Photo: Flickr / GCIS
Photo: Flickr / GCIS
“We’ve been here before”, Fita Chairperson Sinenhlanhla Mnguni Tweeted on Wednesday: He was responding to reports which claimed Cabinet told Cyril Ramaphosa to lift both the alcohol and cigarette bans currently in place, as South Africa mulls a move to Level 2 of lockdown.
Mnguni’s grounded approach is certainly the most appropriate. There’s been a frenzy of speculation with regards to what lockdown changes will come into effect his week. Initially dismissed as a remote possibility, we’ve since learned that there is a serious chance of shifting to Level 2 by the end of this week.
The discourse from the top has been markedly different from what we’ve heard in previous weeks. In particular, health minister Zweli Mkhize has sprinkled optimism amongst his words of caution over the past few days. A sharp peak in July seems to be subsiding, and the government is likely to take advantage of that one way or another.
But does this mean that the alcohol and cigarette bans are doomed? Well, it was only last week that lawyers representing Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – the alleged architect of the controversial tobacco prohibition – admitted that the government had failed to legislate for such large volumes of non-compliance. That’s not the only potential nail in the coffin, either…
Several times this month, South Africa’s new daily case rate dropped to levels that were last seen in June. As the infection numbers subside dramatically, this gives the government palpable data to work with: In fact, transmission rates are now improving on a weekly basis, rather than just on the daily metric.
This information is key towards lowering the lockdown level. With fewer infections, the demand for hospital beds will shrink. At the advent of the second alcohol ban – and when the cigarette ban itself was extended back in April – hospital capacity was cited as a major reason to pull these items from the shelves.
Some provinces are now recording bed capacity levels that were lower than this time last year. Western Cape Premier Alan Winde said this was the case for the south-west, where active cases have recorded a collapse in recent weeks. The main pillar used to support the two controversial bans has essentially crumbled.
Both the alcohol and cigarette bans were meant to stop people from consuming products that were allegedly putting more people in mortal danger. But what’s been happening throughout lockdown? Bootlegging, and lots of it: Illicit cigs, homemade booze, and audacious smuggling operations have greatly undermined the restrictions.
What is more, the government finally seems to be accepting the financial implications of a prolonged lockdown. For the first time since the pandemic began, Minister Mkhize spoke about the need to rejuvenate the economy – even if he did mitigate that by pleading with citizens to wear masks and wash their hands.
The cigarette ban is allegedly costing the government more than R35m a day in lost revenue, topping the R5 billion mark earlier this month. Meanwhile, the alcohol ban is putting tens of thousands of jobs in the Western Cape at risk and threatens to collapse our agricultural industry.
Furthermore, the restrictions on booze are now jeopardising our trade agreements with the EU, as lost tax revenue wipes of billions of rand in excise taxes. The bans, to all intents and purposes, are ineffective.
All of these factors have been discussed with Cabinet this week. Alan Winde was particularly vocal about the damage caused by the alcohol ban, given that his province is so reliant on liquor sales. NatJoints, FOSAD and a reported majority of Cabinet are now in favour of ending prohibition – and introducing Level 2 of lockdown.
Should we make the leap out of Level 3 restrictions, the government’s own coronavirus advice website says that this will initiate the resale of booze and ciggies. The decision could be made automatically.
Alas, the cat has not been let out of the bag yet… but we can certainly see a pair of whiskers emerging from the brim. Many lockdown restrictions are certain to be lifted in the next few days – the only question that remains is this: Just how far will Cyril Ramaphosa decide to take us forward?