Tobacco farmers have come out on the side of British American Tobacco (BATSA) in the confrontation between the multinational cigarette manufacturer and the South African government over the extended ban on cigarette sales as part of covid-19 lockdown measures.
The extension of the government ban on cigarette sales, announced by minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma last week, created a national fracas. It represented a dramatic about-turn after an earlier announcement by pres. Cyril Ramaphosa that cigarettes sales would resume as part of the gradual level 4 easing of the coronavirus lockdown.
The Black Tobacco Farmers Association (BFTA) now added their voice to the call by BATSA to force government to reconsider the ban. BATSA will now serve legal papers against the government, demanding clarity on the decision-making process that led to Ramaphosa and the national command council’s indefinite ban on sales of tobacco products.
Tobacco leaf industry supports 10 000 families
The Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) are reportedly also consulting legal experts to challenge the covid-19 cigarette sales lockdown.
BFTA chairman Shadrack Sibisi tells Food For Mzansi their organization was consulting their lawyers in order to take the cigarette sales ban under review. He describes the ban as an infringement on the rights of tobacco farmers.
Sibisi, himself a tobacco farmer, says this “new normal” has been a cause of much hardship for himself and his 35 employees. He has been farming with tobacco in Mpumalanga since 2010. “No one can take anything that has a negative effect on one’s welfare and the well-being of his employees nicely.”
The South African tobacco leaf industry supports more than 10 000 families in some of the more historically disadvantaged areas of the country.
Sibisi says, “I am totally upset. Remember, protocols were put in place whereby there is social distancing, people have to sanitise, and no shaking of hands is permitted. But then all of the sudden there is this fear that smokers will go against the rules and share cigarettes while they know the rules. Is there any logic in that reasoning? Or is it just another way of punishing other people for their own benefit?”
Sibisi supplies tobacco to the Limpopo Tobacco Processors (LTP). Now that production and sales have been halted, he says tobacco farmers are being forced to live like “beggers”.
“Now it means I personally, as well as our members, will have to be out of work. That implies that we have to now go and queue for grants.”
He supports TISA and BATSA in considering legal recourse. “We are currently in communication with our lawyers, and sought legal interventions regarding the matter.”
In her address to the nation last week Dlamini-Zuma, who serves as the chairperson of the national command council, says the decision was taken after government received more than 2000 submissions opposing the sale of tobacco products.
Illegal cigarette trade booming
Earlier today, in his weekly newsletter to the nation, Ramaphosa defends the dramatic move by cabinet to continue the clampdown on cigarette sales ahead of looming legal action. He says the decision to indefinitely continue the ban on cigarettes, after he had initially announced the opposite, was a collective decision.
“The reality is that we are sailing in uncharted waters,” he writes, saying that “prevention is better than cure. There is still a great deal about the epidemiology of the virus that is unknown. It is better to err on the side of caution than to pay the devastating price of a lapse in judgment in future.”
He once more assures the nation that decisions made by the national command council were for the greater good. “Government is making every effort to act in a way that advances the rights to life and dignity of all our people.”
BATSA’s legal proceedings against government follows an announcement last month that the company will have to retrench at least 300 employees. The company says the huge trade in illegal cigarettes in South Africa – now exacerbated by the lockdown ban on cigarette sales – was forcing it to take corrective action. Close to half of all the cigarettes sold in the country are illegal, costing taxpayers more than R20 million per day.