Covid-19: Tobacco

Ramaphosa 'swayed' on extension of cigarette ban at heated NCC meeting

10 May 2020 - 00:04 By CAIPHUS KGOSANA
President Cyril Ramaphosa. File picture.
President Cyril Ramaphosa. File picture.
Image: Supplied

President Cyril Ramaphosa was swayed at a heated meeting of the national command council (NCC) on Covid-19 to support the reversal of an earlier decision to allow tobacco products to be sold at level 4 of the national lockdown.

Ramaphosa chaired a virtual meeting of the NCC on April 28, a day after public consultations into draft level 4 regulations were received.

An intense argument ensued at that meeting over the sale of tobacco products and possibly alcohol - albeit under strict rules - at level 4.

While the president did not initially oppose the idea of tobacco products being sold at level 4, it was the vociferous protests from police minister Bheki Cele, home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi and health minister Zweli Mkhize that eventually won the day.

I didn’t like the continuous ban on tobacco and alcohol, but I lost the debate, therefore I have to toe the line 
Finance Minister Tito Mboweni

Finance minister Tito Mboweni, who told MPs he did not support the decision to ban tobacco and alcohol sales - was defeated during the arguments.

"I didn't like the continuous ban on tobacco and alcohol, but I lost the debate, therefore I have to toe the line," he told MPs.

Contacted for comment on Friday, Motsoaledi said that, unlike Mboweni, he would not comment on what is discussed at the NCC. "That would be ill-discipline. I'm not a spokesperson of the committee on regulations. That committee is chaired by minister [Nkosazana] Dlamini-Zuma. I believe what Tito is doing is ill-discipline. I cannot be like him. If all of us come out and say I said this, then all of us look silly."

Motsoaledi said, however, that his views on tobacco are well known as in his previous portfolio as minister of health he strongly pushed for legislation that would extend the ban on where people can smoke, classify e-cigarettes as harmful products and would ban vending machines that sell cigarettes.

Cele could not be reached for comment.

Ramaphosa addressed the nation on April 23 at the Union Buildings, where he announced that instead of reopening the country on May 1, the government had opted for a risk-adjusted approach that necessitated a slow phasing out of restrictions.

Epidemiologists and other health experts who sit on the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19 had advised the government against a total reopening the country, preferring a phased-in approach to easing restrictions on movements and sale of goods.

The NCC had been told that a rushed reopening could lead to an uncontrolled spread in infections, and the government instead opted for a risk-adjusted approach that would ease restrictions based on five levels. In his televised address to the country, Ramaphosa explained the rationale for a risk-adjusted approach rather than ending the lockdown altogether.

But he also made an announcement that would come back to haunt him.

"The sale of cigarettes will be permitted," he boldly declared to the nation.

What followed was a chain of events that left smokers and those sympathetic to their cause frustrated, and threats of court action from tobacco industry groups, as well as the country's largest tobacco products maker, British American Tobacco.

The company has since decided to put court action on ice.

On April 25, co-operative governance minister Dlamini-Zuma - as custodian of lockdown regulations - announced draft regulations that included the decision to allow cigarettes to be sold. But a few days later, that decision was controversially reversed.

Those with intimate knowledge of what happened at the meeting that reversed tobacco sales at level 4, chaired by Ramaphosa, said ministers were deeply divided over the issue. However, those in favour of the tobacco ban eventually won the day.

Since decisions of the NCC have to be ratified by the cabinet, Ramaphosa asked Deputy President David Mabuza to chair the cabinet as he had to attend a virtual meeting of a structure of the AU shortly after the NCC meeting.

The cabinet endorsed all decisions taken at the previous meeting.

Dlamini-Zuma, who publicly announced the reversal of the decision at a press conference on April 29, was blamed by smokers, their sympathisers, commentators and others of having bulldozed Ramaphosa into reversing the decision of the NCC. 

Others accused her of reversing the decision to the benefit of illicit traders such as the controversial Adriano Mazzotti, who is alleged to have bankrolled her campaign to become ANC president in 2017. Mazzotti denies being an illicit cigarette trader or bankrolling Dlamini-Zuma's presidential campaign. Mazzotti has pointed out he is a founder member of FITA, which supports the stance against the ban and illicit tobacco trade. 

Ramaphosa, however, later came to her defence in a weekly online letter, saying the decision to reinstate the ban on tobacco products had been a collective one.

"A decision like this is bound to be controversial, but it is wrong to suggest that there are ministers or a president doing and saying whatever they want on this matter.

"This was a collective decision and the public statements by both myself and the minister [Dlamini Zuma] were done on behalf of, and mandated by, the collective I lead," Ramaphosa said.

Presidential spokesperson Khusela Diko refused to comment, saying decisions taken by the NCC are communicated by the president and ministers.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Mazzotti's denial that he is involved in the illicit trade or tobacco or that he funded Dr Dlamini-Zuma's presidential campaign. Mazzotti has pointed out he is a founder member of FITA, which supports the stance against the ban and illicit tobacco trade. We apologise for the omission and for not affording him a right of reply ahead of publication.


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