This feels like Virodene all over again

In an open letter to NDZ Jeremy Gordin questions the motives behind the tobacco ban

Dear Minister:

A fellow journalist recently wrote here that open letters are probably pointless, because they’re seldom read by the person to whom they’re addressed or that person doesn’t care anyway.

Sometime in 2010/11, while working at the Wits journalism school’s Justice Project, I wrote a couple of open letters about the plight of awaiting-trial detainees [1]. One was addressed to then President Jacob Zuma, the other to then national commissioner of Correctional Services, Tom Moyane.

The person who brought it to Zuma’s attention on my behalf told me that Zuma’s response was: “But this Gordin is now writing articles criticizing me”– and remarkably Zuma flourished one such article from Politicsweb, and continued – “why should I help?” Moyane, as was his wont, didn’t even acknowledge receipt.

It seems then my fellow journalist is correct. But I hope that you, Minister, might notice that the disinterest shown by Zuma and Moyane was, albeit in a small way, symbolic of their general attitude and behaviour – and therefore of what became of them. As Heraclitus remarked, a person’s character (including his actions) is his fate. I therefore do retain the hope that you’ll nonetheless take the trouble to read and respond to this letter.

On Sunday, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the Covid-19 lockdown would move from level 4 to 3 from June 1. As has become the norm, this announcement was to be followed by a media briefing, generally chaired by you, regarding the level 3 restrictions. This was postponed twice then re-scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

Was it possible, I wondered on Thursday morning, that you and the ludicrously named National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) – the Covid-19 epidemic, Minister, is neither a Charlie Chaplin nor a Peter Sellers movie (The Great Dictator, Dr. Strangelove), it is about people’s lives – was it possible you plural had finally seen the foolishness of your ways regarding certain regulations and were considering being sensible?

Probably not, I decided. If anything, the postponement might indicate that the NCCC might overrule the President yet again, as it did previously regarding the sale of tobacco products, but this time regarding the sale of alcohol.

Ironically, what the President should be overruled on is, among other decisions, his recent announcement that religious gatherings can be held. This is bizarre because it is just now that we see the epidemic starting to take off – and such gatherings could likely be the kiss of death for many, especially older people. Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein sent out an email today: “The starting point is the primacy of health and safety. As the Talmud says: ‘To save one life is to save an entire world,’ and pikuach nefesh – the protection and preservation of human life – overrides almost all mitzvot (precepts or commandments)”. The orthodox Jewish community is, in other words, treating the President’s announcement with caution.

Anyway, Minister, it’s the NCCC’s decision to ban tobacco sales and the legal challenge brought by the Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) that I want to write to you about.

I note first that it was you who introduced the Tobacco Products Amendment Bill in 1999, which made it illegal to smoke in public buildings. Turning then to the HIV/Aids tragedy, I see that in 1996 you, though a medical doctor, bought into the play Sarafina II as a prevention message. A contract worth R14,27m was awarded to Mbongeni Ngema, a “good friend” of yours.

However, investigations revealed that your office lied about the funding for the “project” – saying it came from the EU, which it didn’t – and you ignored proper bidding procedures. You then went with Virodene as a miracle cure. This was shortly before ARVs started becoming a viable and affordable alternative. It was also you, with former President Thabo Mbeki’s support, who blocked an emerging rival treatment, in the form of AZT, for the prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV.

Let’s, however, park for a moment your behaviour as Minister of Health and talk about tobacco and smoking.

Yes, it’s common cause that smoking is unhealthy. I also accept that Covid-19 primarily affects the respiratory system, that tobacco does the same and that therefore smoking might lead to increased risks in relation to Covid-19.

I accept also, as you argue in your court papers, that if a conservative estimate of 1% of the country’s 8-million smokers were to contract Covid-19, 80 000 smokers would be infected countrywide; and, further, that if an estimated 10 % of these were to need treatment in ICUs, there could be as many as 8 000 people who might need hospital beds and ventilators, which would exceed the current availability of approximately 4 000 ventilators.

Your argument, however, is a theoretical extrapolation without evidence. There is no evidence of how many of the 24 264 South Africans infected or of the 524 people who have died so far from Covid-19 (as of yesterday) were smokers. There is also no evidence that banning the sale of legal tobacco will reduce Covid-19 infections or the sharing of cigarettes, hookah pipes, zol, lighters, and matchboxes.

Second, being forced not to smoke does not miraculously rid a person of the effects of having smoked for years; the “damage” has been done over time to inter alia the alveoli in the lungs. Your contention, also in your papers, that as a result of the ban it is “expected that a sizeable number of South Africans will stop smoking” is therefore pointless, not to mention bizarre.

“Smokers will simply quit” – I must ask, with respect, what are you smoking? Do you know nothing about the history of the rise of shebeens in this country? Have you not read one word about the prohibition era in America? Or one word about attempts to stop the narcotics trade in the US and elsewhere? Do you not know anything about South African ingenuity and bootlegging? (Ah, we’ll get back to this in a moment.)

Third, if 8 000 of any kind of people (smokers or non) required ventilation, the country would in any case be in serious trouble. Your focus and that of the NCCC, in other words, should be on more urgent activities (such as, for example, getting people to avoid the three “Cs” – closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded places with many people nearby, and close-contact settings) and not at policing whether people buy and smoke cigarettes.

Additionally, as you ought to know, there are other so-called co-morbidities equally as dangerous as smoking: HIV/Aids, TB, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and so on. You might reply that you and your confrères are equally concerned about these. Yet you have not said one word against fizzy drinks and certain processed foods. (Strong anecdotal evidence suggests that, pace Colonel Sanders, KFC fare is a staple among countless employees of countless municipalities and ministries.) As a person with diabetes type 2, I can tell you for free that such products are as potentially dangerous for me as smoking.

Suspension of the sales of any commercial product is arguably a breach of our constitutional rights and not mandated by the Disaster Act. A former senior judge said to me that the use of the law in such a manner – telling people what they can’t do in respect of such issues – should above all be applied with what he calls “humility”. It could also be cogently argued that the loss to the country of billions of rands (excise, jobs, retail sales) is a crime.

In short, your focus, which you have engineered the NCCC to accept, is incontrovertibly narrow and destructive.

Given your earlier “role” in the anti-nicotine war, are you simply panicking? In other words, you know and understand little about Covid-19 and how it works (hundreds of “experts” and others are in the same boat), so you have reverted to your factory setting – which is to go after tobacco.

Or might you – and, for that matter, Ramaphosa and Dr Zweli Mkhize – be driven by what happened in this country as a result of your (and Mbeki’s) behaviour regarding HIV/Aids? Not to put too fine a point on it, are you not scared shxtless by the fact that you will be considered – and to some extent are – responsible for the deaths of people from Covid-19?

The question we are all asking though is Cui bono? Who stands to gain from this?

Consider: there is now a massive black market in cigarettes (which, incidentally, makes your whole argument in favour of banning tobacco products redundant). It also means poor people are more likely to share cigarettes (another of your purported no-nos) and to divert money from other essentials to expensive but low quality tobacco. So it is certainly not the smokers who are benefitting from the tobacco ban.

One answer has been delineated in detail by journalist Vanessa Burger. If you have time, in between searching for material to fill your 3 674 pages of court papers, it’d be in your interests to read this article.

The nub of the matter is that “The [sale of tobacco products] ban ... has been relentlessly advanced by ... Dlamini Zuma, a rabid anti-smoker whose 2017 campaign for the presidency was allegedly partly funded by illicit tobacco kingpin Adriano Mazzotti. [His] backing of the ANC is no secret. [Nor] is his support for the Economic Freedom Fighters, who have remained uncharacteristically mute on the nicotine ban”. She also points out that Ramaphosa’s political enemies within the ANC - the RET faction – have been shrilly in favour of the tobacco ban. This is a “tell” if ever there were one.

Given that no obvious efforts have been exerted by government to curtail the illegal trade in tobacco – while no efforts have been spared stamping out the legal one – it is quite clear that your decisions have massively benefitted our bootlegging class.

You’ve responded in court that illicit cigarette sales “have been a problem for decades” and Police Minister Bheki Cele recently made a feeble attempt at “proving” that illicit sales have not burgeoned. Why he thinks that “illicit” behaviour would be reported to the police, whose job is theoretically to prevent such behaviour, is beyond my understanding.

Trust me on this, Minister: the black market is burgeoning. Here is a photograph of a box of cigarettes purchased (for R60!) last week from a car guard, in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs:

Blow me down!  It’s “manufactured” by Carnilinx Tobacco, and we know who owns that.

As the saying goes, “the arm of coincidence may be long, but it doesn’t stretch unto infinity”.

I began by feeling slightly uncomfortable about not giving you the benefit of the doubt on this. But you, and the ANC, sacrificed the right to expect this from us decades ago.

As touched upon above, in October 1998 you and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki put a stop to a programme for the provision of AZT for the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission of HIV, on the basis that the R80m budget needed to roll it out across the country was unaffordable. This would have halved the number of newborns contracting HIV from their mothers, from 200 to 100 each day, and thereby saved those children from a protracted and painful death from acquired immune deficiency. Many people, including some prominent activists, were taken in by this “line”.

Little did we know at the time that the ANC was concurrently channelling money to the Virodene researchers to pay for Phase 1 trials and patent fees for the drug. Or that, far from being interested in conserving “limited resources”, it was busy preparing to spend billions in taxpayers money on inflated and corrupt weapons purchases in the “arms deal” in return for massive kickbacks, some of which flowed back into Project V. Or that it was only after Phase 2 trials in Tanzania showed that Virodene was inefficacious in late March 2002, that cabinet dramatically reversed its previous opposition to the provision of AZT.

So, I am sorry that when presented with the inexplicable and irrational, I end up thinking that the worst could be behind it.

Come to think of it, Minister, if you were a mensch, a person of integrity and honour, you would have quit the government 20 years ago. It’s mind-boggling – it’s truly Kafkaesque – that, given your previous conduct as a minister of health, you would be allowed anywhere near a life-threatening national epidemic, let alone be allowed to be one of the architects of the country’s response. Can you imagine if this were England? You’d have been thrown out of government many years ago.

I suppose it’s a measure of what South Africa has unfortunately become that most people don’t even think about (or recall) your previous behavior, that no one comments on it and that Ramaphosa apparently has no choice but to let you fulfill such a role. And that Ramaphosa probably never even considered whether he ought to have allowed you to play such a role presents us as South Africans with a bitter truth about him, does it not? 

At any rate, I think this irrelevant, time-wasting and foolish emphasis on banning the sale of tobacco products is a concatenation of everything I’ve touched on above: incompetence and therefore panic; power hunger; corruption; and basically not giving a damn and never having had to do so. But I trust you will let me know your views on the subject.

Yours from an appropriate social distance,

JF Gordin.


[1] Ironically, it now seems that as a result of the Covid-19 epidemic, thousands of these people will be released. If, Minister, you’re at all interested in the matter, look at “Waiting for Godot: Awaiting trial detainees in South Africa,” Jeremy Gordin, 410-25, in New South African Review 1, eds. Daniel et al, Wits University Press, Johannesburg, 2010 – or pass it on to young Ronald Lamola, the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services.