The AHI has come a long way in 75 years, from its establishment in 1942 as the voice of Afrikaans Business, until today where it represents all South Africans who wish to share its vision of a prosperous, thriving small and medium enterprise community, according to AHI president Bernard Swanepoel.
"The organisation has spoken out for many years, albeit for one specific group for the first 50 years of its existence. But since the great transformation started in our country in the early nineties, AHI has undergone major changes itself, having to redefine itself or become irrelevant."
Since the 1990's, AHI has repositioned itself, reaching out across all the lines that used to divide the country and all its communities. It is now in the final stages of developing dynamic new leadership and re-establishing itself as the leading voice of small and medium enterprises. With more than 100 chambers under its wings, it is ideally positioned to continue making a major contribution.
AHI CEO Dr. Ernest Messina says the AHI today is open to all. "We cannot sweep under the carpet the fact that AHI for many years neglected a large part of the community. It has, however, reached out to entrepreneurs across the spectrum and has made a significant contribution to the development of new small business throughout the country. This is important, because internationally we have seen that SME's are your major drivers of job creation. We simply must boost this sector in every way possible."
Bernard Swanepoel says AHI agrees with President Jacob Zuma that the country is in dire need of radical economic transformation. However, the organisation differs sharply with the President about how this should attained.
""Radical Economic Transformation, with capital letters, is indeed necessary. However our version of RET is acting to pull the levers of opportunity to return the economy to five or six percent growth and beyond. Such measures will include many that Government has previously announced as policy, but has failed to fully implement."
Swanepoel says Radical Economic Transformation in the immediate term must include steps to enable the re-employment of low-skilled workers in the manufacturing sector and elsewhere since we have millions without work. He said such workers could not upgrade their skills or feed their families if they were not employed. But it would require a real partnership to rethink South Africa's positions regarding labour legislation.
"If we want to boost growth, we need to get our people working again. The only sustainable way of doing so, is to get our companies growing again. Companies don't employ more people on a whim. They do so because growth encourages them to," Swanepoel said.
CEO Ernest Messina says accessible and sufficient broadband for all should be non-negotiable. "This has been on the menu for years now, but still not delivered uniformly. Former President Mbeki in those days already committed us to the Information Superhighway, but we are largely still stuck in the bicycle lane. Modern economies cannot survive without a massive free flow of data accessible by all our citizens."
AHI would also like to see government re-commit itself to open, competitive markets. In return, Swanepoel says, business will also have to recommit itself.
"In the past years, business has closed the investment taps as uncertainty and distrust grew. This will have to be reversed if we are to prosper again. Many businesses have cash available and ready to invest given the right environment. If every SME in this country were to create two new jobs next month, two-million young South Africans will be employed."
Bernard Swanepoel says it is really a question of horses for courses. Business people are not politicians, neither are politicians business people. "Draconian state intervention does not work. We have seen this and should learn from the very poor performance of state-owned enterprises such as SAA, Eskom, Transnet and SABC. That sort of intervention is invites the possibility of corruption and failure.
"However, we believe business in all its manifestations is ready and able to take hands in partnership and are ready and able to make this economy sing again. But then we need to re-establish trust between business and government." On our 75th anniversary, AHI suggests that government untie the hands of business so we can help orchestrate the inclusive growth we need to involve all in our economy.