It is not really the 'done thing' to speak about finances when you run a small creative business. It is often seen as the slightly dirty backroom detail that no one wants to look at. I really feel, though, that we do future entrepreneurs a big disservice by presenting a pretty front and never talking about the spreadsheets that are governing things behind the scenes. It is a disservice because it can give the impression that running a small creative business is all time in the workshop, making beautiful things. People have genuinely said to me in the past 'oh it must be so wonderful to spend all day beading'. The truth is that I spend more time with Excel than I do with beads. It is also a disservice because it gives the impression that 'anyone can do it' when we don't talk about the kind of financial backing necessary to keep a creative business running. A comment I often hear when people are talking about our work is 'your use of colour is just so much more interesting than the 'traditional' stuff' (note, the use of the term 'traditional' is deeply problematic here). My response is usually 'it's easy to be creative with colour when you keep a R100,000 stock of beads and can import directly into the country yourself. It's an entirely different matter when you have to travel two hours by bus with a budget of R200 to the only bead shop in town'. Structural inequality plays a huge part in whose businesses survive and thrive and whose struggle to get off the ground. So this blog post is the first in what I hope will be a series discussing economic justice and small creative businesses in South Africa.
Beloved, miraculously, survived 2020. At times I was unsure that it would. Our main shop, which normally only closes on Christmas Day, was closed for five months. Tourists, who make up a large part of our customer base, were barred from entering the country. For a while we weren’t even allowed to export. Many South African creative businesses, making equally beautiful products with far more efficient management than ours, did not survive. I studied Economics at university for long enough to know that lots of economists would look at that loss and approach it with an attitude of 'it'll all come out in the wash, other businesses will spring up in their place to fill the gap'. But my knowledge of the creative industry tells me that this is not true. Something has been lost to South African material culture and to the economy that we will struggle to regain. It was never a zero-sum game, there was space for those successful businesses to continue and new ones to spring up, creating new employment and economic value. And it will take a long time for that gap to be filled by other small creative businesses, because who in their right mind would start a creative business right now? In the meantime the gap will be filled by multinationals who manufacture where it's cheapest and avoid paying as much tax in South Africa as possible.
The closure of our shops, inability to export, and reduction in demand from wholesale buyers might not have been too awful if we had chosen, as many businesses sadly did, to make our staff temporarily unemployed. Wages make up 75% of our fixed monthly running costs. To me, though, this was the very worst case scenario, to be avoided at all costs. Not paying wages, in South Africa especially, means homelessness, hunger, unpaid school fees and poor health for many more people than are directly employed. Beloved’s essential aim is not the making of profit, but the making of decent wages for everyone in the company.
So how did Beloved survive? Starting an online shop, unsecured loans, donations, one of our landlords vastly reducing our rent, and pre-paid work. Two dear friends who intend to begin selling Beloved in another country sent money for future stock which they will collect on when things are better. Long time supporters of Beloved sent donations to help us pay wages. The V&A Waterfront not only waived our rent, but also offered significant support. Patrons who have bought artwork in the past pre-paid for a future artwork. People bought beadwork in our online shop knowing that it would take a while to arrive, and some who were able to opted not to use discount codes offered as a gesture of support. The Oppenheimers, one of South Africa's wealthiest families, began the South African Futures Trust, which directly paid staff of qualifying companies a fixed amount per week for sixteen weeks. This was an interest-free loan to the company, repayable over five years. This was the only scheme, aside from a small amount of money from the Unemployment Insurance Fund, which was available to ‘foreigners’ like me.
The vast majority of support came from my phenomenal parents. Each month they chipped in whatever was necessary to keep everyone paid. And to be clear, I do not come from a particularly wealthy family. Before they retired, my father was an Anglican priest and my mother a primary school teacher. For them to assist my business like this was an act of enormous kindness.
My parents’ support of the business was especially generous when you consider my current immigration situation. I opened Beloved Beadwork in 2009. For ten years I had no problem whatsoever in getting business visas (I’m originally British). Although there has always been an investment requirement for those visas (you need to have invested so much money from overseas into your business in order to qualify), this requirement was always waived for my business because it was in the national interest. To be clear, we did invest a significant amount of money in the company. It just wasn’t five million Rand. In 2019, when I applied for a new visa, the investment requirement was not waived, and I was denied the visa. Since then I’ve been stuck trying to remotely run my business from the UK, and hitting my head against a brick wall with the Department of Home Affairs. Instead of counselling me to give up and do something else with my life, my parents have continued to invest in keeping Beloved alive, despite the uncertainty that this immigration situation causes for the future of the business. That is how invested they are in ensuring that wages continue to be paid.
So that is how Beloved survived 2020. We are entering 2021 with trepidation, but also with a sense of ‘we have come this far, we can’t stop now’.