrade, while a virulent disease will no doubt still be raging around them.

Whatever the course of the pandemic, South African business owners will be called upon soon to start up their businesses urgently so that wages can start flowing again to poor communities to stave off the hunger caused by the lockdown.

They will not be alone in the fight. Everywhere, suppliers, financiers, banks, landlords, government and development organisations are showing willingness to lend a hand.

We have heard many stories of ordinary customers who have pledged to continue subscribing to services rendered by small businesses, even throughout the lockdown, so that they can keep employing their workers.

On the other end of the scale, huge amounts have been pledged by philanthropists to help tide South Africa over.

One such donation is R1 billion from the Rupert family and Remgro Limited to help small and medium businesses survive. The fund is administered by Business Partners Limited at no fee, and is targeted at formal small and medium businesses in the form of grants for formal sole proprietors to unsecured loans for close corporations, companies and trusts, which they only have to start repaying after a year, once they are back on their feet.

Of course not every landlord will agree to defer a rental payment, nor will every financier approve an application for a repayment holiday, and where they do, the relief including UIF payments will probably not be enough. There will be pain.

The most painful of all is having to let workers go in order to keep the business afloat. For small and medium business owners who have a personal relationship with their employees, it is a harrowing experience. Most business owners will try to find ways of keeping every worker for as long as possible through short-time and work-sharing arrangements, among others.

While such efforts go largely unseen and unacknowledged by the general public, business owners must know that for every job that they save, South Africa owes them a deep debt of gratitude.

There is another gift that South Africa needs now, more than ever, from its business owners - it is their optimism.

The innate hopefulness of business owners is no fuzzy, naive view of the world. It is powerful force that once drove them out of comfortable salaried positions to start their businesses, and keeps driving them to grow their businesses in spite of the constant struggle.

It allows them to see ways out of difficult situations and opportunities to do things better, where others see only darkness.

The entrepreneurial optimism of our business owners is one of our most powerful weapons against the crisis. As Business Partners Limited, we will be standing behind them as they wield it in the coming battle which we must win to become a prosperous and healthy nation.

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