Asked on 28 May by CNN’s David McKenzie for comment on how the global broadcaster had witnessed how easy it is to buy cigarettes on the streets despite a ban on tobacco, Cooperative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said: “the law must take its course”.
Asked a detailed set of questions on how the ban had quickly grown a prohibition economy by Daily Maverick early in May, the minister’s spokesperson came back with the same answer: “Ask the cops, the police must do their work.” An historical foe of smoking, Dlamini Zuma refuses to countenance evidence of how the ban has not stopped smokers but has instead created a contraband industry.
By last week, the police had arrested 230,000 South Africans for violating various lockdown regulations, far higher than the numbers of Filipinos arrested during an 11-week lockdown by the regime of Rodrigo Duterte.
This has included arrests for transporting cigarettes, but the sale of now contraband cigarettes and related products has grown a significant prohibition economy as prices go through the roof as supplies diminish. A UCT study released last week revealed that of just over 12,000 smokers surveyed, 90% said they were still getting their smokes despite the lockdown. (It’s worth noting that 16% of those surveyed said they had quit in lockdown).
Now, the tobacco sales ban has caused political divisions: in an interview with the SABC on May 28, hours after Dlamini Zuma took this hard line, President Cyril Ramaphosa told interviewer Mzwandile Mbeje that smokers would soon get their draw, a very different message to his minister who has pushed for retention of the tobacco ban using data from the World Health Organisation which shows that smokers with Covid-19 get very ill because they have compromised lungs.
In addition, both the SACP and the ANC Women’s League have come to Dlamini Zuma’s defence as she has faced public wrath as the face of the lockdown regulations, in particular the alcohol and tobacco bans.
“There can be no other conclusion than that the attacks on Dr Dlamini Zuma are underpinned by dubious intentions. The agenda comprises a drive to project the Cabinet as divided and pit the President against the minister or vice versa,” said SACP spokesperson Alex Mashilo in a statement adding that “it is clear that the attacks on Dr Dlamini Zuma comprise patriarchal and sexist attitudes, and also seek to project the President as a weak leader”.
The ANC Women’s League, a bulwark supporter of Dlamini Zuma, has also put its weight behind a continued ban on tobacco, politicising the issue and turning it into one of the biggest lockdown fights. In this article, the Free State premier Sisi Ntombela and the ANC Women’s League secretary-general Meokgo Matuba come out swinging against tobacco just as the cigarette behemoth BATSA limbers up for a fight too.
After holding off on far-advanced legal action to try to persuade Cabinet as set out by Melinda Ferguson here, British American Tobacco South Africa (BATSA) is now headed to court. “BATSA has made every effort to constructively engage with the government since the ban came into force, including making detailed submissions to various ministers, as well as directly to the Presidency.
“To date, no formal response has been received from the government, and BATSA has also not been included in any of the government’s consultation processes so far,” said the company which paid R13-billion in taxes in 2019, of which R10-billion was excise tax.
Early in May, SARS commissioner Edward Kieswetter said the fiscus had already lost R1.5-billion in excise taxes. In addition to the BATSA legal action, Dlamini Zuma is in court against tobacco independents, organised as FITA.
A prohibition economy, now flourishing in both booze and cigarettes, rides in the slipstream of other prohibition economies like drugs and is usually peddled by the same networks. It gives them amplified power and drives up costs which show no sign of being a deterrent to smoking.
The anti-tobacco organisation, Smoke-free World, has estimated that seven million South Africans smoke.
With Dlamini Zuma, Police Minister Bheki Cele is also doubling down. On 28 May, he reiterated the threat that anybody found smoking would have to produce a till slip, threatening a ballooning of arrests related to lockdown even as the restrictions are meant to be abating at Level 3. DM