Analysis

President Ramaphosa Should Have Spoken-Up Earlier on Support For Cigarettes Ban

By Akuba Mokoena

PRESIDENT Cyril Ramaphosa’s support for South Africa’s decision to continue with the cigarettes ban, and in turn the minister who made the announcement – a decision which was taken by the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) – should have come much earlier than today. In fact, when it emerged that the NCCC had decided to continue with the ban, reversing what Ramaphosa had earlier announced, it should have been the President himself who made that announcement. It didnt have to be televised, it could have been a written statement. Instead the President kept completely quiet allowing Big Tobacco and its lobbyists to harangue Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

What started out as five weeks of lockdown bliss in as far as perceptions and overall praise for the President’s handling of the coronavirus has ended in vicious attacks on Dlamini-Zuma for announcing that the ban on cigarettes would continue despite an earlier announcement by Ramaphosa that it would be lifted on 1 May 2020. He made the announcement shortly after the World Health Organisation (WHO) applauded South Africa for its sterling job in handling the pandemic. And the public sentiment was in agreement largely, bar a few rules such as the prohibition of the sale of Woolworths rotisserie chicken and so forth. At this point, the glory was showered on the President and not the NCC or Dlamini-Zuma who was conferred the power, by the President, to issue regulations in terms of The Disaster Management Act.

In his weekly publication, “From the Desk of the President” published on 4 May 2020, the President explains how the cigarettes ban he announced and the subsequent reversal came about: “On 23 April, I announced that cigarette sales would be permitted during level 4. This was based on the view of the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), and which was contained in the draft framework that was published for consultation.
 
“After careful consideration and discussion, the NCCC reconsidered its position on tobacco. As a result, the regulations ratified by Cabinet and announced by Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on 29 April extended the prohibition.
 
“This was a collective decision and the public statements by both myself and the Minister were done on behalf of, and mandated by, the collective I lead.
 
“Every regulation we have put in place has been carefully considered. Along the way there has been consultation with medical experts, various constituencies and different industries. We have been guided by international bodies and the experience of other countries.
 
“The reality is that we are sailing in uncharted waters. There is still a great deal about the epidemiology of the virus that is unknown. It is better to err on the side of caution than to pay the devastating price of a lapse in judgment in future.
 
“While there are differing views on some of the decisions we have taken – and in some instances these have polarised opinion – government is making every effort to act in a way that advances the rights to life and dignity of all our people.
 
“Listening to our people and their concerns during this period has been one of the distinguishing features of how we as government have managed this pandemic. We continue to listen to the concerns of our people and are prepared to make adjustments that balance people’s concerns about the challenges they face with the need to save lives.”

The President’s explanation is not satisfactory and this perhaps has been the biggest downfall in the battle against Covid-19. The lack of clear and honest communication. And by clear I mean an explanation that accompanies some of the regulations. The harmful effects of cigarettes on the health of smokers and non-smokers have been thoroughly ventilated and extensive research done and published. 

On 21 April 2020, Dlamini-Zuma said lifting the ban on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes would “undermine the crux of lockdown”. 

 

On 22 April 2020, a day before the Presidents announcement on the lifting of the ban on cigarettes, WHO published the harmful effects of tobacco and its effects on the coronavirus.

“Using tobacco products can increase your chance of getting #COVID19

 
 
On 23 April 2020, The President announced the lifting of the ban of the cigarettes from 1 May 2020 in line with the easing of restriction in terms of Level 4. It is inconceivable how the NCCC could have come to this decision given the background to the harmful effects of tobacco and the statements by Dlamini-Zuma and WHO coming a day prior to this announcement. 
 
On 25 April 2020 Dlamini-Zuma in a televised broadcast, announced the NCCC had received input from the public and all issues received would be tabled before cabinet and decisions would be made. “The cigarette issue…yes, The President mentioned the issue of cigarettes…we are listening, we are hearing you…your arguments… we are a listening government….we hearing the people who want smoking also… we will take it back and hear what happens…”
 
On 29 April 2020, Dlamini-Zuma announced the continued ban on cigarettes. 
 
And within minutes, all hell broke loose – from challenges from the likes of former public protector Thuli Madonsela, now a lecturer at Stellenbosch University, and lawyers, to personal attacks by the public and media, and legal challenges by Big Tobacco. 
 
 
Thanks Minister

. As a Social Justice Forum, we have a few questions for you and your team to be presented tomorrow.The questions relate to legality,compliance with your own SEIAS and compliance with the constitutional equality and social justice #IndefiniteLockdown

 
The President has finally spoken but the perception that Dlamini-Zuma undermined his authority and overturned his decision, and other extremely harmful statements made about both the President and the Minister, have left a major dent on his leadership. The association of both President and Minister with some in the tobacco industry and speculation that the decisions – for and against the ban on cigarettes – were made for nefarious reasons – will linger for a very long time. And herein lies the problem if rules made under the state of emergency are not clearly and honestly articulated – they leave much speculation to fester and can undermine the good intentions of those who make them. 

 

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