CAPE TOWN – President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday dismissed suggestions that he was overruled by the minister of cooperative governance on the country’s continued cigarette ban, saying there was a collective decision to make a U-turn on lifting the ban during level 4 of South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdown.

“There has been much public comment on government’s decision to extend the prohibition on the sale of tobacco products into level 4,” Ramaphosa said in his weekly newsletter.

“A decision like this is bound to be controversial, but it is wrong to suggest that there are ministers or a president doing and saying whatever they want on this matter.”

Ramaphosa has been ridiculed for supposedly allowing himself to be overruled on the matter.

He said when he announced on national television on April 23 that cigarette sales would be allowed from May 1, this was in line with the draft regulations agreed on by the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC).

However, the council changed its view after cabinet approved the draft regulations that would govern level 4, after the country had been under stricter level 5 rules since March 27.

“After careful consideration and discussion, the NCCC reconsidered its position on tobacco. As a result, the regulations ratified by cabinet and announced by minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on April 29 extended the prohibition,” Ramaphosa said.

“This was a collective decision and the public statements by both myself and the minister were done on behalf of, and mandated by, the collective I lead.”

Ramaphosa added that every regulation the government had published during the health crisis had been carefully considered, and stressed that South Africa was not alone in restricting freedoms to fight the spread of Covid-19.

“We have been guided by international bodies and the experience of other countries,” he said.

“The reality is that we are sailing in uncharted waters. There is still a great deal about the epidemiology of the virus that is unknown. It is better to err on the side of caution than to pay the devastating price of a lapse in judgment in future.”

The government is facing a chorus of criticism that regulations pertaining to the lockdown are arbitrary and heavy-handed, including a nighttime curfew, bans on e-commerce and alcohol sales and the decision to restrict exercise to an early morning three-hour window.

Ramaphosa said South Africa was not alone in implementing such measures, and every regulation was based on scientific considerations.

“Dozens of countries have imposed curfews such as the one that is now in place here. Limitations on movement are in place in a number of countries. In the UK and the French capital, Paris, public exercise is limited to certain hours and within a certain distance of one’s home,” he said.

“Containment and prevention measures similar to ours are in place in a number of countries. For example, alcohol sales during lockdown have been either restricted or banned in a number of territories and by local governments, including parts of Mexico, Hong Kong and Greenland, which last month imposed a ban on alcohol sales during lockdown to limit infection but also ‘to curb violence against women and children.”

The official opposition Democratic Alliance has said it will launch a legal challenge to the government’s decision to use empowerment criteria to determine which companies receive financial relief during the crisis. It is still considering whether to challenge the curfew in court.

British American Tobacco had given the government until 10am on Monday to rescind the ban on cigarette sales.  Failing that, the company said, it would proceed to court to overturn the ban.

The finance minister last week hinted that the decision to uphold the ban was not unanimous, saying that he had lost the debate. Mboweni said that the ban on cigarettes and alcohol sales had in five weeks cost the fiscus some R1.7 billion in lost revenue.

African News Agency

By ANA Reporter