Government must give us its rationale for cigarette and booze ban

Making individual cigarettes look unappealing may help people to quit smoking. Picture: iStock
Making individual cigarettes look unappealing may help people to quit smoking. Picture: iStock

A friend of mine has been irked by the Disaster Management Council’s decision (by extension government) to ban the sale of alcohol and tobacco.

Fuming with anger and livid, he points me to other nations around the globe who have not imposed a ban on these. Him and I somewhat agree that this is hardly where this matter turns.

The assessment of whether or not alcohol and tobacco should have been regulated in this manner, strikes at the heart of the dangers of state excesses and potential abuse of authority by those who have been mandated to be custodians of our rights and liberties. To this extent this behaviour must be resisted.

Read: Alcohol ban to continue after presidency rejects traders’ request to relax rules

At the heart of this argument is the intersection between individuals having to exercise their rights and government’s responsibility to ensure greater good for society as a whole.

Winston Langley, an associate provost at UMass in Boston, perhaps puts this balance more elegantly when he paraphrases Frantz Fanon on interdependence in economics, politics, ethics, or aesthetics

Fanon argues that the interdependence of psyches in the form of confrontations, threats, forbearances, negotiations, accommodations, control, and domination require a balance as persons and groups of persons seek to influence the conduct and shape the social being of others.

There is hardly any need to argue why it is primordial that governance be predicated on the assumption and imperative that such governance should not be self-serving to those who administer the authority bestowed on them by a popular vote, particularly in a democratic order.

Any governance left unchecked has an inclination to tilt towards abusive excesses and fail this necessary balance referred to by Fanon. Left unchecked, even personal prejudices form policy and constitute rule of law.

In an environment where there is either impending disaster, calamity, or national and global threat to human life, governments usurp the right to make decisions not through a consultative and inclusive process but expedient decrees to manage and prevent loss of life.

This intervention is of course correct, to argue otherwise would be ludicrous. It is however also critical that this authority not be a carte blanche usage of power and be unlimited. The absence of some minimum standards and accountability requirements may lead to a wholesale abuse of power, autocratic rule and despotic behaviour on the part of rulers.

What prevents a minister with a low level of libido to regulate that there be no sexual acts during a lockdown if another with a negative disposition to smoking and drinking can be permitted to do so without explained rational.

Before we get carried away with the example, the issue is about minimum requirements and standards expected of government to account for its actions during a situation of exigency such as the management of the Covid-19 environment.

My argument is not about the morality, right or wrong of smoking and or drinking, but the compulsion of government to explain its rational or decisions affecting its actions even if its explanations were post facto.

Failure to do so is to be high-handed and arrogant, but worse still, it also has the danger to sow seeds of disobedience and setting up of parallel authority based on defiance. Bearing in mind that government has a higher duty to seek to influence the conduct and shape the social being of others.

At the heart of this argument is the intersection between individuals having to exercise their rights and government’s responsibility to ensure greater good for society as a whole.

We should avoid the temptation to subject this matter to a legal wrangle and adjudication because it does not belong in this domain.

Our courts and judiciary should be spared the unsavoury task of having to compel the executive to be accountable to her people and explain the logic of actions taken in the desire for prudent governance.

Authority cannot abrogate itself the exclusive appreciation of logic, intelligence and analysis. To do so would be to assume the imbecility of those it is governing.

There is a fundamental requirement to trust those you are leading with the ability to appreciate your logic no matter how flawed it may be at times. For government, there is a duty to share your rationale with your people and in the course of doing so they may disagree with you, but will understand where you are coming from.

In the context of Covid-19, we now know why social distancing is imperative in slowing down the pace of the galloping virus, hence the greater acceptance of the lockdown, albeit its painful and devastating consequences to the majority of our people and in society as a whole. Why then should it be different when it comes to alcohol and tobacco?

Nobody is putting a compulsion for irrefutable empirical evidence to support this ban. Society is however entitled to seek an explanation, so as to counterbalance its wants with the authority’s judgement and decree.

Government is duty-bound to provide the rationale for its decision. Let us stop prevaricating and rather trust society with the intellectual ability to appraise the logic informing this decision.

• Rakwena is a businessman and former ambassador


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