🔒 How world sees SA: Covid-19 clampdown on ciggies, booze is ‘govt over-reach’

South Africans have been urging the government to rethink aspects of the Covid-19 containment lockdown, in particular business activity. A ban on cigarette and alcohol sales has upset smokers and drinkers, but it is also having a negative impact on tax revenues. An illegal market thrives, with buyers vulnerable to con artists. The New York Times underscores another worrying aspect of the prohibition on the legal trade in booze and tobacco: the government is encroaching on private lives and rights. It highlights that many South Africans see the bans as a symbol of government over-reach. – Jackie Cameron

By Thulasizwe Sithole

South Africa is known internationally for its very high rate of murder, rape and robbery and widespread corruption. Like other countries, its law-enforcers have shifted focus from apprehending and jailing hardened criminals and white-collar crooks to arresting people for breaking regulations and laws instituted to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

In a particularly strange twist to South Africa’s Covid-19 containment measures, people who smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol produced by public companies have become criminalised – adding to the list of things-to-do for the SA Police Service.

This curious state of affairs has catapulted the country into the international coverage of Covid-19. As The New York Times reports: individuals who have run out of cartons of cigarettes have been forced to buy them underground.

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“I feel like I’m buying cocaine,” a woman, 29, who asked not to be named for fear of being fined or arrested after acquiring a packet of Courtleigh, is quoted as saying.

The New York Times recaps how, in late March, in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, the South African government banned the sale of tobacco and alcohol – but even as the government has begun rolling back the lockdown, the bans remain in effect.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former president Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife, said the decision was taken because “the way tobacco is shared does not allow for social distancing, but actually encourages the spread of the virus”.

And President Cyril Ramaphosa is quoted as saying that alcohol is “a hindrance to the fight against coronavirus” because there are “proven links between the sale and consumption of alcohol and violent crime, motor vehicle accidents and other medical emergencies at a time when all public and private resources should be preparing to receive and treat vast numbers of Covid-19 patients”.

Perhaps not surprisingly, says The New York Times, an underground market in both cigarettes and alcohol that relies on word of mouth has sprung up and is flourishing. A pack of 20 cigarettes now goes for upward of R150, three times the old legal price, while a bottle of cheap vodka that usually retails for R120 now fetches at least R400, reports the newspaper.

“Now, it’s a matter of who you know. The cafe owner willing to slip a box under a container of milk, perhaps, or a supermarket cashier willing to steal and resell cigarettes languishing in the storeroom,” it notes.

Fake cigarettes have become a feature of this trade, with one smoker telling how he paid R160 for his favourite brand but when he opened the pack, a cloud of sawdust choked him.

The underground cigarette trade in brands that do not contribute tax revenue is also flourishing.

Above all, however, “the ban on cigarettes and alcohol has  set off a debate on civil liberties in a country with one of the world’s most liberal constitutions”.

Many see the bans as “a symbol of government overreach”, points out The New York Times.

Though its coronavirus policies may have succeeded in keeping the outbreak in check, some are calling the government hypocritical. Junk food remains readily available. And officials strictly limited outdoor exercise during the lockdown,” it adds.