Dear Minister Ebrahim Patel

On this national Workers Day, one could not help it but reflect on some labour-related and trade issues in the midst of this international COVID-19 pandemic. I guess the immediate question that comes to mind is, whose political economy is being pursued during this lockdown? An ideal answer would be that, Ebrahim Patel is a product of the labour movement and therefore, should be pursuing the interests of workers and the poor. While you have had to address numerous questions since the beginning of the lockdown, one that caught my attention was regarding e-commerce. In response to why e-commerce is not fully allowed to function during the lockdown, your brief response was “It’s unfair to others”. It is the “others” I am more interested in and will later revert to. The following are indisputable facts regarding e-commerce in this lockdown period:

  1. E-commerce maintains social distancing (something you have been encouraging);
  2. E-commerce has become the “go to channel” in most parts of the world to get goods to people’s houses, ANY GOODS, in a safe and hygienic way in the time of COVID-19;
  3. E-commerce makes a positive contribution to the economy, providing jobs to many, especially the SME sector which is more and more reliant on e-commerce platforms to sell goods and will become even more reliant post this pandemic – the world has shown us this already;
  4. E-commerce can be accessed by anyone in the country who has a mobile phone or a computer, this is not limited to an elite few.

Why is it difficult to understand the benefits of e-commerce in this country at this time? While it may not be ideal to pursue a pedestrian non-existent argument for the delivery of magwinya and kota in the township, there are numerous black businesses like Batu that are successful largely to e-commerce. In 2019 already, over 1,2 million e-commerce deliveries were made in black townships. E-commerce businesses are already operating in the 4IR space and are mainly SMMEs. Statistics reveal that SMMEs employ five times more workers than the mainstream industry. These employees are generally not unionized – something I would imagine you despise. By the way, the coincidence of the unionized sectors continuing to work during the lockdown remains exactly that, a coincidence. Although the intention is not to question the ownership of the sectors that remained opened during the lockdown, it compels one to revert back to the “others” you referred to when you made your argument against a fully-operational e-commerce. Indeed, who is the others? A quick search reveal that there is overwhelming public support to allow e-commerce to deliver ALL GOODS to people’s homes.

Although you have only allowed us a glimpse of your thinking via a very brief commentary saying – it’s unfair to others, is this really the only and legitimate reason? The DTI’s vision, as published is “A dynamic industrial, globally competitive South African economy, characterized by meaningful economic transformation, inclusive growth and development, decent employment and equity, built on the full potential of all citizens”. Surely if we want to have a dynamic, globally competitive economy we cannot be limiting competition as you are trying to do right now? If you are so focused on building things on the ‘full potential of all citizens’ shouldn’t now be the time to use that potential? I say so because you did not say who “others” are and it would be wrong to assume who you’re referring to. Maybe, the “others” should raise their hands. Businesses of the magnitude that were not impacted by the lockdown rules (the heavily unionized lot) are not as yet owned by black people. Instead, most black people run the ‘work-from-home’ SMMEs.

Which sectors require your protection against e-commerce and how will they be disadvantaged since many physical stores today have the ability to deliver online and, SME’s are making use of online on an increasingly frequent basis, creating jobs and employment opportunities. Businesses in foreign countries have seized opportunities brought about by e-commerce. Why is South Africa refusing to fully play in that space in this era of 4IR?

Your powers at this time come from the Disaster Management Act 57, 27(2) and (3) which states that your powers can only be exercised to the extent that they are:

  • Assisting and protecting the public;
  • Providing relief to the public;
  • Protecting property;
  • Preventing or combating disruption; or
  • Dealing with the destructive and other effects of the disaster.

Would you argue that your decisions are in line with the powers granted to you – in this instance – how are you assisting or protecting the public, since it would appear that you are in fact putting jobs at risk, the antitheses of protecting the public; jobs in logistics, warehousing and other parts of e-commerce. These are the very jobs that the unions are trying to protect, albeit being jobs created by SME’s who enable themselves via e-commerce. You are providing relief to the public but seem to be frustrating the public by not allowing a perfectly acceptable channel, one that is accepted everywhere else in the world, to operate fully at this time, a channel that increases social distancing, as earlier referred.

Great leaders are forged in times of struggle. Great leaders recognize the error of their ways and correct them quickly, acknowledging that they are only human. The cigarette saga is a case in point.

Seize the opportunity Minister Patel, to prove that you are a great leader, one that cares about jobs, SME’s, competition (and not protectionism) and the people of South Africa and provide relief for the many who can keep their jobs and not lose them for no good reason. I would urge you to allow e-commerce to deliver what it has elsewhere in the world since this does not harm the local economy. I did not want to bore you with figures from the global community about how successful e-commerce has been during this time of global lockdown. However, I can forward them to you if that may assist to refer to Foreign Affairs.

By Mpho Tsedu – CEO: Institute of Foreign Affairs

In the video below, Ministers Nkosazan Dlamini-Zuma and Ibrahim Patel brief media on COVID-19 risk-adjusted strategy: