'The president should have announced the changes' - Ramaphosa on the cigarette U-turn

31 May 2020 - 20:08 By Andisiwe Makinana

President Cyril Ramaphosa has conceded that the backtrack on cigarette sales in level 4 should have been communicated by himself and not by co-operative governance & traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

“When I did announce that we were lifting the ban on the sale of cigarettes, and later changed it ... the change came about as a result of a flurry of concerns and objections raised by a number of South Africans, in their thousands, we then had to go back to the drawing back and finally announce a change,” said Ramaphosa on Sunday.

“Obviously people had taken issue with the way the announcement was made. It was made by Minister Dlamini-Zuma, and what we should have done is, the president having announced it, the president should have been the one to announce it again and give reasons why this was being changed. That was not done. We will concede that as well,” he said.

Ramaphosa said this should have been done to avoid “a very unpleasant type of situation” where people started saying the minister was undermining the president.

“It was a collective decision and it was announced in the course of other regulations that were being announced,” he said.

Ramaphosa was asked about the basis of his announcement lifting the ban on cigarette sales, before backtracking a few days later.

He announced on April 23 that the sale of cigarettes would be permitted under level 4 regulations but at a press conference six days later, Dlamini-Zuma said after consideration and debate, the ban on cigarette sales would remain in place for “public health” reasons.

Ramaphosa explained that they relied on a variety of advice from doctors and professionals who advise the national command council on the dangers of smoking. He said when the council discussed the matter, it felt that “people do smoke in our country and there needs to come a time when the restriction would be lowered”.

Dlamini-Zuma was singled out for criticism and attack by many who opposed the government's decision to retain the ban on the sale of cigarettes.

Speaking during a virtual and wide-ranging engagement with editors on Sunday, Ramaphosa conceded that while government communicated regularly during the Covid-19 lockdown, its communication needed to be tightened.

He said he had recently addressed the issue of clear communication with his cabinet colleagues.

“I have been saying to the ministers, let us make sure that our communication is clear, direct and that we should not be seen to be contradicting some of the things that we say on an ongoing basis or misinterpreting some of our own regulations. We need to tighten up the communication.

“What you can admit is that there has been transparency in communication from government and that government has been communicating on a regular basis.

“Yes, there are occasions where the communication might have slipped and might not have been spot on, that we will concede to,” he said.

He chose his words carefully when addressing a question about police minister Bheki Cele's statement that when police encounter a smoker, that person would have to produce a till slip to prove where and when they bought their cigarette.

“There is over enthusiasm,” Ramaphosa said.

He proceeded: “I said police and soldiers, we should not be going out there among our people as if we are confronting an enemy. We are not enforcing something that is enforced during a wartime where there are bombs blasting all over. It is a process of encouraging our people to act in a way that is going to save lives.”

But, because they are dealing with so many people and so many officials across the country, there would have been and there are those whose enthusiasm gets ahead of them, he said.

“What we need to do, even at my level, is continue re-enforcing this message right across the board including among my own colleagues. That is a point well taken,” he added.