Whatever conspiracies may be thrown out there, the overriding objective of the cigarette ban was to save lives, writes Masingita Mkhawana.
Since the government somersaulted on its decision to lift the ban on cigarettes there has been a spike of attacks and mob lynching of the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, by certain interest groups that include the Democratic Alliance, AfriForum, the British American Tobacco and so on. While she is being ripped to shreds and wrestled for communicating what is for all intents and purposes a decision of the collective, deeply concerning is the lack of interest by the President to set the record straight around this issue as well as debunking myths.
In what can be interpreted as a climax of the attacks and smear campaigns so far there are now calls made to the President to get rid of Dr Dlamini-Zuma from his cabinet allegedly for misrepresentation of facts. Such a charge is led by the Democratic Alliance and their chums. Clearly Dr Dlamini-Zuma is now portrayed as a villain solely responsible for reversing the decision to lift the ban on cigarettes. While all these vitriol and innuendos are being thrown against Dr Dlamini-Zuma the President has remained mum.
These interest groups putting pressure on the government to allow for the legal sale of tobacco argue that the continued restrictions on tobacco sale might be motivated by the ‘clandestine relationship’ between Dr Dlamini-Zuma and Adriano Mazzotti (a well known self confessed cigarette smuggler), the latter, they argue, might be extracting lots of profits from illegal tobacco sale during lockdown since smokers have turned to the black market to feed their habit. It is writ large that the ban on tobacco sale has not achieved its intended purpose (stopping people from smoking). However, given the ban on the legal sale of cigarettes, one can peradventure assume that smoking itself must have gone down significantly owing to the ridiculous prices the black market currently charges per cigarette and a host of other factors that make illicit tobacco trade relatively complicated.
Whatever conspiracies may be thrown out there, the overriding objective of the cigarette ban was to save lives. The government had taken a more scientific approach on banning both tobacco and alcohol during the start of the lockdown. These interest groups now argue the ban on cigarettes has not stopped people from smoking, but also gave the illicit tobacco market an uncontested space who by the way do not even pay tax therefore the government must lift the ban. The foregoing reasons are not different from arguing that since a lot of drivers on the South African roads drive way above the legal speed limit (120 km/h) therefore the speed limit must be increased or removed. Absolute bonkers!
This is not a polemic for Dr Dlamini-Zuma, she is obviously not a paragon of virtue but the vilification machinery unleashed against her on this issue is grossly unfortunate and unwarranted especially considering the known facts on how the cabinet operates. Rumor has it that the cabinet is birfucated into two on some lockdown regulations. The manner in which the President has failed to take the nation into his confidence on government’s decision to rescind an earlier decision to unban tobacco sale is worrisome. Until he does that this rumor cannot be taken lightly, it festers and feeds into the narrative that the cabinet is divided. As some say “perception in politics is everything”.
After weeks of bluffing and grandstanding it is good that the British American Tobacco has finally summoned the courage to take this issue to court. Whether or not the application will pass the constitutional muster remains to be seen. It is quite a murkier terrain but hopefully this might help everyone involved.
Masingita Mkhawana is a social activist.