Opinionista Ivor Sarakinsky 6 May 2020

Cigarettes and the Smoking Gun

Modern Machiavellians have developed far more sophisticated tools for political control than the earlier simplistic use of fear, pain and pleasure.

William Riker introduces the idea of ‘heresthetic’ to capture this new way of doing politics. Whereas rhetoric is the use of language to influence people, a key element of political power, heresthetic is the way a situation is created that enables actors to get the outcome they want. It’s more than gatekeeping, as it is about using the variables in a situation to exclude some outcomes while filtering in the outcome you want.

Lockdown in South Africa is a difficult matter and there are pros and cons to the regulations. The restriction on alcohol makes sense based on hospital admissions resulting from alcohol-related violence. The numbers, real and anecdotal, are significant. Also, with the increase in grants for food, restricting alcohol sales ensures that more money is likely to go into hunger alleviation while protecting the grantee from gratuitous violence to take money for drink.

This issue of tobacco products is more opaque. The health issues are well known but how does a ban on sales create space in hospitals on scale for the forthcoming Covid-19 peak? This has to be the issue for banning the sale of cigarettes under the Disaster Management Act and promulgated lockdown regulations. Added to this absence of evidence and clarity is the flip-flopping public announcements on the sale of tobacco products.

President Cyril Ramaphosa formally addressed the nation on 23 April and clarified issues around Covid-19 and the lockdown. In accordance with advice from the National Corona Command Council (NCCC), he stated that there would be a relaxation of restrictions at the start of May, from Level 5 to 4. Of particular importance, he declared that “the sale of cigarettes will be permitted”. We know that the president governs through consensus, meaning that this announcement was the result of a deliberative and consultative process.

In terms of the Disaster Management Act, the NCCC advises Cabinet which then decides policy. The head of the NCCC, CoGTA Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, then promulgates the decision, giving it the force of law. As we now know, on 29 April when the promulgation was published, tobacco products were declared forbidden. As not all Cabinet members are part of the NCCC, it tells us that Cabinet as a whole won the debate on the retailing of cigarettes. This in itself reveals much about the president’s support and power in Cabinet as well as the NCCC.

Prior to the announcement of the promulgations on 29 April, the ANC Women’s League released a statement on 26 April raising health concerns with tobacco and smoking. The ANCYL, through its National Youth Task Team, followed the ANCWL a day later with a similar public statement opposing the retailing of cigarettes and went a bit further in objecting to the decision taken by the NCCC. On the day of the announcement of the promulgations, the MKMVA, through its spokesperson Carl Niehaus, declared its opposition to the retailing of cigarettes. They all provided general health-related arguments not directly linked to the objective of keeping hospital beds empty. Organs of the ANC, one after the other, created a momentum opposing the retailing of tobacco products come the relaxation of lockdown.

At one level, objecting to the sale of tobacco makes perfect sense as the health issues caused by smoking are well known. These formations, in going public and using pulmonary disease as an argument to reverse the NCCC decision on cigarette sales, are practising the heresthetic technique of policy determination. But why would they want to stop the sale of tobacco products through retail outlets, especially where the state, according to SARS Commissioner, Edward Kieswetter, would recover significant revenue from tax and duties estimated at R300-million?

Perhaps the answer lies in history. During the era of Prohibition in America, the illegal manufacture and sale of liquor was rife and many outlaws made fortunes and created dynasties. The illegal brewing and sale of alcohol under lockdown is well reported. But, what about the illicit tobacco trade and the illegal sale of these products under lockdown where legal, tax-paying, retailers are blocked? This creates a captive market for those engaged in the illicit production, import and sale of such tobacco products in South Africa. No tax, no duties, no nothing paid to SARS in this underground industry. There are reports of cartons being available on the street at exorbitant prices.

We know that personalities in the illicit tobacco industry are associated with politicians. The best-known instance is the link between Carnilinx’s Adriano Mazzotti and EFF supremo, Julius Malema. The EFF released a statement objecting to the sale of tobacco products on the same day as the ANCWL. Photographic evidence is in the public domain of Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma meeting with Mazzotti and his associates and there are rumours that he contributed financially to her ANC leadership campaign in 2017. Furthermore, we know that Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma was the candidate of the Radical Economic Transformation lobby within the ANC, and the ANC Youth League, ANCWL and MKMVA were also part of that grouping.

Is it a sheer coincidence that old allies suddenly converge around the benefits of a cigarette ban out of pure public health concerns? Maybe. This rallying around smoking and public health is more likely the heresthetic of the performance, a way of structuring the decision situation so that a desired outcome is seen by all concerned as the only possible, reasonable, one. Within this power play are a number of powerful special and vested interests who can only but benefit from the ban on the retail sale of tobacco products during lockdown. The illicit dealers are laughing all the way to the bank.

President Ramaphosa’s premature announcement on the sale of tobacco reveals that he is not as strong as he would like to be in Cabinet with RET-aligned ministers pipping him and his allies at the post. It also shows that he is stronger in the NCCC where the swamp of ANC intrigue politics does not bog him down. His adversaries will fight him in whichever forum in which they know they have a majority and the president remains a captive to ANC internecine battles and the special interests that fuel them. There is no smoke without fire. DM

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