We thought the Department of Trade and Industry’s artificial restrictions on e-commerce under lockdown were absurd (every other country in the world has permitted unfettered e-commerce as it is perfectly suited to preventing the spread of Covid-19).
However, directions gazetted on Tuesday for the motor service and retail sector as well as a six-page document detailing exactly which clothing, shoes and bedding items may be sold under Level 4 of the countrywide lockdown take the sheer insanity of restrictions to another level entirely.
The clothing directive was rightfully described by former DA member of parliament Gavin Davis as “Kafkaesque”.
The directions, which number all the way to 3.9.11, state that short-sleeved T-shirts can be sold as long as they are “promoted and displayed as under garments for warmth”, while shirts should be “displayed and promoted to be worn under jackets coats and/or knitwear”.
There are certain nightmarish qualities of Kafka in this document, sure, but there’s also a sprinkling of both Escher and Lewis Carroll too.
What would Alice make of it all?
“Crop bottoms”, decree the regulations, may be sold as long as these are “worn with boots and leggings”.
Bedding can be sold (well, 11 specified products), but towels – still not, for reasons unknown.
All these regulations actually achieve is the prohibition of the sale of sandals, flip-flops and swimwear, which aren’t exactly in great demand during winter!
It’s almost as if Ebrahim Patel, our Minister of Trade and Industry, doesn’t trust the market to operate.
The only logical explanation for the exclusion of (some) summer items is that the department would prefer that retailers don’t dump their unsold summer stock in clearance sales, attracting people to stores unnecessarily.
It has no doubt considered measures as peculiar as price controls, but perhaps decided that micromanagement of an entire clothing and textile sector which it is “desperate” to “save” would be preferable.
Under the government’s grand Level 4 regulations, manufacturers can only make winter clothing. Patel clearly has no idea how manufacturing works. Winter is half a month away. Garment manufacturers need to be working on their spring and summer ranges.
Can Patel bring himself to ban anything outright? He likely knows that an outright ban won’t stand up to a legal challenge.
Rather, he gambles that retailers and businesses won’t contest any of these absurd, irrational regulations. So far, he’s right. Even Woolies, armed with a strong legal opinion, backed down on the irrational ban of the sale of rotisserie chicken.
In the absence of detailed “directions”, some retailers will sell you kitchen items. Others won’t. You can buy a two-plate stove but not a microwave. And good luck finding a plate!
Meanwhile, in another part of Wonderland …
The directions for the sale of motor vehicles, with a three-phased opening stretching into June “until the end of level four”, is another fantasy read gazetted on Tuesday.
Most dealers are part of enormous, mostly JSE-listed groups, with armies of occupational health and safety officers. Under current circumstances, they would prefer staff have as little contact with customers as possible – they don’t need a gazette to specify that signatures “ought” to be electronic.
I know of a handful of large dealerships in Johannesburg that didn’t sell a single vehicle in March, never mind April when lockdown was in full effect.
The majority of dealers opened their doors last Monday already, with or without Minister Patel’s directions. Market forces are an amazing thing.
An entire page of regulations surrounding the service and repair of vehicles, summed up, says that basically any repairs are allowed as long as they’re not cosmetic. Again, why does this have to be regulated?
Patel muffled the outcry and pressure surrounding the selective reopening of e-commerce by promising that “directions may permit” its “incremental expansion” in regulations. Now, following these two sets of directions, one shouldn’t be so sure.
Not to be outdone, Minister of Small Business Development Khumbudzo Ntshavheni gazetted her own six pages of directions spelling out the permits required and terms of operation for small-scale bakeries, small-scale hardware stores, “informal and micro restaurants and shisanyamas”, tradespeople, sole traders in the clothing and textiles sector as well as cooperatives.
Shisanyamas are only allowed to sell cooked food (their entire reason for existence) if “it is for home deliveries and the orders are placed telephonically or online”. This pipedream aside, the regulations are so poorly crafted that these types of businesses are not even defined.
If this is the chaos businesses are being subjected to under Level 4, just imagine the utter nightmare once districts and provinces are at different levels.
Certain required manufacturing inputs will be allowed in some parts of the country but not others. You may be able to buy something legally in Hartbeespoort but not a few kilometres down the road in Atteridgeville.
Many rightfully argue that instead of regulating what is allowed, government ought to be regulating what is not. Yet this is where we find ourselves.
The thing is, businesses, especially small businesses, will do whatever it takes to survive and pay their employees.
This experiment in central planning is already failing.
All sorts of shortcuts are being taken. To use a single example: garden services all across Johannesburg are operating, despite only being permitted under proposed regulations for Level 3 in government’s risk-adjusted strategy for exiting the lockdown.
And as one business starts operating – to survive! – so another supplier or customer does too. Economies are very complex things. They cannot be micromanaged through endless lists of directives and regulations.
The lockdown is ending. Whether the cabal of ministers and their gazetted regulations want it to or not.