Ebrahim Patel makes a U-turn on e-commerce

By BEKEZELA PHAKATHI

After facing widespread criticism on some of its lockdown regulations, the government on Thursday moved to publish new regulations allowing for more trade over the internet and greater flexibility when moving to a new home.

The U-turn on e-commerce came less than 24 hours after President Cyril Ramaphosa told the nation that mistakes had been made in implementing the country’s lockdown to limit the spread of Covid-19.

The restriction, which trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel initially defended, attracted widespread criticism at a time when in other countries e-commerce was seen as a relatively safe way to promote economic activity, boosting companies such as the global giant Amazon as well as Prosus, owned by SA’s Naspers, the most valuable company in Africa.

While its Dutch-listed unit was climbing to records, its subsidiary at home, Takealot, and its competitors could only sell what was allowed to be sold at brick-and-mortar shops.

At the time, Patel said that allowing unfettered e-commerce would be unfair to traders such as spaza shops.

In the new regulations, Patel said all e-commerce activity would now be permitted, meaning online stores can sell a full range of products, except alcohol and tobacco.

E-commerce was critical to opening the economy through contactless transactions, he said.

“This can reduce the movement of consumers, and the density of shoppers in retail spaces. Further, it can accelerate innovation, support local manufacturing and increase access by the informal market and poorer South Africans.”

The government had consulted stakeholders to get the proper health and safety protocols in place, which could allow the full e-commerce supply chain to operate safely, he said.

According to the guidelines, all retailers using e-commerce platforms to sell goods must ensure all regulations and directions in respect of hygienic workplace conditions and reducing the potential exposure of employees to Covid-19 must be adhered to.

Furthermore, to limit the social and economic hardship caused by the pandemic on local industries and enable consumer choice to support local producers, retailers must give prominence to goods that are manufactured in SA; provide for as many payment options as possible for consumers that are based on reducing risks of transmission; and enable poorer consumers to access delivery services, he said.

When packaging goods, retailers must provide written guidelines on how to safely disinfect their goods before use.

DA MP and trade & industry spokesperson Dean Macpherson welcomed the move.

“The minister should not be applauded for doing what was clearly the right and logical thing from the beginning,” he said.

Business lobby group Business for SA, established to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, said Patel’s decision “shows a welcome willingness to respond to input by business and a commitment to continuously improve the regulations governing business based on the best evidence available”.

Regulations on people who need to relocate to a new home have also been relaxed. Under previous regulations on level 5, moving house was prohibited.

Updated regulations gazetted by co-operative governance & traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, make it clear that a person who needs to travel to his or her new place of residence or business and to transport goods “which are limited to household or office furniture and effects as required by the circumstances … is permitted to do so during alert level 4”.

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