Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 7 May 2018

History shows no fairy tale ending to restrictive legislation

Instead of treating Uber as a major force in the fight against drunk-driving, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies prefers the route of more rigorous, less enforceable regulation. He should instead be focusing his energy on negotiating free trade agreements for South African producers.

Frequent flyers – those who travel from OR Tambo International – may have noticed the strong police presence on the ramp leading to the departures level at the airport. If they are not in a manic race against time to hand over their vehicles to the valet parking teams who assemble at the pavement alongside the entrance doors, they may also have noticed that the vehicles being pulled off the road by the assiduous members of the Ekurhuleni police are the marques favoured by Uber drivers: Corollas, Almeras and Kias, almost always painted white.

Chat to a few Uber drivers and they will tell you that they are indeed being targeted by the local police. The OR Tambo ramp is just one of the many gauntlets they have to run in the course of trying to earn their daily crust.

Relative to the violence at other popular pick-up and drop-off points (such as the Sandton Gautrain station), this one is a minor inconvenience. As one of the drivers put it to me: “They’re just protecting their investments. Some of the cops have interests in the metered taxi business so Uber poses a threat which they need to manage.”

Another confirmed this, but added an interesting observation about the abject failure of the police to rein in the ongoing conflict between the metered taxi drivers and Uber.

Uber has been a game changer for people who going out and drink more than the legal limit. For exactly the same reason it’s been a game-changer for the cops. No longer can they be sure of the solid stream of bribes from manning a roadblock on a Friday night. If they want the good times back, they need to get rid of Uber.”

Many people who wouldn’t ordinarily bribe officials confess to having handed over money at a police roadblock. They all assume they’ve drunk too much to be safely under the limit. They have no intention of finding out. The cops play on their fears of what a night in a holding cell could be like. They particularly like to say to single women dressed in party attire: “If you’re over the limit you may not like to be waiting in the back of that truck there until we can take you all to the station at the end of the night.”

Since the advent of Uber there are fewer and fewer of these stories doing the rounds – and less sympathy for the victims/perpetrators. Now that there’s a low-cost hailing service with ample vehicles at the disposal of the party-minded public, there’s no excuse for placing yourself at the mercy of a crooked cop.

Working off just this anecdotal evidence, multiply out the amount of bribe money that used to be paid out to a relatively small number of police manning the drink-drive roadblocks and you can quickly calculate their drop in earnings. No wonder the cops are cracking down on Uber wherever they can.

If the cops are more interested in bribe-taking than reducing the presence of drunk drivers on the road, someone else will have to step up to the plate.

Instead of treating Uber as a major force in the fight against drunk-driving, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies prefers the route of more rigorous, less enforceable regulation to tilt South Africa ever closer to his vision of Utopia.

Together with his team at the DTI he has a blueprint to make it increasingly difficult for consumers to obtain alcohol legally. Some might argue that if they simply stuck to their mandate, which is building trade and industry, many of the evils their grand plans aim to eliminate would simply evaporate, together with the inequality which spawned them in the first place.

Their constant attempts to “manage” liquor legislation are prefaced with feel-good sentiments around minimising the harm caused to society by the demon drink. DTI’s prohibitionist inclinations has found its true expression in this attempt to reduce dramatically the number of licensed outlets.

They fondly believe that this would reduce alcohol abuse (despite the wealth of evidence from the era of Prohibition in America which led to more illegal speakeasies than there had been prior to Abolition). They also want to impose mandatory BEE shareholdings on all existing licences, from mom-and-pop businesses up to national wholesalers, as part of their campaign to transform the economy (or at least endear themselves to one segment of the community).

The liquor business is already one of the most racially transformed industries in South Africa, with the vast majority of vendors people of colour. The problem for most of them however is that as a result of the DTI’s avowed policies, they can never obtain a liquor licence.

The bureaucracy that goes with licence applications, and the ever more restrictive conditions around where to site licensed premises, pretty much guarantees that they will never be anything except shebeeners and runners.

Since Rob Davies and his doctrinaire cronies know that their proposals will keep black traders out of the Shangri-La of licensed trading, their solution has been to impose BEE criteria on all existing licence renewals, a strategy that will empower a few at the expense of the many. It’s difficult to imagine a solution more inimical to the growth and development of trade and industry.

What Rob Davies should be doing instead is negotiating free trade agreements for South African producers. His Australian counterpart was out of the starting blocks well ahead of him on this one, and secured a deal with China (our BRICS partner) which has seen Australian wine exports show compounded year-on-year growth of over 35% for the past three years.

China is now Australia’s number one export market, overtaking the UK as the primary destination for Australian wine. Every year that they are there ahead of everyone else, they consolidate their position, making it increasingly difficult for newcomers to obtain a meaningful share of the Chinese market.

So it is Australian producers, their workers and their employees, as well as those in Australian support industries such as packaging, transport and shipping, that are earning money and enjoying the fruits of a growth economy.

In the meantime the man charged with making this happen in South Africa is doing his level best to take the shrinking cake and dice it into ever smaller pieces, none with the critical mass required of global players. The fairy tale he believes in doesn’t have a happy ending. DM

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