Ebrahim Patel. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Ebrahim Patel. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

As the fiscal duncerati of the governing ANC rolled up their sleeves and took a sledgehammer to the business sector, you’d have expected those mandated to ensure the economy stays standing to have something to say about it all. Certainly, finance minister Tito Mboweni has been forthright about his opposition to certain of the lockdown rules in recent months. Apparently, he’s on his own.

In particular, Ebrahim Patel, the minister of trade, industry & competition, seems to have gone to ground. Much lampooned early on, sometimes unfairly, as the mastermind of the more absurd "roast chicken" and "crop bottoms" lockdown rules, Patel was at least visible during the early months of the pandemic.

He has since faded into the background — at a time when his political leadership is most needed in the realm of, you know, trade and industry.

In 2016 Patel struck a deal with AB InBev, in which the Brazilian brewer agreed not to axe any of the 5,967 employees in SA for a number of years, in exchange for the government’s blessing to merge with SA Breweries (SAB).

Then, on December 28, the government banned all alcohol sales (again), without consulting the companies or considering alternatives.

Unsurprisingly, at the beginning of January, AB InBev sent a furious letter to Patel’s office, saying that as far as it was concerned, the alcohol ban had broken the trust — and the deal to keep jobs "has been suspended, with effect from the date of the impugned regulations".

For good measure, SAB announced it was also scrapping another R2.5bn investment, following on the heels of another R2.5bn investment it had already binned last year, due to the first ban. And it suspended the contracts of 550 temporary workers, indefinitely.

It wasn’t just the beer industry. In the wine sector, 80 wineries and 350 producers shut their doors, with an estimated 18,000 jobs lost. Throw in the cancelled investments from Heineken (R6bn), Consol Glass (R1.5bn) and others, and it starts getting pretty scary.

In a jobs-and investment-scarce country, you’d think all kinds of red bells would be ringing in Patel’s trade & industry department.

So what did Patel do about the fact that industry feels scalded and ignored by the government? Did he at least meet these companies, and apologise for the fact that the policymakers hadn’t bothered to speak to them before banning their product?

Did he apologise for the fact that it banned alcohol without having the proper science on hand, which disaggregated people’s mobility during curfews from alcohol-related trauma incidents?

Did he meet the trade unions, which told the FM two weeks ago that "workers especially are going to suffer because the government is bad at policing and law enforcement".

Well, who knows — Patel’s office has gone mute. When the FM sent questions to his spokesman, Sidwell Medupe, about the alcohol ban, it was met with a stony silence. Questions sent to the department’s director-general Lionel October met the same fate.

Why could that be? Is Patel embarrassed by the government’s ham-fisted bans? And, irrespective, what is he doing to rescue that investment?

Finally this week, President Cyril Ramaphosa removed the alcohol ban, and opened up beaches and rivers again which — for no defensible reason — had remained closed for the holiday month of January. But even then, his lacklustre national coronavirus command council displayed the blunt, all-or-nothing thinking which has typified its Covid-19 response.

Rather than adopt a staggered opening of outlets selling alcohol — limiting the hours it can be sold, or how much can be sold to individuals — he threw open the gates, allowing bars to sell from 10am to 10pm.

Nobody said making policy in the era of Covid-19 is easy. It requires a deftness, a wholesale reliance on data and science, and constant engagement with those most affected by rules curbing their rights. And it requires political leaders to overcommunicate, rather than undercommunicate. But it’s as if someone at Luthuli House has been holding those instructions upside down.

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