SARS commissioner Edward Kieswetter said ecommerce holds great potential for South Africa and should be opened up.
Online shopping remains heavily restricted in South Africa despite other countries allowing unfettered ecommerce under their COVID-19 restrictions.
The restriction on ecommerce has been criticised for lacking proper justification, as online shopping offers a way to limit the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.
The reason for these ecommerce restrictions, Minister for Trade and Industry Ebrahim Patel said, is “fairness”.
“If we open up any one category, let’s say ecommerce, unavoidably there’s enormous pressure to do the same for physical stores,” Patel said.
The fairness argument was not well received among ecommerce executives and consumers looking to buy products online.
“Minister Patel started to use arguments around what is fair and fair competition. There is nothing about this lockdown which is fair,” said Yuppiechef co-founder Andrew Smith.
“Using an argument like that is similar to saying we should ban Netflix because it is not fair on DVD stores which are closed.
Speaking to the Nielsen Network, Kieswetter said many people think of ecommerce as a virtual economy – but it opens up a full value chain of economic activity.
While the shopping experience is online, it supports upstream and downstream activities in the physical world.
This includes logistics, warehousing, packing, and transport, which provide employment to a lot of people.
“To stop ecommerce loses the fact that it is real jobs and real people who can be employed,” said Kieswetter.
He said ecommerce is an area where social distancing, which helps to contain the spread of the virus, can more easily be applied.
“If we approach it from a risk-based perspective, we are encouraging those who make the decisions to review the ecommerce restrictions.”
Big potential for ecommerce
Moving away from the short-term drive to allow unfettered ecommerce, Kieswetter said it also brings long-term benefits.
He said the lockdown provides the country with an opportunity to think about and prepare for the future.
This includes “using the COVID-moment” to disrupt legacy business models and to leapfrog into the future. “Ecommerce provides that,” he said.
Kieswetter said the COVID-19 pandemic is simply fast-tracking us into the future. “We dare not miss this opportunity.”
This echoes the view of Parcelninja CEO Justin Drennan, who said the lockdown has accelerated ecommerce by 3-5 years.
Companies had to rapidly change to meet demand and are now ready to offer their services at scale in South Africa.
“The coronavirus pandemic and lockdown have moved online food and FMCG sales forward by five years,” said Drennan.