Burning questions over Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's cigarette ban motives

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has come under fire for her staunch support of the lockdown tobacco ban.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has come under fire for her staunch support of the lockdown tobacco ban.
Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

By and large South Africans supported the national coronavirus lockdown at its start. While there were grumbles about the alcohol and tobacco bans, those voices were muted while they still had enough of their go-to crutches to keep them occupied. As the days drew longer and stocks dwindled the angry voices grew louder.

The national lockdown, with its increasingly bizarre regulations, was starting to feel less like a way of saving lives and more like a foray into controlling them.

Throughout history, several countries have tried to enforce similar bans on what their people can and cannot enjoy. These generally resulted in two things: massive growth of organized crime and a thriving black market.

Even many hardline Muslim states have realized that it is close to impossible to enforce a total ban on alcohol and most have systems where you can get a license to purchase from state-run liquor outlets, or, a nearby Emirate where the laws are more relaxed so residents or visitors can take a short drive to partake. This has also served to individually commercialise the different Emirates as commercial, industrial or tourism-based economies and served as a way of making the close neighbours work in seamless symbiotic relationships that hold their alliance together.

Although there have been several western countries to implement alcohol bans, most have been short lived and largely enforced to deal with shortages, such as in Canada, where it was used as a wartime austerity measure from 1918 to 1920 during World War 1 to ensure adequate grain supplies for their war effort.

The exception is the United States. The 18th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1919 banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors. And, while it was popular with the puritanical movement sweeping the nation at the time, it had one serious ramification: the rise of organised crime.

The banning of alcohol created a massive market made up of everyday people who believed that the regulations were unreasonable and infringed on their rights; that the state was playing parent and turning ordinary people into criminals. In stepped the Italian and Irish mafias, who rapidly consolidated the market, creating criminal empires.

Once two-bit criminals were all of a sudden not only masters of vast fortunes, but even publicly revered and adored for providing what many regarded essential services.

Of course, like any black market, product quality varied. Smugglers beat the US Coastguard in races across the great lakes from Canada, bringing with them bootlegged booze from genuine distillers or illicit moonshine stills manufactured, products that threatened to turn people blind, or worse.

The sheer size of the market enabled criminal syndicates to thrive and expand, and bankrolled their futures in gambling, construction and other business areas.

Apparently it was believed that the coronavirus thrived on joy, so depriving the nation of it would help stop the pandemic from spreading.

In South Africa, a similar pattern started emerging soon after lockdown began. Alcohol and cigarettes sales were banned with nonsensical explanations as to how doing so would help in the fight against Covid-19. Apparently it was believed that the coronavirus thrived on joy, so depriving the nation of it would help stop the pandemic from spreading.

But people would not be denied what they believed was reasonable.

An already existing black market quickly stepped up to fill the void, particularly with cigarettes, while home brewing became a national pastime. Shady cigarette products with bad packaging and questionable quality took the place of brands established for generations. Suddenly, illicit cigarettes that were selling for R18 a box were being sold under the table for two, three, four and even five times their previous prices.

Soon questions started being asked more seriously. Why is this being done? How is it helping? Who is gaining from these draconian rules?

With a history of wide-spread government corruption the focus swiftly turned toward a minister with a familiar surname. Yet another Zuma.

It was a natural progression. The minister making the rules, who reversed an announcement on the sale of tobacco made by the president himself, already had historical ties with the industry.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had previously been accused of using funds from self-described cigarette smuggler Adriano Mazzotti to fund her unsuccessful bid for the presidency of the ANC and South Africa.

The public was reminded of this when DA leader John Steenhuisen in a tweet accused Dlamini-Zuma of putting money into alleged cigarette smuggler’s pockets with a photo of Dlamini-Zuma and Mazzotti together quickly stoking the fire.

Instead of making things better, a public statement by Mazzotti labelling claims that his cigarette business was capitalising from the lockdown as “outrageous” and denying having a  relationship with the minister only added fuel to the fire.

Mazzotti has also previously been tied to EFF commander in chief Julius Malema.

Despite president Cyril Ramaphosa's spokesperson Khusela Diko stating that “attacks on minister Dlamini-Zuma are baseless, unfounded and border on malicious,” South Africans have real questions that demand answers.

Edward Zuma, the eldest son of her former husband, ex-president Jacob Zuma; the man whose political maneuverings raised corruption in the land to such a level that it birthed the spectre of state capture allegations, was himself at one time a director of Amalgamated Tobacco, accused by the South African Revenue Services (Sars) of smuggling and tax evasion.

On Friday, reports said that Dlamini-Zuma was “adamant about [the] cigarette ban” being extended to lower lockdown levels despite previous assurances that it would be lifted at level 3 and even arguing against other astonished members of the Covid-19 national command council, including health minister Zweli Mkhize.

Despite president Cyril Ramaphosa's spokesperson Khusela Diko stating that “attacks on minister Dlamini-Zuma are baseless, unfounded and border on malicious,” South Africans have real questions that demand answers.


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