Cigarette ban Bheki Cele

Minister Bheki Cele briefs the media on the annual crime statistics, reflecting crimes that occurred from the 1st of April 2019 to the end of March 2020. [Photo: GICS]

Cele: ‘Smoking not banned, we’d love to know where you found cigarettes’

While the act of smoking is not prohibited, the selling and purchasing of tobacco products is. Cele asks for receipts…

Cigarette ban Bheki Cele

Minister Bheki Cele briefs the media on the annual crime statistics, reflecting crimes that occurred from the 1st of April 2019 to the end of March 2020. [Photo: GICS]

Police Minister Bheki Cele has added further fuel to the fire surrounding government’s controversial tobacco ban, which has outlawed the sale and purchase of cigarettes since lockdown was first implemented in March.

As President Cyril Ramaphosa and Cooperative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, representing the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), bounce between various courtrooms in an attempt to defend lockdown’s hotly-contested cigarette ban, South African smokers, unwilling to kick the habit, have flocked to black-market dealers.

Arguably the most controversial lockdown law, which has rebuffed all legal challenges to date, the cigarette ban has been criticised by industry stakeholders, smokers, tax watchdogs and legal minds alike. Despite studies burning holes in government’s defence — which is based on ‘evidence’ pointing to smokers suffering more severely when infected with the coronavirus — South Africa continues to lose in excess of R35 million a day in uncollected excise duties.

While a recent appeal lodged by the Fair-Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) was duly dismissed by the North Gauteng High Court, the battle led by British American Tobacco SA (Batsa) is set to play out in the Western Cape in August.

Cigarette ban: Soldiers’ puff has South Africans in a huff

With numerous studies pointing to government’s short-sightedness, indicating that while some smokers had quit, most had just turned to paying over-inflated prices for illicit cigarettes, the South African Police Service (SAPS) has been spread thin in its attempt to root out black-market tobacco.

Addressing the media, during a briefing on South Africa’s latest crime statistics on Friday morning, Cele faced a barrage of questions relating to the cigarette ban. The line of questioning came just days after high-ranking South African National Defence Force (SANDF) personnel were ‘caught’ smoking while on official duty at the funeral of Rivonia Trialist Andrew Mlangeni.

Cele has, on numerous occasions, noted that police had every right to question smokers with regards to where and when they purchased the outlawed goods. South Africans wondered whether police officers would apply the same rationale to military officers and ask the uniformed men for proof of purchase.

This exact scenario played out during the press briefing, where Cele was grilled over his hard-lined approach. Cele responded:

“Soldiers smoking? Smoking is not a crime. This thing of smoking and receipts keeps coming. We have arrested a lot of people carrying cigarettes. We have arrested… cigarettes worth about R1.8 million.

If you carry cigarettes in bulk [or] the cigarette is in your car, we would love to know where you found the cigarettes. The sale of cigarettes is not allowed, so the purchasing of cigarettes cannot be allowed if the sale is not allowed.

You can’t purchase something that is not allowed to be sold, so you will help us [when] we say give us the receipt so that we go to a person that is the first sinner here by selling what is not supposed [to be sold].  But yourself… you are not supposed to buy.”

‘Smoking is definitely not banned in South Africa’ – Cele

Cele elaborated on the contentious issues surrounding Mlangeni’s funeral, which, in addition to featuring smoking soldiers, was overcrowded by mourners failing to practice social distancing. Recently, SAPS confirmed that an investigation had been launched into the funeral, which was organised and attended by senior African National Congress (ANC) officials, to determine whether lockdown laws governed by the Disaster Management Act had been broken.

Cele asked for the investigation to run its course before responding to further allegations, explaining:

“This soldier issue… the whole question of the Mlangeni funeral is under investigation. There are people that have been asked by the police… as the investigation is finalised, the docket will be taken to the National Prosecuting Authority for a decision.”

In addition to commenting on the issue of illicit cigarettes and the police resources which they devour, Cele noted that South Africa’s murder rate had risen by 1.4%, placing it only second to El Salvador as ‘murder capital’ of the world.