Ebrahim Patel: Minister of Trade Industry and Competition
Trade, Industry and Competition Minister Ebrahim Patel has had to do a lot of talking this year as the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic brought his portfolio to the fore.
From having to oversee the registration of essential goods and services during the five-week hard lockdown, getting the competition watchdog to clamp down on businesses that were overpricing facemasks and then managing a "risk-adjusted approach" to reopening the economy, his plate has been full.
The minister, who usually takes every opportunity to share that he drives a Toyota made in South Africa or punts the Hisense fridges manufactured in Atlantis in the Western Cape, boasted about the country's medical innovations this year.
In one briefing, he even shared that a scanner used for medical purposes had featured in the popular television show, Grey's Anatomy. (Now we all know the minister enjoys Monday night medical dramas).
But some of the Covid-19 regulations did not go down well with some businesses. It has been widely reported that many, including Cape Town's beloved Perseverance Tavern – the oldest pub in SA – have had to close shop permanently because of the lockdown.
The economic crisis has created urgency for the finalisation of master plans, over which Patel's department has oversight, for the revival of various industries. The sugar industry master plan was signed in November. Work on the textile, footwear and clothing master plan is currently under way. The master plans are meant to have positive, knock-on effects that will support small and medium enterprises across value chains.
Among other wins for Patel was the work of the Competition Commission, which had its hands full with the investigation of complaints of anti-competitive behaviour and pricing amid the pandemic. The watchdog looked into matters in which facemasks were overpriced by 900%. Notably, it sparred with pharmaceutical chain Dis-Chem and fined it R1.2 million for hiking the price for surgical facemasks. The matter went to court, with Dis-Chem eventually withdrawing its appeal. The commission also managed a number of settlements, some of which involved donations to the Solidarity Fund, which was set up to provide humanitarian support during the pandemic.
Failures: However, these gains were dwarfed by losses businesses made because they could not operate during the lockdown. Hairdressers, restaurants and pubs were among the last to reopen – and this had ramifications for employment. In the second quarter alone, 2.2 million jobs were lost. The government's controversial and somewhat nonsensical regulations during the lockdown cannot be forgotten.
Remember the ban on e-commerce and the decision to allow "crop bottoms" to be sold during winter, but not T-shirts or open-toe shoes, such as like sandals? Patel would later explain that controlling the sale of certain products was in the interests of fair competition during lockdown.
Despite the hits and misses, Patel's department clearly dominated dinner table conversations, cementing the relevance of his department.
Overall score out of 10: 7Return to Cabinet ratings