Picture: CHRIS VAN LENNEP/123RF
Picture: CHRIS VAN LENNEP/123RF

Pressure has intensified on the government to ditch some of its controversial lockdown regulations with a South African civil rights group preparing a court challenge.

Attorneys for DearSA delivered a letter of demand to co-operative governance & traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on Friday challenging the government’s ban on e-commerce and its limitation on outside exercise to three hours a day.

The organisation has requested that the government amend the lockdown regulations to allow for all forms of online retailing. This would support rather than impede the campaign to stop the spread of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

DearSA raises concerns that government decisions on the lockdown are ad hoc rather than data-driven, which has damaged the economy and caused widespread job losses.

The group says lockdown measures cannot stop the virus from spreading, but they can slow down the speed of infections.

It argues that the argument supporting the  e-commerce ban on the grounds that it is unfair to brick-and-mortar stores is irrational if the purpose is to stop the spread of the disease. Brick-and-mortar stores are far more likely to accelerate their online offerings if allowed to do so.

Trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel recently came under widespread criticism when he said the government could not allow unfettered e-commerce as that would be unfair to traders such as spaza shops, among other concerns. Under the level 4 lockdown regulations, Patel said e-commerce could be expanded incrementally. He has allowed the sale of essential food items, winter clothing, bedding, hot foods, stationery and cellphones.

However, logistics and e-commerce businesses are pushing for the government to fully open up home deliveries, saying such a move would actually aid the fight against the pandemic. Last week, business lobby group Business for SA (B4SA), that was established to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, said it is strongly pushing for all e-commerce to be reopened.

On Friday, Western Cape finance and economic opportunities MEC David Maynier said that he had written to Patel asking him to issue additional directives alongside the level 4 regulations to permit online retailers to sell all goods, the delivery of those goods directly to customers and for the importation of those goods to be allowed.

“Now more than ever, businesses need to be able to continue to trade safely and responsibly to ensure that we save jobs, livelihoods and the economy during the Covid-19 crisis,” Maynier said. The e-commerce sector presented an opportunity for just that, as it offered business a means to innovate and adapt during these tough times, with even traditional businesses being able to pivot and continue to operate, even in a limited way, due to its ease of implementation, he said.

DearSA also wants the government to allow South Africans to engage in any form of non-group outdoor exercise during daylight hours, as opposed to the current daily allowance between 6am and 9am. It cites studies from China showing that pandemic outbreaks are much less likely to spread outdoors than indoors.

Limiting the exercise window to three hours a day creates congestion and raises the risk of transmission, the group says.

Attorney for DearSA, Daniel Eloff of Hurter Spies, notified Dlamini-Zuma that unless a response is received by the close of business on May 14, the group will be compelled to seek urgent relief in court.

“Our client, however, trusts that unnecessary litigation could be avoided and look forward to your urgent response,” Eloff said.

phakathib@businesslive.co.za