The lockdown has delivered enough ministerial idiocy to last us a lifetime. It has unearthed an embarrassing lack of understanding of economics and its interplay with society. It’s not the lack of experience that is problematic so much as the complete lack of knowledge and understanding.
Leading the charge is the ironically named Minister of Trade and Industry, Ebrahim Patel. Patel made his ‘name’ on three issues: banning online business, identifying items of clothing that could or couldn’t be sold, and banning cooked chicken.
Patel demonstrated that he doesn’t understand either trade or industry. He was a trade union leader who oversaw the decimation of our textile industry in the face of Chinese imports.
Patel banned online business, not because it had anything to do with preparing for dealing with the pandemic, but because allowing ‘unfettered e-commerce’ would be unfair to traders such as spaza shops. E-commerce could only sell what was allowed to be sold at brick-and-mortar shops.
Patel doesn’t understand that it’s irrelevant what people sell and that online is a particularly safe way to shop. It is an industry that employs large numbers of people.
It probably also didn’t occur to him that the markets that use e-commerce are not in competition with those that use spaza shops. But, quite apart from that, the pandemic regulations are not meant to deal with ‘uncompetitive’ behaviour.
Financial Mail editor Rob Rose describes Patel’s lockdown efforts thus: ‘He, along with the tobacco terminator, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, has copped most of the flak for lockdown regulations that were at best irrational, at worst loony-tunes.’
In mid-May Patel published directions for what clothing could be sold during the level-4 lockdown; the list, Rose said, ‘looked like it had been designed as part of an elaborate Monty Python skit.’
The lunacy was up by the inclusion on the list of ‘crop bottoms’ — but only when ‘worn with boots and leggings’.
And Zapiro described the madness well.
‘Soviet fantasy mode’
The Democratic Alliance’s (DA) Geordin Hill-Lewis said Patel was in ‘full-on Soviet fantasy mode — next he’ll bring back the Lada’. The party’s Ghaleb Cachalia called the regulations ‘the dumbest … ever published’.
Patel said in an affidavit in response to a court application that the ‘winter clothing’ rules were not an ‘attempt by ministers to micro-manage decisions best taken by businesses but, on the contrary, a response to the request by stakeholders for greater clarity and certainty’.
‘I had no intention of publishing the clothing directions — I had assumed at that stage that industry bodies would, as other industry bodies had, self-regulate by imposing their own internal standards.’
Retail CEOs, however, were worried that store managers would be arrested for breaking the rules on what could be sold, which had happened early in the lockdown. Hence the requests to provide clarity on what could be sold as ‘winter clothes’.
Patel should not have stipulated ‘winter’ clothes over any other clothes. What’s winter in Cape Town is not winter in Hoedspruit. Putting retailers in the position of begging him for clarity speaks to a Soviet fantasy.
In late April, the sale of roast chicken and precooked food was banned. Patel said that government’s position on selling hot prepared food was always ‘very clear’.
Corporate bravery at its finest
Woolworths agreed to follow the regulations despite receiving a legal opinion from attorneys Webber Wentzel that in terms of the previous regulations, Woolworths could continue selling ’any item that can be consumed by a human being… it does not matter whether the item is raw, processed, frozen or cooked; nor does it matter whether it is healthy or unhealthy; nor does it matter whether it is luxury or not. Whatever the item is, it can be sold to consumers’. Corporate bravery at its finest.
Next is the class act that is Minister of Small Business Development, Lindiwe Zulu. Recently Zulu said publicly that she hadn’t realised how badly the pandemic had affected poor people. However this hasn’t stopped her.
Zulu’s initial regulations aimed at centralising the distribution of food aid. All charities and other good souls who sought to provide food to thousands of people could not do so as Zulu sought to centralise distribution through her department. These regulations were struck down in court.
Then, notwithstanding the revelation of her new-found insight into the lives of the poor, she enacted new regulations which have been struck down again on application by the DA. These regulations sought to set up a complicated system of planning and reporting to be complied with by all NGOs and food relief charities before providing food relief.
This, of course, would block food relief, as organisations became mired in bureaucratic processes, which is what happened the first time round.
James Lorimer, member of the DA shadow cabinet, says it’s most likely that she wants to control food distribution so that she can exchange food for promises of political loyalty. He says Zulu should be disqualified from public office. ‘If President Ramaphosa had an iota of conscience, he would fire her from his cabinet immediately.’
Then, last but not least, is Minister of Tourism Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane. During a National Assembly plenary session on 23 June, she said her department would provide a platform for the online promotion of products by small and medium tourism enterprises to sell clothing, handcraft and art.
Rack and ruin
As DA shadow minister Manny de Freitas says, the industry offers services and products that are about an experience. ‘Tourists purchase arts, crafts and souvenirs as a memento of their experience’ only. More logical would be to promote the websites from which these tourism enterprises operate. ‘The online selling of souvenirs is not in the ambit of tourism. Moreover, there are numerous government-sponsored tourism websites which have been left to wreck (sic) and ruin due to the government’s lack of maintenance, upgrades and lack of political will.
‘… Tourism’s job is to get people away from their computers and to get them to tour and visit South Africa. The Minister simply doesn’t understand this. It is no wonder that tourism enterprises are crashing and burning while thousands continue to lose their jobs thanks to tourism not opening up because of government’s lockdown regulations.’
The Minister’s earlier regulations to provide relief on the basis of whether an applicant was B-BBEE compliant were, extraordinarily, upheld by a court. The IRR’s Dr Anthea Jeffery, in an analysis of a similar case, is of the view that this is effectively rewriting both the Disaster Management Act of 2002 and the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2003 – neither of which authorises the use of race as a criterion in the allocation of disaster relief.
Anyway, the fact that Kubayi-Ngubane hasn’t realised that the people most likely to be affected by this race-obsessed approach are black employees makes her unworthy of her position.
Behind all this is that President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed these ministers to his cabinet and, in the case of the first two, reappointed them. The failure to end their tenure says more about him than it does about them.