The ANC Women's League is furious over the treatment of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma after announcing that cigarette sales would remain banned during the coronavirus lockdown.
In a lengthy statement, the ANCWL said it was among those who had made a written submission to keep cigarette sales banned, and it launched into an attack on Finance Minister Tito Mboweni for not holding the line on this issue.
Dlamini-Zuma announced on Wednesday that the National Command Council (NCC) had changed its mind on allowing the sale of cigarettes during the coronavirus outbreak, due to health reasons.
This was an about-turn on President Cyril Ramaphosa's announcement that the easing of the lockdown on Friday 1 May meant that cigarettes and tobacco products would go on sale again.
Dlamini-Zuma was fiercely criticised in some quarters, with some people insinuating that she was in cahoots with the illicit cigarette trade to fund her political campaigning.
Since the ban on the sale of cigarettes, a packet has doubled or, in some cases, tripled in price on the black market, and buying or selling cigarettes are now criminal offences.
Petitions have been circulating to get cigarettes back on sale again.
A R30 000 bribe was even allegedly offered by one of three people arrested in Lenasia, Johannesburg, after being caught selling boxes of cigarettes by police.
"The ANCWL respects the freedom of speech, but however we cannot be silent when other people are spitting their misogynist and racist venom bile on Minister Dlamini-Zuma disguising under the right to freedom of speech (sic).
'The ANCWL will defend her'
"Minister Dlamini-Zuma's biggest sin was to announce the Ministerial Command Team (MCT) decisions in particular that the selling of cigarettes and tobacco-related products remains prohibited in Level 4 of the lockdown," an ANCWL statement said.
"Without shame, the ANCWL will defend her. What she announced on the evening of 29 April 2020 are the decisions of the MCT, which is chaired by His Excellency President Cyril Ramaphosa.
"In MCT meetings all members are afforded an opportunity to present their arguments on agenda items before a decision is made. When the final decision is taken, it binds all members of the MCT and cannot be reduced to a decision of an individual.
"The MCT resolved to allow public comments on announcements made by His Excellency on Friday 24 April 2020."
The ANCWL says its submission "unapologetically" rejected the unbanning of cigarettes and tobacco-related products during Level 4 of the lockdown, and the MCT made a final decision on it, not just Dlamini-Zuma.
"President Ramaphosa and the collective leadership serving in the MCT must condemn personal attacks on Minister Dlamini-Zuma," the league stated.
British American Tobacco South Africa (BATSA) has given the government until 10:00 on Monday to reverse the ban.
The league said it would lobby for an organisation to join them as a friend of the court, if it comes to that.
They also want an investigation into whether BATSA and some lobby groups or individuals were briefed on the details of the discussions in the NCC meeting regarding cigarettes and tobacco.
"The president must discipline members of the MCT who fail to persuade their colleagues in the meeting and decide to go out to canvass their personal views in public. It is a high level ill discipline for Minister Tito Mboweni to announce publicly his personal view on the selling of cigarettes and tobacco-related products after the MCT has taken a final decision [sic].
"His utterances strengthen the allegations that some members of MCT leaks details of the discussions from MCT. MCT should not tolerate any reckless divisive and irresponsible behaviour from any of its members or any member of government [sic]."
'I lost the debate and therefore have to toe the line'
The Herald reported him as saying during questions in a joint virtual meeting of Parliament's various finance committees that he would have allowed the sale of alcoholic beverages and tobacco products to resume if he had his way, but had to support Cabinet's collective decision.
"I didn't like the continuous ban on tobacco and alcohol but I lost the debate and therefore I have to toe the line," Mboweni told MPs from the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces.
Comment was not immediately available from Mboweni's spokesperson.
The women's league said that smoking cost the economy R33 billion a year; that BATSA has a "mere" 27.26% black economic interest, and a 13.14% black women's interest.
"Which racial group has the 72.24% economic interest in BATSA and which gender has the over 86% of economic interest in BATSA? Answers to these questions exposes the racial group and gender that benefits more from BATSA whilst the lives of people are lost due to health risks associated with smoking [sic]."
The league also said BATSA is choosing to ignore the health risks associated with cigarettes during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ekurhuleni Mayor Mzwandile Masina said in a statement on Sunday he was launching an online petition campaign to express support for the NCC on Covid-19, Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma.
He said when Dlamini-Zuma made the announced that cigarette sales would still be banned on lockdown Level 4, it was based on more than 2 000 submissions from the public opposing the sale of tobacco products.
"To date, the National Command Council on Covid-19 chaired by President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who made the announcement in her capacity as the custodian of the National Disaster Act, have been under attack from tobacco lobby groups, some racists and, those opposed to the ban on cigarette sales.
"We refuse to sit back and do nothing, while the leadership of the country is under attack from tobacco lobby groups and some racists in society. The country has come a long way in building a non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous society, we run the risk of reversing these gains if we allow such right-wing elements to go unchallenged in our democracy.
"The World Health Organisation has repeatedly stated than cigarette smoking can increase the chances of contracting the Covid-19 virus. No caring government can go against such a warning," he said.
Masina said he hoped the online petition would reach 1 million electronic signatures.