Introduction by Steuart Pennington
There have been a number of ‘Open’ letters written to our President, Cyril Ramaphosa, regarding the tightrope of ‘lives vs livelihoods’, giving him advice on the way forward, not the least of which, to name a few, are by Gareth Cliff, Gerhard Papenfus of NEASA (National Employers Association of South Africa), Mike Abel of Saatchi and John Steenhuisen of the DA.
Sadly, in my view, instead of focussing exclusively on COVID-19 and what our options are, they use their ‘open’ letters as an opportunity to scold, to reprimand, to castigate, even to patronise “Your government, Sir, have not covered themselves in glory over the last 10 years” (Cliff), “It is now, not only a perception, but our understanding that the current lockdown approach has become a political tool, not only to advance political agendas within the ruling party, but also to advance your government’s ‘radical economic transformation’ agenda and to correct the so-called ‘fault lines’ in society” (Papenfus). “The country had endured over 10 years of State Capture and as yet, not one of the perpetrators had gone to jail, yet an entire nation volunteered immediately for lockdown. Throughout these 10 years, you all protected Jacob Zuma. You treat us like children…” (Abel), “Mr President, by creating this lockdown crisis, you have broken your sacred compact with the people of South Africa. You have weaponised our trust in you and turned it against us. Instead of trusting us back, you have devastated lives and livelihoods through brutality and coercion” (Steenhuisen). One-upmanship is pervasive. Added to this Fake News and misinformed, benefit of hindsight, social media content come into the mix. If the intention is to be helpful, then what purpose does criticism and personal attack serve, unless of course….? If well-intended advice is interspersed with deliberate insult, what chances are there of the advice being heeded, unless of course…….?
Those with no political axe to grind, no desire to reprimand, like Bill Gates have a more balanced, circumspect view, “This is like a world war, except in this case, we’re all on the same side. Everyone can work together to learn about the disease and develop tools to fight it. I see global innovation as the key to limiting the damage, but the situation changes every day, there is a lot of information available—much of it contradictory—and it can be hard to make sense of all the proposals and ideas you may hear about. It can also sound like we have all the scientific advances needed to re-open the economy, but in fact we do not.”
As our President agonises on the way forward, on doing what is best, on considering long-term implications, on fretting about unintended consequences, I wonder which letters he chooses to read?
But, there can be no question that we have to find a way of getting people back to work. The letter below is the most forthright, most balanced, most respectful, that I have read. It conveys the dignity of the author, and respects the dignity of the receiver.
It plays the ball not the man.
John Dludlu – CEO Small Business Institute
The Small Business Institute beseeches our government to revise regulations pertaining to business issued during our State of Disaster immediately. The harm they are causing the economy cannot be justified; there is no discernible link between many of them and the stated aim of protecting people from transmitting the Covid-19 virus to each other and keeping hospitals from inundation.
While we respect that our leaders in all tiers of government are making difficult decisions on a daily or even hourly basis, it is our duty as the Big Voice for Small Business, without further delay, to speak out on behalf of our members – business chambers, informal business organisations and SMMEs. We believe that within certain guidelines and within reason, this constituency (those still standing) should be allowed to open and run their businesses so that they and their 3.9 million employees can earn their living.
Small and medium enterprises make up not only 98.5% of the number of firms in our economy, but because of their size, they are best placed to manage physical distancing and practice hygienic care. With fewer employees than large corporations, they can better communicate, train, and ensure good habits of hygiene and physical distancing to protect themselves and the customers they serve. At the very least, they should be allowed to pivot their businesses, where possible, to trade online without further delay.
From research we conducted in 2018 we know that 66% of formal, employing firms in South Africa are categorized as ‘micro’ and on average employ fewer than four people (even more are freelancers, or self-employed). ‘Small’, or 26% of the total number of firms, employ, on average, 22 people each. These two classifications of businesses provide 2,234,675 jobs, with ‘medium’ enterprises employing another 1.6 million. Certainly the micro and small businesses, the most vulnerable in the economy, should be allowed to reopen – as well as the many, if not more, informal businesses of the same size. The business owners we hear from all express a willingness to work within the confines of rational regulations designed to protect our health and the capacity of our health system.
Even before lockdown, South Africa fared poorly in the ‘ease of doing business’ and other indices principally because of unnecessary or misguided regulations. A crushing quantum of red tape is not the only consequence. We legislate against anti-competitive behaviour rather than for competition. We accept sector codes that reward a large business more for starting a business under the auspices of an enterprise development category than ensuring it is sustainable. Even in the private sector we are renowned for our ‘tick box’ mentality, favouring compliance over ethics, or integrity. Is it any wonder we have been handed a tick list of sectors that can operate and products that can be sold (or not sold) and how they may and may not be sold? In none of the regulations is an acknowledgement that there are significant differences between the way large and small businesses operate within a sector, or that perhaps SMMEs could avoid much of the risk government has identified merely by being small. It’s time South Africa learn to think differently about how ‘big’ thwarts small. Small is where competition, innovation and dynamism thrive. Big should not dictate to small any longer.
Give small businesses (and their customers) sufficient information to assess and mitigate their own risks, staff their operations accordingly, put health and safety concerns above all others. Let people work. Let businesses get on with the important work of driving the economy. If we unlock small businesses now, we will activate the economy the catastrophic damage to our economy of a prolonged lockdown.
Small businesses are the customers of and service providers to large businesses, state-owned enterprises and government. Their employees, too, are customers, pay taxes and vote. The interconnected nature of an economy means small businesses are everybody’s business. Relax the regulations to allow them to operate. Please, Your Excellency.
SBI The Big voice of small business
012 348 5440