Someone wise once said, “Rules are not necessarily sacred; principles are.” For the entrepreneur with a maverick bent, this might sound appealing. But mavericks, although they are known to make pots of money given the right conditions, also have the unfortunate habit of running into difficulties with lawmakers; if you want your business to survive, playing by the rules is sometimes the smartest thing you can do. There are certain laws that have to be followed if you want to operate certain kinds of businesses.
Take, for example, the application for a trading licence. You have dreams of opening your own restaurant but before you don your chef-cum-businessperson’s hat, you have some admin work to do.
To secure a business licence for any of these activities, you need to apply to the Licensing Department. You will be required to submit reports from the town planning, health and fire departments, all of which may need to inspect your intended premises for zoning, type of business activity, health and fire regulations. If you intend building or altering premises for your particular business, you will also be asked to submit your proposed business plan or how you intend to make alterations to existing premises.
The Health Department will ensure that the premises are hygienic and clean in accordance with the stipulations made by the Health Act while the Fire Department will check that the premises comply with fire safety regulations. Town Planning checks that the geographical area is zoned for business (see below). Once all these authorities are satisfied, the council can issue you with a licence. It is entitled to inspect your premises and if your business changes owners, premises or activity, then a renewal licence is required.
The Home Office
But what if your business does not fall into any of the categories mentioned above? You want to open a simple consultancy, for example. You start out on your own, as so many entrepreneurs do, at home in your spare room. No inconvenient trading licences to worry about. As you take on some support staff, you hire your first few square meters of office space. Times are good and suddenly your new business is legit and firing on all cylinders. Clients are happy, word of mouth has taken care of your marketing and you’ve had to take on more staff to cope with the increased workload.
All of a sudden you no longer fit into the modest office space you hired for your fledgling business and you have to think about expanding. But you’ve been paying rent for over two years and it seems such a waste. And now that you think of it, you were considering selling your substantial home and moving into a lock-up-and-go townhouse. It occurs to you that perhaps you should keep the house (it’s an asset after all) and convert it into business premises. That way you’ll save on rent.
On the surface it all seems to make perfectly good business sense. Except for one thing. Your house is in a residential area and therefore not zoned for business purposes. In order to trade as a business on those premises, you will have to apply for the property to be rezoned – and the time and energy needed to achieve that may make another year’s worth of paying rent not seem so onerous after all.
If you are operating a one-person business, don’t employ staff and don’t have clients calling regularly at your premises, you don’t have to apply for business rezoning. But if you need to put up signage, expect clients, suppliers and staff, and if the property is used solely for business purposes then, in all likelihood, you’re in for a rezoning application.
The Rezoning Battle
But here’s the catch – applying for a property to be rezoned as a business in no way means that it will automatically happen. As South African cities boom with business growth and congestion becomes an ever-increasing cause of frustration and wasted time, businesses are moving out of the CBD and into what were previously residential areas.
This is a natural phenomenon of urban geography and over time, as residents realise the potential value of selling up their homes to businesses that want to move in, areas are rezoned for business. However, if an area is not yet zoned for business, the residents usually have fairly strong objections to it becoming so. Businesses generate traffic and parking problems. Local councils typically take the concerns of residents seriously and are reluctant to rezone an area for business on the strength of one application. Add this to the fact that every local authority has a different set of parameters which guides rezoning decisions – and that each application is taken on its individual merits – and the process becomes extremely complicated.
Ultimately, if you want to avoid the daily horrors of traffic and purchase your own business premises in a residential neighbourhood, your best bet is to set up shop in an area in which other businesses are already established. After all, there is strength in numbers and this greatly improves your chances of getting the area rezoned.
To apply for rezoning in an area that is not zoned for business, you have to secure a zoning scheme departure or special consent from the City Council. Getting this can take a while – in some cases up to three months. You may need to advertise your business’s intention to conduct a particular business activity in the local newspapers. Residents and other stakeholders will have the chance to respond with any complaints, which are heard by a board, before you will be granted or denied the departure. Being granted a departure usually paves the way for successful zoning approval but, once again, there are no guarantees. And all the while, you can’t operate legally as a business in that particular area.
When it comes to the legal side of setting up a business, it pays to do your homework and get professional assistance where appropriate. The cost of mistakes and bad judgement calls in this area can be severe.
Trading licences are governed by the Business Act of 1991, No. 71, which states that certain businesses require licences. These include:
- Those that sell or supply meals or perishable foodstuffs
- Those that provide certain types of health facilities or entertainment. These are defined as Turkish baths, saunas or other health baths; massage or infrared treatment; escort services (male and female); games halls that have coin- or token-operated mechanical or electrical devices or three or more snooker or billiard tables; night clubs and discothèques; cinemas and theatres, and “adult premises” as referred to in section 24 of the Films and Publications Act, 1996
- Those that hawk meals or perishable foodstuffs