I subscribe to the principle that in the course of any worthwhile pursuit one must celebrate every breakthrough, no matter how seemingly small. So I joyfully celebrate the recent developments in addressing the long-standing pain and anguish that has been borne by tour operators over several years due to unconscionable delays in the licensing of the vehicles they use to transport tourists.
The national roadshows currently conducted by the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA) and the Department of Transport (DoT) which are creating a platform for operators to engage directly with the department to have their licensing challenges resolved are a critical and salutary step in this long solution-seeking journey.
These are not just talkshops. Long-outstanding licensing issues are being resolved and operators are being issued with their licences. Some challenges remain for sure, but a great start has been made. This initiative builds on good progress already made by the DoT over the past several months in reducing the massive licence backlog.
In all of this there are important lessons for us as the business sector to learn in how we approach the critical task of advocating for a more conducive operating environment.
Over many years industry formations have done heroic work in pushing for the resolution of the costly licensing impasse. Chief among these has been SATSA, which has studiously engaged the relevant departments, going all the way to the Presidency. These efforts undoubtedly laid a solid foundation for the results we are now beginning to see.
The recent breakthrough, however, came about when industry turned to a government department that has nothing to do with either transport or tourism. In 2021 TBCSA called on the Department of Small Business Development (DSBD) to get involved in the matter. Why? Because we recognised that DSBD carries a crucial two-fold mandate that positions it like no other department to break the persistent licensing deadlock.
First, DSBD is charged with supporting small business growth across the South African economy, regardless of which sector those businesses operate in. This includes the countless small businesses that are the backbone of tourism in our country.
Second, and importantly, DSBD is the sole custodian of the official government mandate to create a conducive operating environment for SMEs. Key in this mandate is the reduction of red tape across the economy.
This is not to say that other departments are absolved from the responsibility to eliminate undue regulatory blockages, but when there is no progress DSBD bears the responsibility to intervene. In fact, DSBD is the only government department with a dedicated Red Tape Reduction (RTR) Programme.
Moreover, the Minister of Small Business Development holds a powerful legislative instrument that has never been put to use since the dawn of democracy. The 1996 National Small Business Act grants the Minister powers to "publish guidelines for organs of state in national, provincial and local spheres of government to promote small business".
Among others, these guidelines could relate to the assessment of the effect and application of new legislation on small business and the review of the effect of existing legislation on small business. The Minister is specifically empowered to "identify the type of legislation that may have an effect on small business..." and to direct that consultations be carried out with small business organisations and other representative organisations in connection with such legislation.
Tourist transport licensing regulations are a clear candidate for this type of intervention. This is a powerful instrument that no small business Minister has used since the Act came into existence in 1996. When TBCSA approached the DSBD to intervene it was definitely intent on calling on the small business Minister to invoke this provision if all else failed.
After an initial slow start, DSBD moved swiftly, especially after the problem was specifically brought to the attention of the RTR programme. In July 2022 the department brought together the key departments of tourism, transport and, in a smart move, Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) at a two-day tourism-focused red tape reduction workshop held in Durban, mostly facilitated by TBCSA.
It turned out that COGTA has a keen interest in having the tour operator licensing matter resolved expeditiously as it negatively impacts tourism growth in localities around the country that fall under their mandate. That workshop produced clear proposals, supported by the various public- and private-sector representatives in attendance, with timelines to resolve the issue.
To their credit, the DoT has largely stuck to the commitments it made at the workshop and is taking them a step further with the current solution-oriented roadshows in partnership with TBCSA.
There are two key lessons to learn from this experience. The first is that when government departments work together, sticky regulatory challenges can be resolved successfully. Unfortunately, this is not standard practice within government and the business sector pays a heavy price for it, as is clearly evidenced by the stubborn tour vehicle licensing nightmare.
Secondly, the business sector needs to be a lot more adept at understanding the entire gamut of policy levers and instruments it can utilise to bring about changes in the regulatory environment. Over an extended period of time we invested much effort in pressing the two departments that we believed, correctly so, held the key to the resolution of the licensing problem.
We paid no attention to the potent red tape reduction instruments in the hand of the DSBD. Neither did we similarly press the department to carry out its small business support mandate in tourism by taking up the issue. Turns out that the trigger for the solution we sought for so long lay in the hands of that department.
Based on this experience, going forward TBCSA will press for much closer working together among government departments to create an enabling operating environment.
This is critically important in tourism, which by its nature cuts across the mandates of several departments. The tourism business sector will also work harder to sharpen its understanding of all the touch points at its disposal in efforts to open up the regulatory space it needs to flourish.