When someone announced a few years back that the Cape was the gun-crime capital of the world, it took me a moment or two to realise it could be true. Some natives here still have that old frontier mentality, and for good reason. ‘T.I.A.’ as we say: This Is Africa, the land of the bushman and the Boer, of the Xhosa and Zulu, where elephants roam, and the giant family ridgeback hound is a lion-hunter. This, without doubt, was the first place God made.
With this in mind, one would think that South African gun legislation would be either highly restrictive, or corrupt and lax. In fact it’s actually quite reasonable. The relevant legislation is the SA Firearms Act 2000, which applies to all guns, be they for hunting, sports or self-defence. Essentially, they just don’t want you to acquire or supply full-auto military firearms. The real problem is poor policing and bureaucratic inefficiency. Gun licences are so backed up that the average wait is over a year. So setting up as a trader would take a bit of determination and patience. Patience – the key word for business in South Africa.
South Africa is a racially sensitive society, though this is being blended away constantly. Non-PC though it is in the UK, in South Africa people’s ethnicity is rigidly categorised into three groups: black, coloured (or mixed race), and white. For legal and business purposes these distinctions are crucial, as the three groups prefer not to be mislabelled – each has a specific cultural background, be it Xhosa/Zulu/Sotho, Cape Malay/Indian/Asian, or Afrikaner/English.
Despite this differentiation, young grass-roots South Africans are the most inclusive and welcoming people I know. They make you feel part of a large, unwieldy family.
Nonetheless, you’ll meet the race question head-on when you set up shop in RSA. To register with the SA Revenue Service one completes a BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) statement about how many black people the new will business employ. There is also B-BBEE (Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment), which acts on a government and corporate level. It’s not a hurdle, but more a type of social support system.
The reason for this apparently offensive and patronising legislation is the election in 1948 of the National Party of South Africa, a quasi-Nazi party which was finally brought down by international condemnation and popular revolt in the 70s and 80s – by both blacks and whites. Under their rule, black and coloured children were not educated beyond elementary level, often only to the age of 12. With the collapse of apartheid there was left a large untrained, under-educated and abandoned population. Mandela’s ANC government of the 90s tried to get its people into work through programmes such as BEE. Today, one’s business operation is given a BEE rating on an official scale and, as a financial incentive, the government can subsidise one’s BEE workers accordingly.
The upside is that many untrained men and women have become skilled operators, where once there had been little hope of simple survival. The downside is that the government mismanages education and public spending, the economy is labour-heavy and wages are low (manual labour rates can be as shocking as R80/£4.75 per day and R300/£18 is considered very good). Debt is high, across all ethnicities, because nearly everything is imported and expensive. Interest rates in SA at time of print were 6.75 per cent, with bank rates at +/-3.5 per cent of base and a GBP exchange of around 17:1. So if you come bearing sterling, euros or US greenbacks, you come as the Count of Monte Cristo. But buying a property is not easy – estate agents ask for 5 per cent or even 7 per cent, the same solicitor is retained by both parties and stamp duty is absurdly high, so prepare for steep professional fees and a mortgage rate of over 10 per cent.
Johannesburg is to Cape Town as New York is to Honolulu. Cape Town is sun, sand, sharks and surfing, hiking, biking, mountains and wine. But it’s the place you want to be to catch the wealthiest customers. Joburg is a fast-paced business centre, but Cape Town is the Mother City. However, it’s not ‘real Africa’. It’s a sophisticated cosmopolitan city, where the locals discuss Chenin and Shiraz the way Brits discuss the weather – and it’s a playground for the international set. No surprise that rents and property prices are the highest in RSA. In Johannesburg and Durban R1.5 million (£90,000) will get you an enormous 4-bed suburban home on half an acre. In Cape Town that’ll get you a small one-bed or studio flat – which you could rent for R10-15,000 per month.
In the Cape, people get out into nature, and for sporting gun markets, the biggest hunting population here is doubtless the Afrikaners – that is, descendants of the original Dutch settlers. They speak Afrikaans first and English second, wear cargo shorts in all weathers and, generally, are hard as nails. They’re a distinct white tribe, and at their most extreme call themselves ‘Boer’ (farmers, countrymen, pr. Boo-er), and tend to have an affectionate resentment for Brits, like everyone else in the world. Boere game includes everything from impala and kudu to springbok and eland, all with a distant nod to an antique pioneer heritage – and with it come some of the friendliest folk I’ve ever met.
For those in the pistol trade, handguns fall into the realm of self-defence and target shooting. You’ll still find the occasional gun-toter, though they’re often from isolated or more traditionally dangerous areas, as you’d find in the USA. I’ve been here nine years now and have only ever seen one pistol openly carried, and it was on the hip of an ex-policeman.
To move to South Africa is a positive step. Compared to Zim, Zam, Moz and Malawi, things tend to work, though not all the time – business infrastructure such as phone and internet might drive you up the wall – but it’s all part of the T.I.A. trade-off for primeval African skies, broad Karoo landscapes and some of the rarest flora and fauna in existence.
If you take the long-term view, you won’t be disappointed. South Africa is already becoming what everyone wants it to be, and not what the less-informed think it still is. When I’m abroad I miss the warmth of South Africans, of whichever tribe. So, as we say in Xhosa, hamba ghahle – ‘farewell’ or, more literally, ‘go softly’. Yebo.