Guest Column

OPINION | The great cigarette flip-flop saga: sifting through the facts

2020-05-11 10:50
Cigarettes are flying off the underground shelves.  (Moeketsi Mamane, The Witness)

Cigarettes are flying off the underground shelves. (Moeketsi Mamane, The Witness)

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Is it unreasonable to infer that the lobby groups who opposed the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) decision of 26 April were in cahoots with illicit tobacco? asks Ivor Sarakinsky.


The great German Philosopher, Hegel, supported the sphere of Public Opinion in social life. Here, equal citizens express their views about anything and everything.

This enables and sustains subjective freedom, but it has nothing to do with the accuracy or truth of such utterances.

The flip-flop government decision on tobacco sales under lockdown is the subject of much Public Opinion at the moment, not all of it compelling. 

Pundits, who make their living by being controversial or contrarian, have a habit of disagreeing for the sake of it. Others feel obliged to protect those actors who they have an allegiance to.

Some even feed off the scraps of social media to cobble together an article to cover their beer, ginger beer now, money. This cacophony of opinion is not to be taken too seriously. 

Let’s begin by establishing the facts.

On 26 April, President Ramaphosa stated that cigarettes will be sold in a formal address to the nation. We know that he consults and this public utterance was not made unilaterally.

Following this, on 27, 28 and 29 April, the ANCWL, EFF, ANCYL and MKMVA, respectively, made public statements objecting to the President’s declaration.

His announcement is rescinded on the 29th of April when the Disaster Regulations are promulgated, after a Cabinet meeting, by the head of the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

We also know that the Minutes of the Cabinet meeting where this decision was made will not be made public. Finance Minister, Tito Mboweni, has gone public stating that he lost the debate to a majority view and was chastised for doing so by the ANC NEC.

What other relevant facts are there?

The exposé of SARS capture coupled to books published detailing the nefarious activities of the tobacco industry demonstrate factually and convincingly that the tobacco industry is embedded in South African politics and public institutions. 

The pundits wanted facts.

Here they are, at least as many that are publicly available.

Why won’t the minutes of that meeting be made public to settle the matter finish 'n klaar?

Now, contrary to what failed philosophers and media hucksters declare, it is possible to make reasonable inferences from facts. This is how judges make rulings.

Through interrogating evidence, a pattern is identified from the facts that allows for reasonable and probable inferences.

Without omniscience and with information asymmetry, judicial officers make binding decisions.

Based on the facts above, it is perfectly reasonable to infer that between the 26th and 29th of April, something happened.

It is also rational to infer that the causes of this change were not simply open scientific and evidence-based debate, perfect democratic centralism in action.

From the facts, it is reasonable to infer that there was a power play within the inner reaches of government and the ANC.

If these inferences are accepted as reasonable, and it is naive to believe otherwise, then it is legitimate to begin considering what the nature of that power play is. 

First off, former President Jacob Zuma’s son is a major player in the illicit tobacco industry.

This does not mean, and the inference should not be made, that Dlamini-Zuma simply acted to benefit a relation. That is completely unfair and inaccurate.

The photographs of her and personalities associated with the illicit tobacco industry, all in the public domain, are suggestive, but not proof.

Similarly, the EFF leader, Julius Malema’s association with illicit tobacco dealers is well known and in the public domain. This is also suggestive, but not proof.  

Second, it is well known that Minister Dlamini-Zuma is a long-time anti-smoking public health campaigner.

This means that it is also inaccurate and unfair to impute an impure motive to her opposition to the President’s statement on 26 April. 

Third, it is no coincidence that ANC organs such as the ANCWL, ANCYL and MKMVA came out strongly in a chorus against the NCCC decision.

That was clearly orchestrated.

Their respective track record on public health issues, unlike Minister Dlamini-Zuma’s, leaves much to be suspicious about. There is a firm basis for making an inference that there was a power play in the run up to the Cabinet meeting to veto the NCCC decision.

It is also perfectly reasonable to infer that groupings within the ANC coalesced around Minister Dlamini-Zuma’s opposition to the sale of cigarettes for reasons and motives different to hers. 

Fourth, it is significant that the old allies of the 2017 RET faction came together again to oppose the retailing of tobacco under lockdown.

The factionalism in the ANC is well known and of course it is blatantly obvious to keen observers that the nature of this is dynamic and ever-mutating.

But the point is that the ANC organs acting in unison in the lead up to a Cabinet meeting exposes the lobbying that was going on behind the scenes.

It is beyond dispute that there was such lobbying. It is also correct to assert that there are no good reasons to believe that Dlamini-Zuma was involved in this.

The RET faction has been associated with former President Zuma, State Capture and other unsavory activities. Some are still in Cabinet as part of the grand compromise of 2017 and the marginal electoral victory of Ramaphosa.

He needs to keep them inside the tent to avoid intensified ANC discord. 

Fifth, the opaque NCCC has about 19 Ministers participating in its processes.

This means that Ramaphosa’s consultation there, was only with a part of the Cabinet cohort of 28, excluding the Deputy President.

Assume that not all 19 agreed with the tobacco sale position in the NCCC, but sufficient consensus emerged enabling the public statement. This means the losers might have lobbied the other nine Ministers, winning some of their support.

The logical inference is that the majority position swung away from Ramaphosa in Cabinet, hence the reversal of the previous decision. This is uncontroversial and factual.

What is controversial, albeit for other reasons, is Mboweni going public on this expressing his dissatisfaction. He revealed too much about this power dynamic and that is why the ANC NEC chastised him. 

From the above, it is perfectly reasonable and obvious that plausible inferences can be made about ANC and government politics in the great cigarette flip-flop saga.

It is also fair and reasonable to ask the question: "Who benefits from the re-instated ban on legal tobacco sales?"

As investigative journalists say, "follow the money".

Compliant tobacco cannot retail its product.

Many smokers, who are addicted, are not simply going to give up because they can’t.

They will get their fix from the underground, illicit, tobacco operations which are not bound by the regulations and have always operated that way.

They now have a captive, over-priced market, a monopoly, and, no doubt, are laughing all the way to the bank.

There is sufficient evidence of this already in the public domain.

Is it unreasonable to infer that the lobby groups who opposed the NCCC decision of 26 April were in cahoots with illicit tobacco?

If one looks at the personalities in the illicit tobacco industry and the personalities in the RET faction and their former associations, then such an inference is not implausible - speculative, maybe.

But, not implausible. 

- Ivor Sarakinsky, Professor at the Wits School of Governance 

Read more on:    nkosa­zana dlamini-zuma  |  tobacco ban  |  coronavirus  |  pandemic
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