State dictating what you can wear? Resist

The nanny state has reared its head again in South Africa

In Summary

• Micromanagement of pandemic in South Africa has left some foaming at the mouth

Fashion line-up at the Norfolk Hotel
Fashion line-up at the Norfolk Hotel

The nanny state reared its head again in South Africa recently, and while the people just made fun of the situation with memes on social media, there were some in business and politics who felt the time had come to resist.

A little background may be needed here, so briefly: South Africa moved from alert Level 5 to alert Level 4 on May 1. At the previous level, all but essential workers and a few other exceptions, such as journalists, had to stay home. Level 4 permits retail and service operations and greater personal movement. 

So, for instance, people can leave the house to exercise and walk their pets between 6am and 9am, fast-food restaurants can deliver meals and clothes shops are open.


Now, you may have thought that ministers here had learned the lesson of why not to go around interfering unduly with personal choice after the furore kicked up by the lockdown rules not permitting the purchase of alcohol or tobacco products. But clearly, paternalism is a hard nut to crack.

Ebrahim Patel, Minister for Trade Industry and Competition, showed the government’s instinct to restrict freedom and responsibilities of citizens, supposedly in the interest of those self-same citizens. He gazetted directions on the sale of clothing, footwear and bedding during Alert Level 4 of the nation’s lockdown.

While there was nothing wrong in gazetting these rules, it was the micromanagement he put into the details that got certain sectors of society foaming at the mouth.

When senior figures from the clothing retail industry asked the Minister to gazette a list of clothing and related products that could be made available for sale in the shops, the government, as is its wont, assembled a committee to draw up a list of essential winter clothing, footwear and home textiles that would be permissible for sale.

If you have ever been part of any committee you will know that this was always going to end in tears, for somebody.

By the way, here in the Southern Hemisphere, winter is coming, as they said in that show (not the weather forecast) on the TV. 


Anyway, back to the minister and his rules, which were issued in the true style of one who still believes in the command economy as practised in North Korea. In those countries, the government, rather than the free market, determines what goods should be produced, how much should be produced, and the price at which the goods are offered for sale.  


According to the minister’s regulations, the wananchi of Mzansi: May buy shirts as long as they are promoted to be worn under jacket coats and/or knitwear; they may only buy crop bottom pants so long as they are worn with boots and leggings; and finally, they can only buy closed-toe shoes.

The opposition in Parliament dismissed the recommended list as a “bizarre and extraordinary clothing list plucked from Alice in Wonderland”. Adding, “It is ridiculous and insulting to South Africans' intelligence and just laughable.”

The BLSA, an association of South Africa’s largest corporations and major multinational companies, said, “This list is absurd. The market already solves this problem — no retailer puts out their summer stock in May.”

For me, the minister and his list just went to show what an awful mish-mash the government’s economic policy can be, with its allowance for state interventionism and the welfare state, alongside markets where factors of production are bought and sold, private property and wage labour.

It works okay until you have someone who only wants to swallow some of the ingredients but not the whole mix.

Meanwhile, as I write this, I am busy making popcorn to eat while I watch as the next round of what I am calling 'the lockdown levels political game' gets underway.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said the government is proposing that most areas in the country move to alert Level 3 at the end of May, but areas with high Covid-19 infection rates would remain on Level four. The way things are going, those who don’t progress to the next level will include metropolitan municipalities, such as Cape Town, which is currently the national epicentre of infections. I can assure you, it will be lit.