Business Maverick


A contrast of good and ‘sorry’ — how labour and business see Ebrahim Patel’s legacy in government

A contrast of good and ‘sorry’ — how labour and business see Ebrahim Patel’s legacy in government
Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition, Ebrahim Patel at the opening session of the second Black Industrialists and Exporters Conference. 20 March 2024. (Photo: Jairus Mmutle GCIS)

Ebrahim Patel is seen as a powerful figure in government as his focus during the Zuma and Ramaphosa presidencies was largely on expanding the role of the State in the economy. This interventionist approach drew fierce criticism, especially from organised business.

Ebrahim Patel, who has served in Cabinet since 2009 under two Presidents, plans to bow out of public service after the general election, with his impending exit drawing mixed views from business and labour about his legacy in government and shaping policy.

Patel first served in Cabinet in 2009 under the Jacob Zuma presidency as the Minister of Economic Development, a department which was later reconfigured as the Department of Trade Industry and Competition (DTIC) under the Cyril Ramaphosa presidency in 2019. Patel has since led the reconfigured department but plans to no longer serve under the incoming seventh government administration.

In a media statement, Patel said his decision to retire was prompted by a desire to spend time with his family and reflect on his years of active politics. Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan also expressed similar sentiments as he also plans to retire after the 29 May general election.

Ebrahim Patel

Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel in Parliament. 25 June 2019. (Photo: Jaco Marais)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Pravin Gordhan’s half-century of public service draws to a close

Patel is seen as a powerful figure in government as his focus during the Zuma and Ramaphosa presidencies was largely about expanding the role of the State in the economy and job creation, through public policies. This drew fierce criticism in business and investment circles, with Patel being viewed as an interventionist and promoting overarching state ownership of the economy.

Patel’s public popularity was further dented during the Covid pandemic and related lockdowns as he was seen as the poster boy for irrational rules implemented by the government. Patel defended the government’s decision to ban the sale of alcohol and cigarettes, t-shirts, sandals, and crop-bottoms, and prevent restaurants and e-commerce businesses from operating, which resulted in the loss of jobs and livelihoods.

A business source, who is close to investments and government policies, told Daily Maverick that Patel’s public policy approach and that of his Cabinet colleagues has “caused untold damage to South Africa’s economy and competitiveness.” “Patel’s legacy in government is also a sorry one,” the source said.

Patel’s focus has also been on driving localisation in flailing sectors of the economy such as manufacturing (mainly textiles), including public interest and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment clauses in company mergers and acquisitions, and promoting increased competition and economic inclusion in the economy by taking a hard-line approach to market abuses and concentration.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel

President Cyril Ramaphosa and Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel at the opening of the first Black Industrialists and Exporters Conference at Sandton International Convention Centre, Johannesburg. 20 July 2022. (Photo: Twitter / GCIS)

Patel has also been tasked with heightening South Africa’s global profile by using the government’s strength from existing financial and trade relationships to achieve geo-political and economic goals. He has done this through the BRICS coalition of countries and the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Six new countries invited to join BRICS — See our interactive world map

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa pins its hopes on an early 2024 US Congress renewal of Agoa

Labour is largely glowing about Patel’s track record and policy positions in Cabinet over the past 15 years. Arguably this is not surprising as it is largely believed that labour federation Cosatu asked Zuma — fresh from his election victory in 2009 — to appoint Patel as a Cabinet minister to increase the labour/union representation in government, owing to his strong roots in the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union.

Said Matthew Parks, Cosatu’s acting national spokesperson and parliamentary coordinator, about Patel’s legacy:

“He [Patel] has remained true to his roots in his tour of Cabinet. During his tenure at Economic Development and later DTIC, he ensured labour had a seat at the table during critical negotiations affecting the lives of workers; he put in place through various programmes, the foundations for a more equal economy; and solidified the social partnership between government, business and labour that is key to growing the economy, creating jobs, and slashing poverty and inequality.”

Ebrahim Patel

Minister of Trade and Industry Ebrahim Patel at the Inaugural Worker Share Ownership Conference at Sandton Convention Centre, Sandton. 23 April 2024. (Photo: Gallo Images / OJ Koloti)

Harm on the economy 

Quarters of the manufacturing industry have been critical of Patel’s track record in managing public policy and the economy. His interventions, coupled with electricity and logistics crises in South Africa and the global economic decline, are largely blamed for the country’s de-industrialisation.

In South Africa’s steel industry alone, production at steel factories is estimated to have fallen by 1.3% a year between 2008 and 2023, while the number of jobs fell by 214,636, or 37.2%, since then. ArcelorMittal South Africa, which is Africa’s largest steel producer, is considering cutting 3,500 jobs.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ArcelorMittal SA sounds warning to labour as it mulls closure of steel operations

What pushed ArcelorMittal to consider shutting its steel operations and cutting jobs were policy blunders by Patel’s DTIC. The DTIC introduced a new preferential pricing system for scrap, a 20% export duty, and a ban on scrap exports that have given steel production via electric arc furnaces an “artificial” competitive advantage over steel manufacturers that use iron ore to produce steel. This means scrap metal traders who recycle steel are gaining an advantage over ArcelorMittal’s more intense operations such as Newcastle, which consumes heavy raw materials such as iron ore.

The Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa (Seifsa) — an industry body whose members include 1,300 companies, employing around 170,000 workers — has called for Ramaphosa to urgently intervene to correct the policy as “it seems that the DTIC seemingly does not have the capacity, nor the grasp of the broader implications of these developments.

“The matter is now beyond urgent and we urge the President and key ministers in the Economic Cluster to treat it as such, if we are to avoid a socioeconomic catastrophe of gigantic proportions in the metals and engineering industry which will reverberate throughout the economy and the continent, impacting the auto, motor, construction and mining subsectors of the economy and all who work in [them],” Seifsa COO Tafadzwa Chibanguza has warned. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Hilton Trollip says:

    Great piece and super useful intro to Patels parting gift paper, thanks!

  • Interested Observer says:

    So much damaged caused by one individual. What a legacy.

    • Anil Maharaj says:

      You can say that again. Trade and Industry received precious little support from him. Another useless cabinet minister. Good riddance!!

    • David McCormick says:

      Agree. To quote Stats SA
      2008: “Although the overall unemployment rate was virtually unchanged in 2008 (22,9 percent) compared with a year earlier (22,3 percent), among Black/Africans it rose from 25,8 percent in 2007 to 27,0 percent in 2008”
      2024: “The official unemployment rate stands at 32,9 %, an increase of 0,8 of a percentage point in Q1:2024 compared to Q4:2023. In Q1 of 2024, the labour force participation rate increased by 0,7 of a percentage point to 60,7%, while the absorption rate decreased by 0,1 of a percentage point to 40,7%.”
      Not sure why “labour is glowing about Patel’s track record.”

      • Carl Nielsen says:

        Because labour has no interest in job creation. They are only interested in protecting existing jobs and maximising income for those workers.

        • Pierre Rossouw says:

          More like, “They” (being union leaders) are only interested in protecting jobs and maximizing income for themselves and shop stewards, using workers (union members) simply as channels for their own selfish benefit.

  • Nkunku S says:

    You need look no further than our dismal economic growth rates and unemployment rates over the past 15 years to appreciate what a disaster he has been to the country. Why was he not kicked out earlier??!!

  • Alan Watkins says:

    Thoroughly useless! But Patel should not feel bad and disappointed at his failures; it is hard to imagine any/some ANC minister/s about whom we could say anything nice. Mostly they are useless, or corrupt, or both!

  • drew barrimore says:

    He will be remembered alongside rotisserie chicken. Oh and for his role in destroying the local clothing and textile industry in favour of the rubbish flooding from China. He gets 35% and therefore a glittering ANC Pass certificate.

  • Greeff Kotzé says:

    Wait, someone needs to explain this steel scrap thing to me.

    So recycling scrap into “new “steel is cheaper than smelting steel from iron ore. Makes sense. But the smelting industry is upset that the scrap is no longer being exported? And actually being used to make steel locally, for cheaper, instead? Why — because we can’t export our surplus steel, for some reason? We can only export the scrap?

    Somehow it doesn’t sound as if these companies have SA’s interests at heart, either.

    • Mark Fine says:

      No. Patel introduced the Price Preference System (PPS) which gifted his buddies at Scaw etc a raw material, scrap, at 30/40% less than the export achievable price. This came straight out of the pockets of the big scrap generators like Toyota, Nampak and the army of 300 000 subsistence collectors. It therefore gave these scrap based mini mills an advantage over AMSA, which uses iron ore to make steel.

    • Mark Fine says:

      We have fought his madness for years. No tears will be shed by business for his finally being pushed out, because that is what it is. The egregious arrogance of that man eventually became too much for even his union buddies.

  • William Kelly says:

    No loss whatsoever. I’m scared that his replacement will be even worse – although that is going to be a challenge.

  • Brent Record says:

    Maybe we should wonder in which country our unions are operating? Matthew Parks (COSATU): Patel
    “put in place … the foundations for a more equal economy; and solidified the social partnership between government, business and labour that is key to growing the economy (failed), creating jobs (failed), and slashing poverty (failed) and inequality (failed).”

  • Brent Record says:

    Maybe we should wonder in which country our unions are operating? Matthew Parks (COSATU): Patel
    “put in place … the foundations for a more equal economy; and solidified the social partnership between government, business and labour that is key to growing the economy (failed), creating jobs (failed), and slashing poverty (failed) and inequality (failed).”

    • Ian Gwilt says:

      You should have seen Parks on the TV last night defending the NHI
      He reckons Doctors in the future will have to cut back on their Holidays to the Bahamas.
      All will be well.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    That he is going has zero downside

  • Gavin Brown says:

    Ersatz academic, ascetic Marxist and easily provoked protagonist. . Maybe the only one in the ANC with an understanding of macro-economics clothed in an air of intellectualism. Once described by Tito Mboweni as a rigid fundamentalist. Few will notice his going, more will be delighted ?

  • Ian Gwilt says:

    He probably thinks he did a good Job backed by his cheerleader from Cosatu.
    But he did help create a massive illicit tobacco industry along with Nanny Zuma.
    Donate a few chickens from woolies to his farewell party.

  • Trevor Pope says:

    I hope that when he reflects on his time, he benchmarks his policies against those in growing economies. East Germany vs West Germany, perhaps?

  • Geoff Coles says:

    I would say, with the SACP and COSATU backing, Patel has steered the ANC and the Economy down the plughole.

  • Pierre Rossouw says:

    As long as the ANC governing party continues to chase and follow Marxist communist ideology, which has failed in every country in the World that has experimented with it, especially trying to implement this failed ideology in economics of the country, the state of wealth of every South African will not improve.

    When our global trading partner countries hear them address each other as “comrade,” they cringe, then are seriously discouraged from investing in or trading with South Africa.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    SA is awash with idiots, incompetents, thieves and criminals – we seem to specialize and excel at this. One only has to consider the so-called leaders in government and their stupid followers in Cosatu, SACP, SADTU etc. – Cyril, Pandor, Patel, Nzimande, Motsoaledi, Mantashe, Mabula – the list is endless. Schooled in failed and poverty-inducing communist dogma and completely inept to run a modern economy. SA will only move forward once these parasites and idiots are dumped into the sewer where they belong.

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