Exciting and somewhat controversial, we sat down with the CEO of the Small Business Development Institute, Xolani Qubeka, learning about his will to really change the small business economy in South Africa.

Waiting for Xolani Qubeka to arrive at his offices in Midrand, I asked his friendly employees to tell me about their boss and what it was like to work for a man of his calibre. The responses I received depict Mr. Qubeka as an eloquent, driven man – wholeheartedly involved in business development in South Africa.

From Hair Vision to the Black Business Council, Mr. Qubeka, or rather XQ as he is popularly known, has done it all. And he’s done it well.

During our interview, XQ shares his plans and visions, including the development of small business in South Africa. It soon became clear that he possesses an ambition that is both admirable and staggering in its depth. XQ is an invaluable asset to South Africa. But these broad descriptions are merely a way of beating around the proverbial bush. What Mr. Qubeka is, is a goldmine of ideas and suggestions.

XQ works 18-hour days and every decision he makes is in accordance with his trust in the free market system and an unwavering belief in the opportunities created by entrepreneurial interests.

At present, his economic and political outlook is driven by the fact that he is the CEO of the Small Business Development Institute (SBDI). An earlier stint as chair of the Black Business Council and his proven affinity with entrepreneurship also equip him with the skills required to change the face of an emerging economy.

Let’s start at the beginning. Xolani Qubeka’s career has been an incredible journey – one that was punctuated by political struggle, which had dominated every aspect of his life until 20-odd years ago. As often happened during Apartheid, Xolani Qubeka was one of the many people who, were prevented from completing school and thus had to devise an innovative approach to be able to make a living for themselves.That journey started with him selling anything from newspapers on trains to food for tired train commuters, to collecting bundles of dry cleaning in and around his neighbourhood.

His first formal employment was that of a car salesman at the General Motors dealership in Soweto. At General Motors, he built a reputation for himself as a business-savvy individual. He credits that experience as helping him in building a firm foundation in running and operating a business successfully.

His business-savvy approach helped him to earn a myriad of awards from Wesbank, but ultimately, the political climate placed restrictions on the business. Various obstacles hampered the growth of black business during the years of Apartheid, and more often than not, would-be black entrepreneurs faced challenges that had them resorting to alternative means to get the job done.

Working around the system has been one of his trademarks, from short-circuiting artificial restrictions forced on him by an unjust system, to networking with high-level government officials – he knows how to get the job done.

“Working around the system has been one of his trademarks, from short-circuiting artificial restrictions forced on him by an unjust system, to networking with high-level government officials.”

During the 1980s, for example, people living in the townships would often build a ‘garage’ on their property, which they would divide into two rooms to create rental stock to generate extra income or facilitate the running of an informal business. This is a trend that continues to this day.

He realises that lofty promises of job creation – made all too often by South
African politicians – have absolutely no chance of coming to fruition without the necessary attention spent on the development of SMMEs. In the words of XQ himself, “ We urgently need to create new wealth.”

The plan is to create, by 2030, 1000 businesses, 50 000 new jobs, and to achieve a revenue target of R500 million against an eventual total revenue target of R10 billion. 

“The plan is to create, by 2030, 1000 businesses, 50 000 new jobs, and to
achieve a revenue target of R500 million against an eventual total revenue
target of R10 billion”

Also in the pipeline is establishing a collaborative supplier development fund, developing sector-centric supplier development programmes in tandem. All in all, this exercise is expected to have an estimated R18 billion impact on South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product, both direct and indirect.
This is not only a tall order – it’s a colossal one. But XQ seems perfectly capable of fulfilling the task which he has set for himself. However, the development of the SBDI and its eventual realisation do not rest entirely on his shoulders, and XQ is quick to stress improvements needed to government’s approach to small businesses.

He maintains that the flow of funding both from government and banks must improve and that we should no longer be investing large amounts in our already stable big businesses, but instead should be allocating funds towards establishing a foundation for smaller businesses to develop and succeed.

He is very committed to the expansion of the middle class and injecting funds where according to him – they are needed most: mainly, the realisation of new institutions and businesses. He says, “ The private sector is not investing enough, the flow of South African money needs to be directed to the right places so that it does not get stuck in higher income brackets.” 

Establishing companies that rival the big South African businesses, like Sanlam, is something he is passionate about – and he believes the trickle-down effect that would happen as a result would create thousands of jobs and give the economy a much-needed boost.

From an economic perspective and in the face of continued bleak outlook presented by international rating agencies of South Africa’s economy, it is reassuring to know that businessman like XQ remains enthusiastic about South Africa. When someone with such a firm grasp talks shop, every suggestion and hypothetical policy makes perfect sense, and it starts to feel as though the country might just be able to get on the right track.

At the National SMME Colloquium hosted in October last year, he brought up a number of compelling arguments regarding the future and face of South African business. One of the propositions he made at the colloquium was a call for all South African businesses to become part of a relevant chamber, much like the system .