Home South African Covid-19 business regulations slammed as ‘unfair to the poor’

Covid-19 business regulations slammed as ‘unfair to the poor’

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Government has been accused of formulating lockdown regulations that favoured formal and established businesses

THE REGULATIONS formulated to guide and govern business activities in the country during the Covid-19 lockdown have been slammed as being unfair to the poor and the informal sector where they get their foodstuff. 

In a piece written by Jane Battersby of the African Centre for Cities at UCT, the government is also accused of demonstrating a limited understanding of how most poor people access foodstuff. 

Battersby said that brief research conducted by the centre found consistently higher levels of food insecurity than official statistics present. It also found that poor households depended on a range of formal and informal food retail sources to meet their food needs.

The informal sector provides food in affordable unit sizes, provides food on credit, sells fresh produce at lower costs than supermarket fresh produce, and sells prepared foods appropriate for households that experience income, time, storage and energy poverty.  And yet, when the lockdown measures were first announced, the president said the only food retailers that could open were supermarkets. 

“The official lockdown regulations were expanded to include spaza shops … However, confusion about what permitting was required for spazas to operate, and the Minister of Small Business Development’s later retracted statement that only South African stores would be able to operate, meant that law enforcement forced many legitimately open spazas to close,” Battersby wrote. 

She said they later found that even after the informal sector was allowed to operate during the lockdown, it encountered several challenges in the places where the businesses were based. 

“Only after two weeks of lockdown were informal food vendors allowed to start selling again, and only those selling uncooked foods with existing municipal permits. 

“Most township vendors had previously operated without permits, and were therefore now unable to legally operate under lockdown. While the state had previously often turned a blind eye, law enforcement officers have now been forcefully closing down these businesses. 

“In the fourth week of lockdown, the state finally announced support for spazas. However, among the exclusionary conditions to obtain this relief are registration with the SA Revenue Service and South African citizenship,” she said. 

Concluding the findings of the centre’s research, Battersby said the government’s lockdown regulations had demonstrated a considerable bias towards the large-scale formal actors, and pushed towards formalisation of the informal sector through the conditions about who is able to operate and the conditions placed on relief measures. 

“These reflect historical biases against informality, the Africa-wide modernisation agenda and the power of large-scale food businesses to self-identify as partners-in-development. 

“While there have been many hopeful statements that the food system will transform positively post-Covid-19, the South African case suggests that in a state of crisis, governments with wilfully poor understandings of the food systems of the masses will develop regulatory responses that will rather lead to further consolidation of the food system, rather than usher in potentially transformed food systems.” 

The spokesperson for President Cyril Ramaphosa, Khusela Diko, did not respond to the claims.