Diary Pages: Alcohol and Cigarette Ban

Why do you think the government banned alcohol and cigarette sales? How has that affected you, family and friends?

Currently, the sale of cigarettes and alcohol is not permissible under South Africa’s COVID 19 national lockdown, nor can home-made beer be shared. The lockdown is considered one of the strictest in the world.

As the government prepared to ease its restrictions, President Ramaphosa announced that cigarettes would be allowed under the new Level Four rules. Memes of binge smoking circulated and the excitement was palpable. Days later, however, Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma announced a U-Turn on the issue, citing health issues. This was a contentious move, with some relieved that the ban would continue and others pursuing complaints, court action, and petitions. We asked out participants to weigh in on the debate, and their diverse opinions reflect the divisiveness of the issue across the country.

Support and hope for good change

Most of our diarists agree with the ban on both cigarette and alcohol. Zukiswa, in Khayelitsha, believes ‘it’s the best solution everNow this is the time government has done the right thing’. She refers to a loved one who had stopped taking their medication when they ‘started drinking and smoking heavily’. If these substances had not been available, she reasons, her family member may not have died. The direct and indirect health benefits of the ban, she concludes, could be sizable.

While others may not be as avid in their support, they also acknowledge the benefits a ban could bring for their communities, and the country more broadly. Some voices of support come from those who are directly affected by the ban. China, in Khayelitsha, is a smoker but writes ‘ it is a good cause for me and for all the smokers in this country.’ ‘Our government has done this for a good cause’, she reflects, ‘When people are intoxicated they don’t think straight they will end up doing exactly what they are not supposed to do in terms of regulations.

Diarists also highlight the role that the alcohol ban could play on reducing street crime and domestic violence.

‘Ever since the president announced the ban of alcohol crime has decreased we don’t hear stories of found dead bodies over the weekend in the community’ –Siphenathi, Khayelitsha

‘I think mostly the government’s aggressive attitude towards these substances, particularly alcohol, [is] because of the sharp increase in gender abuse in households. During lockdown husbands who indulge in alcohol become depressed and aggressive towards their spouse and children and physical abuse usually highlights this’. – Lilly, Salt River

Some express fears that the sharing of alcohol and cigarettes amongst friends would increase the spread of Covid-19. This is particularly true, some diarists reason, amongst those who might struggle to afford their own. As Esethu, in Khayelitsha, writes, ‘most of the people drink from the same bottle… It is the same with cigarettes here in the township…’. Even where people had their own cigarettes, Khaya states, people were likely to buy singles, ‘this means they will be walking to the shops several times in a day.

‘With cigarettes and all tobacco products it’s good that is banned because it put so much risk for us as you know it is difficult to finish your own cigarette as friends… want to have some from mine, especially those who are using BB or Boxer (tobacco brands) they use saliva to prepare these and in this case it is highly dangerous to be doing that.’  – Sam, Khayelitsha

That said, other diarists are sceptical that sharing in this way is going to be a major component of the spread.

‘[I am] not sure if that [alcohol and cigarettes] will increase the virus I’m sure there’s more serious things too look at enforce people too wear mask WHICH they don’t really do maybe a punishment for not wearing face mask will help.’ – Gassie, Woodstock

‘The cigarette ban is just ridiculous (in place so people don’t share cigarettes but they are supposed to be social distancing anyway) the withdrawal from nicotine is more problematic’. –Joanne, Newlands

Condemnation and concern

A key concern amongst those who oppose the ban is that it will only serve to increase the black market in alcohol and cigarettes. Ameena, in Woodstock, spoke of the escalating prices for cigarettes in her neighbourhood:

‘The government will rather see people doing illegal business than lift the ban. It’s very frustrating because government is doing nothing for us poor people… Our pensioners are paying as much as R150 a packet of cigarettes that is sad. Can you imagine 10 packets for R1 500 deducted from a pension fund…where do these people get food from…This government is corrupt.‘ —Ameena, Woodstock   

Across the city, Audioman in Newlands had also turned to the black market to buy alcohol ‘we were recently offered some upscale wine on the black market!’, he writes, ‘I bought six bottles!’ ‘

Not only were black market products often more expensive, diarists argue, they were sometimes poor quality. ‘Now some of the small mobile shops are selling fake cigarettes’, wrote Anonymous, in Hangberg, ‘and that messes your chest up’.

This black market trade was not always being delivered by those who normally sold goods in their neighbourhood. Many informal sellers remained without a job. For Thando in Khayelitsha, ‘it affects my aunt as she survived for many years by selling alcohol. This was her source of income & we advised her to try something else in the meantime to generate income’.  

What drove the decision?

Those who had reservations over the government’s approach reflected on the reasons for this decision. For some, the government was exercising power paternalistically, out of a misguided attempt to improve people’s health or because they enjoyed exercising power in their own right. Whereas the previous lockdown decisions were driven by a clear scientific rationale, some questioned the science and logic behind this maneuver.

‘I thought that it was kind of like this moralistic move more than it is based in… scientific evidence… there are all of these different charts around the benefits of not smoking, which we all know, but I feel that to stop smoking you need to be in the mental space and state to make the transition… It was a very paternalistic decision to make’ – Y, Marina da Gama

‘I cannot get oil [for my twisp] and this has irritated me. I feel that the government doesn’t think I am adult enough to smoke a twisp so then I am not adult enough to donate my money to those in areas that need assistance.  I do not agree with government rules and think they are making up it as they go along and enjoying the power’ – Joanne, Newlands

Others felt that corruption was the driving force behind the decision, with influential individuals standing to gain from the black market trade. ‘I think it’s a personal crusade by [Bheki] Cele and [Nkosazana] Dlamini-Zuma. Maybe some top ANC guys have interests in illicit tobacco… Zuma’s son does’, wrote Audioman, ‘I think that’s a stupid decision – billions of Rands are going to illicit trade and not to SARS, at a time the government really needs it.

Questions:

Has this decision damaged the public’s trust in the government’s decision making?

Are the debates around this decision a sign that the public’s patience with the lockdown is waning?

Where should the balance be between public health and personal liberty lie?

How are these decisions likely to shape government’s enforcement measures going forward?

How can governments improve policy making and implementation in ways that effectively respond to problems in unequal societies, during then fight against pandemic?

How do citizens organize to effectively voice concerns without compromising attempts to stop the spread of COVID 19?

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