Johannesburg — THE recent statement attributed to South African Finance Minister Tito Mboweni advocating for the catering industry to be a preserve for locals is the latest in a series of divisive utterances by politicians each time the country lurches into crisis.
Mboweni was quoted in the media saying after the lockdown against coronavirus (COVID-19), local industries, particularly the restaurant sector must put the workforce of the country first.
This comes as Africa's most advanced economy experiences strain.
Mboweni claimed "almost all restaurant staff" in South Africa are not locals and this must change under the so-called new economy.
"The proportion of South Africans working in a restaurant must be greater than that of non-South Africans," Mboweni stated.
There were fears this could leave foreign nationals currently employed in the sector jobless.
Luke Zunga, the Johannesburg-based economist, noted this was the latest in a trend by politicians to appease their disillusioned citizens and appeal for votes.
"There is no new policy here. The minister's statement, which I did not read, did not spell new policy at all because the laws governing labour and migration already exist," argued Zunga.
Zunga, the chairman of the Zimbabwe Diaspora Development Chamber (ZDDC), added, "The fact is that politicians have nothing to offer to their restless citizenry and resort to controversial statements to try and please the voters."
He noted such sentiments have been made during previous crises such as the xenophobic violence and service delivery protests.
Zunga asked why South African politicians had a tendency of making such statements but were mum on them during international forums.
"Why don't they talk that language when they meet at the AU (African Union) or SADC (Southern African Development Community)?"
Zunga mentioned the catering and restaurant industry thrived because of the presence and diligent workforce of foreign nationals.
"In the recent years restaurants and service industry blossomed. There is considerable catering and restaurant businesses owned by the foreign nationals themselves," he said.
The economist added the rapid growth of this industry would not have impossible without a workforce tolerant to the odd and difficult work environment of foreign nationals.
Grievances include late and long working hours, distance from residential places and low wages.
"Some (waiters) live off tips only," he pointed out.
"The minister's assertion, if any, is regressive if it is of the view that foreign nationals are taking away jobs from South Africans. In fact they are enablers of the industry and its resurgence can take a lovely blend of employees, local and migrants labour force."
Zunga spoke amid reports foreign nationals had been denied their benefits under the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF).
He said most of the foreign nationals were not paid out because they were not registered while some were contributing to the employer but the employer did not submit the payment to UIF.
Zunga said in such a case, the employer should organise to pay the workers from own pocket.
"So, the onus is still on the employer to try their best to pay the short falls. Understandably coronavirus has brought huge burden for employers and some may not be able to pay wages, even if they are willing."
Despite the ongoing challenges posed by COVID-19, Zunga said most people were positive about the future but "the main problem is that the politicians do not know what is arriving in their departments."
"South African citizens are actively suggesting solutions but the politicians allow themselves to hide behind the curtains, allowing bureaucrats to rule the country," the economist said.
"Tito Mboweni is not in charge and his statements are really empty," he added.
"If he were to read what is arriving in his department from ordinary citizens, and not rely on the technocrats to selectively feed him with tea spoons, he would realize that he can fix the problems," Zunga equipped.