Government allows unlimited e-commerce sales

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Trade, industry and competition minister Ebrahim Patel.
Trade, industry and competition minister Ebrahim Patel.

Government has lifted the ban on e-commerce, allowing the sale of all products except alcohol and tobacco products.

This comes hot on the heels of president Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement that government would pronounce certain changes to level four regulations, to expand e-commerce business in the coming days.

There has been mounting pressure on government to allow unfettered e-commerce throughout the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown.

Last month, minister of trade, industry and competition Ebrahim Patel said e-commerce activity would be “incrementally” expanded under level four. Patel had argued that allowing unlimited e-commerce operations will promote “unfair competition” on physical stores that are not operating and may result in the spreading of the coronavirus pandemic.

While level five lockdown regulations limited e-commerce merchants to selling only essential goods, under level four restrictions, the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC) has permitted the sale of winter clothing and bedding, a longer list of personal toiletries, hot foods for delivery, stationery and educational books, and computers and cellphones.

In the latest gazetted directions, the DTIC acknowledges e-commerce can be a critical enabler to opening the economy through contactless transactions, which can reduce the movement of consumers, and the density of shoppers in retail spaces.

Furthermore, it can accelerate innovation, support local manufacturing and increase access by the informal market and poorer South Africans.

“Subject to all applicable laws, all goods may be transacted through e-commerce platforms, except for goods prohibited for sale in terms of regulation 26 and 27 of the regulations.”

It also notes the various protocols which must be observed by retailers, couriers or delivery services and customers in respect of goods transacted through e-commerce.

Good for business, consumers

The Western Cape’s Department of Economic Development and Tourism (DEDAT), which also voiced displeasure over the e-commerce ban, welcomed the directions allowing product sales via e-commerce platforms.

In a statement, DEDAT MEC David Maynier says not only is this decision good for business, but it is also good for consumers, who can now safely buy what they want, when they want it.

“Since the announcement of national government’s COVID-19 Risk Adjusted Strategy, we have called for the expansion of the e-commerce sector as it is undeniably one of the safest ways for our economy to open during the COVID-19 crisis.

“The e-commerce sector provides an online platform for businesses, especially small businesses, to access and compete in markets where they would ordinarily not have been able to trade. Up to 30 000 small businesses make use of some of the larger e-commerce trading platforms to sell their products.

“I will continue to engage with national government on behalf of other sectors of the economy which can open sooner under the various alert levels in a safe and responsible way.

“Opening up the e-commerce sector is a significant step towards the opening of the economy, which will allow us to save businesses, save jobs and save the economy in the Western Cape.” 

Regulations and directions

Among the protocols, local e-commerce players must ensure the following:

* All regulations and directions in respect of hygienic workplace conditions and the potential exposure of employees to COVID-19 must be adhered to, including the COVID-19 Occupational Health and Safety Measures in Workplaces directions issued by the minister of employment of labour and published in Government Notice 479 on 29 April 2019.

* In addition, employees may not share face masks, equipment, stationery, utensils or similar items, and designated and adequately trained health and safety officers must take each employee’s temperatures using appropriate equipment or instruments at the start of a shift and every four hours after the shift commences. Records of the temperatures of each employee must be kept. Any employee whose temperature is 37.5 degrees or above should immediately be moved to an isolated observation room for a second measurement. If the second test measurement also exceeds 37.5 degrees, the employee must be returned home for self-quarantine, provided with a surgical mask and not be permitted to enter or stay on the premises.

* In order to limit the social and economic hardship caused by the pandemic on local industries and enable consumer choice to support local producers, retailers must give prominence to those goods which are manufactured in the Republic of South Africa.

In terms of protocols for courier or delivery services, the directions noted the following among those listed:

* All courier and delivery personnel must have their own hand sanitiser and disinfectant wipes, which must be refilled daily.

* Courier and delivery personnel must wear a cloth face mask that covers the nose and mouth when delivering goods to customers.

* Courier and delivery personnel must maintain at least one-and-a-half metres distance from customers.

The Gazette notes the commencement and duration of the directions come into effect on the date of publication in the Government Gazette, and shall remain in force for the duration of alert level four. 

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