As the manager of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as it was then, I was expected to be directly involved in the governance of the Business Support Centre which had been recently established in Pietermaritzburg at the initiative of several prominent leaders within the Chamber. I did not regard this as an onerous commitment. Indeed, I saw enormous value in what the BSC stood for and what it had been established to achieve.
For good reasons at the time, the BSC was given an independent and autonomous status from the outset, but the intention was that it would be guided by the Chamber and funded, inter alia, by businesses within the Chamber’s membership. As it transpired, this was not immediately necessary as the objectives of the BSC and its work attracted adequate funding from several public sector sources, including Ntsika, the Msunduzi Municipality and the provincial Department of Economic Development. Although this enabled the Centre to do a good deal of excellent work in promoting micro and small business development, it had the effect of giving the Centre a ‘public’ rather than ‘private’ sector image and a remoteness from businesses within the Chamber developed. Stalwart individuals continued to serve the BSC, but, when public sector funding dried up, there was little enthusiasm for the work of the BSC among Pietermaritzburg Chamber member companies. There were two notable exceptions: Hulamin and BSI Steel who contributed sufficiently to prevent the Centre going under, which once seemed inevitable. Their invaluable support continues to this day. By this time, government had embarked on programmes to provide SMME development services itself. SEDA funded the BSC as an Enterprise Information Centre for a short period and then opted to open such centres in various places itself. The DED, too, invested in so-called ‘one-stop shops’ and the BSC subsequently found itself having to compete with generously funded facilities using resources that it was able to solicit from elsewhere.
With hindsight, the BSC had hampered its own progress because it had not used a model where recipients of its services should pay. In particular, a number of small businesses benefited from the BSC’s linkage programme which facilitated contracts, some very large, but were not required to pay anything to the BSC for its work, which was sometimes extensive and critical. In the last few years, the BSC has overcome some of these fundamental difficulties and it is to the credit of the leadership that this has been achieved. The development of SMMEs is much more effective if done by the private sector for a variety of reasons, but such agencies are greatly prejudiced when they are forced to compete with government-funded institutions that offer services, and sometimes funding, free. The survival and progress of the BSC over the years are attributable to no more than a handful of people, apart from those who were employed to run the Centre. Des Winship, Peter Warmington and Dem Kambouris were among the founders and nurtured the organisation for many years. But for the passion and efforts of Reginald Nyandeni who came a bit later, but had to deal with the biggest threats to the Centre’s existence, the BSC would not have survived. Diane Gaskin has also done sterling work as the manager in recent years. Personally, I gave some time and attended meetings, but failed to bring the Centre and its needs to the productive attention of the Chamber membership at large. To this extent, the vision of the founders that established business in Maritzburg should play a meaningful role in promoting the emergence of black-owned and other micro and small businesses so as to transform the economy, was not satisfactorily fulfilled. But it seems that this is no longer the case and the greater involvement of larger local companies in supporting the BSC is welcomed, and long overdue. Andrew Layman