Co-operative governance & traditional affairs minister Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI
Co-operative governance & traditional affairs minister Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI

If the ANC was trying to show to potential students of politics how to undermine the confidence of citizens, look no further than the debacle about whether supermarkets can sell hot cooked meals.

Last week, with no basis in law or the emergency regulations that have been enacted as part of the government’s response to Covid-19, trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel confidently told reporters that the sale of cooked foods had always been banned and this had always been clear.

Then one of the parties who would be affected by this action, retailer Woolworths, goes and gets a legal opinion. Not surprisingly, the word that came back from Webber Wentzel was that Patel was wrong when he stated “as the law stands” it was clear that supermarkets were not allowed to sell meals such as rotisserie chicken and pies.

We are no clearer today about how Patel came to his conclusions. How would a government act if it had respect for the rule of law and the idea that in a democracy it rules by consent, and therefore has a duty to ensure that its actions, even where they inconvenience the public, win citizens’ confidence?

The clear answer is that it would not behave in the way that co-operative governance & traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has done. As if to show us that the first part of her title is rather misnamed, she engaged in a blatant act of cynicism and simply went back to the original gazette, updated the wording after the event.

A regulation previously declared “any food product including nonalcoholic beverages” as an essential product. It now states that this will apply to “any food product, including nonalcoholic beverages, but excluding cooked hot food”. Why this might be the case, your guess is as good as anybody else’s.

Woolworths might feel vindicated as Dlamini-Zuma’s actions all but confirm that Patel was wrong. If the regulations supported his stance, why change them now? And business groups who take him to court will have a strong case.

If the situation was not so tragic it would be funny. The debacle has provided comedians and meme designers with golden material. Why only “hot” prepared food? If Woolworths makes the chicken, and lets it cool, is that still regarded as “hot”?

And what is so offensive about hot food? Can shoppers still buy a ready-made pizza that they then warm up in their own oven or microwave?

One potential reason that has been cited for this seemingly arbitrary and nonsensical rule is that the government wants to somehow level the playing field because traders in the informal sector are not allowed to sell cooked food. Allowing Woolworths to sell warm food might seem unfair when one considers that  restaurants and fast food outlets that are inexplicably not allowed to trade even on a delivery-only basis.

The point has been made about how ludicrous it is to be on the one hand praising key workers who are working night and day, and then depriving them of outlets where they can access food without having to spend more time cooking.

That all points to an inflexible style of governing where there is no room for nuance, a failing seen across the board.

Other governments have for example recognised the health benefits — physical and mental — of allowing people to undertake a certain amount of exercise, and have set rules to ensure this can be done safely. Not here in SA where gang leaders can speak openly about their “business” while otherwise law-abiding citizens face jail for walking their dogs.

And this lack of common sense makes one question whether we’ve got a government that can manage a phased relaxation of the lockdown.

We hope President Cyril Ramaphosa realises how serious a situation that is, or he will risk a growing backlash against the sacrifices he’s demanding from South Africans.

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