Opinionista Vanessa Burger 25 May 2020

Coalescence of RET forces behind cigarette ban suggests more at stake than ‘nation’s health’

The political allegiances of those supporting the controversial lockdown cigarette ban suggest 11 million smokers and a large chunk of the country’s economy may have become collateral damage in the latest chapter of the ANC’s internal power struggle between President Cyril Ramaphosa’s faction and the forces of Radical Economic Transformation (RET).

In amaBhungane’s recent piece, “Battleground social media: How disinformation, propaganda and manipulation shape our online discourse,” investigative reporters Susan Comrie, Micah Reddy and Sam Sole wrote, “We can rarely see who directs disinformation and propaganda; we can only infer who may be responsible based on whose interests it serves and the faint trail it leaves in the political ether.”

I will not argue the pros and cons of the cigarette ban that has ignited social media since President Cyril Ramaphosa first announced it the day before South Africa went into lockdown and smoking was, to all intents and purposes, criminalised. I am more interested in the composition of the grouping that has come out strongly in support of the ban and what this may mean in terms of the political trajectory of our so-called “constitutional democracy”.

The ban and its potential extension beyond lockdown Alert Level 4 – possibly until Level 1, which could be until the end of the year – has been relentlessly advanced by Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, a rabid anti-smoker whose 2017 campaign for the presidency was allegedly partly funded by illicit tobacco kingpin Adriano Mazzotti. Mazzotti’s backing of the ANC is no secret. Neither is his support for the Economic Freedom Fighters, who have remained uncharacteristically mute on the nicotine ban.

Carl Niehaus appealed to the government not to entertain “lobbying” from the tobacco industry. In 2017, Niehaus claimed he was “seconded” by the MKMVA to support Dlamini Zuma’s presidential campaign and “protect” her from being “mistreated.” He has also been a stalwart of Jacob Zuma’s many court appearances.

Both Dlamini Zuma and Mazzotti have refuted any suggestion of impropriety; Mazzotti citing the legal challenge to the ban launched by the Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (FITA) – of which he is a founding member – in his defence. Either way, Mazzotti, whose company Carnilinx has seen an 8% increase in market share since lockdown, stands to benefit significantly.

But there seems to be far more going on here than one minister’s ill-advised dalliance with dubious characters and any possible benefits that may have arisen or may still arise from such a dalliance.

Much has been made of Ramaphosa’s about-face on the cigarette issue, with some suggesting that Dlamini Zuma and her allies are the ones wearing the pants in the shadowy and unaccountable National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) and that there are moves afoot to direct our country down a far less democratic path towards an autocratic mafiocracy.

It seems significant that the majority who have sprung to Dlamini-Zuma’s defence and the cigarette ban also appear to be strong proponents of “radical economic transformation” (RET) – the grouping that has both covertly and overtly supported former president Jacob Zuma’s return to power and allegedly furthered the ends of State Capture.

Members of this group include the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA), whose spokesperson Carl Niehaus appealed to the government not to entertain “lobbying” from the tobacco industry. In 2017, Niehaus claimed he was “seconded” by the MKMVA to support Dlamini Zuma’s presidential campaign and “protect” her from being “mistreated.” He has also been a stalwart of Jacob Zuma’s many court appearances.

The day before MKMVA’s announcement and only hours before Ramaphosa recanted on the decision to sell cigarettes under Level 4, the ANC’s National Youth Task Team, which has been running the ANC Youth League’s affairs since its disbandment last year, released a press statement echoing Dlamini Zuma’s now widely parodied claims that “when people zol, they put saliva on the paper, and then they share that zol”.

Next up was the ANC Women’s League whose submission was reportedly among the 2,000 cited by Dlamini Zuma that opposed nicotine unbanning. ANCWL Secretary-General Meokgo Matuba said the minister’s detractors were “childish” as the decision to extend the ban had been made by the NCCC “as a collective” and was not hers alone.

In 2018 Matuba apologised to Sunday Times journalist Qaanitah Hunter for reportedly sending her a picture of a gun in an apparent attempt to intimidate her. The Sunday Times had reported on an alleged plot to remove Ramaphosa during a secret meeting with Matuba, ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule‚ former North West premier Supra Mahumapelo‚ and ANC Youth League KwaZulu-Natal Secretary Thanduxolo Sabelo held at the Maharani Hotel in Durban in November 2018. Matuba denied she had sent the gun picture and claimed she shared her phone “with many people”. All those allegedly at the meeting denied any “plot”.

Most recently, ANC Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte – one of Jacob Zuma’s most loyal lieutenants – leapt to Dlamini Zuma’s defence, claiming the tobacco industry had launched a “well-orchestrated attack” on our democracy and was seemingly intent on worsening our health crisis. Duarte conveniently conflated civic initiatives – online petitions by members of the public calling for an end to the ban and the removal of Dlamini-Zuma – with the “evils” of corporate power, thereby removing individual agency and the public’s supposed participatory role in a real democracy.

In response to these petitions to end the cigarette sale ban, Ekurhuleni Mayor Mzwandile Masina recently launched his own petition in support of the state’s ban.

“We will not be bullied by racists and lobby groups,” he tweeted on 4 May. That many who smoke or sell cigarettes happen to be poor and black seems to have escaped Masina.

In 2017, shortly before the ANC’s highly contested 54th national conference, Masina, also a staunch Zuma/RET supporter, swore he would step down if Dlamini Zuma did not win the presidential race.

“I can never serve under Cyril,” Masina reportedly said, “If Nkosazana loses, white people will lead SA.”

Masina’s utterances feed into amaBhungane’s observations that, “In recent years we have seen the rise of anonymous Twitter accounts, vocal activists and obscure non-profits that have taken to the streets, the courts and the pages of social media under the banner of ‘radical economic transformation’. A mix of true believers, manipulators and opportunists, these groups raise genuine grievances about South Africa’s racially-skewed economy but also help to spread dangerous disinformation aimed at energizing their base and targeting perceived enemies.”

Interestingly, the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (Nadel) will join the state in opposing FITA’s legal challenge of the ban.

According to a June 2019 press statement, the National Executive Committee of the Nadel met “to discuss and deliberate on the current state of the nation, and particularly the challenges confronting the judiciary and the legal system in South Africa”. Most of its deliberations, however, seemed centred on commissions of inquiry into State Capture. It raised concerns that these commissions “appear to be overly focused on black professionals in senior management, who’ve been branded corrupt”.

As Van Loggerenberg noted in an interview with Daily Maverick’s Marianne Thamm in August last year, “[it is ironic] how a scam, designed and created by ‘WMC tobacco and their spooks’ has become the coat on the tails of which the RET crowd… are obliviously riding. Or is it obliviously?”

Nadel also expressed concern regarding “the consistent pattern of information leaks and ‘secret sources’ driving the various narratives on corruption and State Capture that are in the public domain” and that “an unbridled media seems to influence public perceptions and in many instances the direction of these investigations and the persons who must be investigated…”.

While apparently not of the RET crowd, has Nadel perhaps inadvertently fed into this grouping’s dangerous narrative of racial polarity?

Anyone who has been following the disturbing trend in political assassinations in South Africa would not question the need for “secret sources”. The cigarette industry itself seems particularly prone to dirty tricks and contract killings. Simon Rudland, co-owner of Gold Leaf Tobacco Company, the biggest beneficiary so far of the lockdown ban, survived an attempted hit in August last year.

In his explosive exposé Tobacco Wars, former South African Revenue Service (SARS) group executive Johann van Loggerenberg described how one tobacco grouping used gang networks to attempt the assassination of a whistle-blower. Van Loggerenberg blew the lid on how all players in the tobacco industry – large and small – used state security, the police, politicians and crime networks to gain the upper hand against competitors. According to Van Loggerenberg, Zuma’s son Edward, a former director of Amalgamated Tobacco whose owner Yusuf Kajee is an unashamed supporter of the ANC and Jacob Zuma, was previously accused by SARS of smuggling and tax evasion.

As Van Loggerenberg noted in an interview with Daily Maverick’s Marianne Thamm in August last year, “[it is ironic] how a scam, designed and created by ‘WMC tobacco and their spooks’ has become the coat on the tails of which the RET crowd… are obliviously riding. Or is it obliviously?”

Dlamini Zuma has, however, denied anything sinister is afoot and said that all decisions made by the NCCC are a result of a “consultative process”. But in response to FITA’s application for access to NCCC minutes that seemingly determined the outcome of this “consultative process”, Dlamini Zuma retreated behind a veil of secrecy, claiming the minutes were “classified” and “privileged from disclosure in legal proceedings”.

Like her ex-husband and much of the RET faction, it would seem the minister is relying on unnecessary state secrecy to conceal from critical public attention what should, in a democracy, be a transparent process.

What is being hidden and why? What do the RET forces stand to gain from the continued ban on cigarettes? Is it power, profits from the burgeoning illicit lockdown tobacco trade, or is it control of lucrative criminal networks? Or have South Africa’s 11 million smokers and a large chunk of its economy simply become another proxy in the ANC’s unending factional war? Whatever it is, it certainly has nothing to do with combating “corporate power”, righting historic racial economic inequality, furthering democracy, or protecting the nation’s health. DM

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