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South Africa: The Great Tobacco Debate Played Out On Social Media

 21 June 2020

From the moment Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma announced that the ban on tobacco sales would not be lifted on April 29 until this week’s high court application to overturn the ban, debate between those for and those against the tobacco ban has raged on in social media conversations.

Over the past eight weeks, about 117 000 South Africans discussed the tobacco ban 520 000 times on social media and the number of people who engaged with the topic doubled. Here’s how the debate played out:

In the first two weeks, opposing sides took up positions.


Quick off the mark in support of the ban, @Kgomo389’s tweet took the debate directly into the political arena: “For the second time #dlaminizuma stand up against Rupert and wins. Selling of tobacco will not be allowed on level 4. A president we were denied through bribery. We would have land by now and WMC put in it place.”

@robzinterris took up this thread: “The smokers are suffering because of this battle! Johan Rupert took Nkosazana #dlaminizuma to court back in 2017 and he lost the case. Now Dlamini-Zuma is adding the fuel on him by banning the cigarettes. Roud 2!”

Smoking is bordering on personal hygiene
Sibongiseni Dhlomo

A short while later, @thabileoka put the ban in the context of the lockdown: “South Africans support the lockdown, but on their own terms.

"They want to smoke and drink, visit friends, go to the hairdressers, have spa treatments, visit their nail technicians, go for a run and go to work...all during a global pandemic.”

Sibongiseni Dhlomo, chairperson of the portfolio committee on health, defended government’s about-turn on tobacco sales: “Smoking is bordering on personal hygiene,” arguing that smokers were more likely to contract Covid-19.

Some social media users backed government’s decision:

@MightiJamie said cigarettes not only impaired lung health but also reduced immunity, which combine to increase the likelihood of getting Covid-19.

@KhandaniM tweeted: “The lockdown is economic vs healthcare, cigarette is healthcare period!”

@lavidaNOTA shared a personal story about how he used the lockdown as an opportunity to quit smoking.

A petition called Support the National Command Council on Covid-19 decision to ban the sale of cigarettes was launched on change.org.

A group of organisations backed the decision to continue the ban on tobacco sales, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), the National Council Against Smoking, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the Human Sciences Research Council, the Medical Research Council, the Cancer Association of SA, the Africa Centre for Tobacco Industry Monitoring and Policy Research, and the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA.

We are not going to change our approach
Jackson Mthembu

They said the ban would lighten the load on South Africa’s fragile healthcare system as tobacco users are more likely to become critically ill, need a bed in intensive care and require mechanical ventilation, and are at increased risk of death.

A petition calling on South Africans to support the national command council’s ban on the sale of tobacco was launched. The petition cites a WHO statement that smoking can increase the risk of getting Covid-19.

Government took a hard stance in response to threats of legal action by the tobacco industry over the ban. Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu said: “We are not going to change our approach.”

Dlamini-Zuma said government had received thousands of public comments opposing the sale of cigarettes and alcohol.

@Mbawolive defended government’s about-turn: “Whatever benefits the public. This is not a squabble between the president and his minister, it’s about the wellbeing of the public. If a ban on smoking is the way to go, then I’m glad to have a government that listens to experts and that can be convinced otherwise”.


DA leader John Steenhuisen was equally quick to seek political mileage. He posted a photo of Dlamini-Zuma with Adriano Mazzotti, saying: “I know somebody who is going to be smiling all the way to the bank after his favourite minister shut down the legal tobacco sales tonight.”

The Lift Cigarette Sales Ban in South Africa petition started gaining traction social media.

A similarly named petition, Lift the ban on cigarette sales in South Africa, started a month prior by Bev Maclean in response to the initial ban on tobacco sales during lockdown, had garnered more than 500 000 signatures.

The Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) took government to court over the “inexplicable” and “draconian” ban on tobacco sales.

An urgent application against President Cyril Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma called for proof of a connection between smoking and the risk of contracting Covid-19.

The EFF’s Dali Mpofu questioned whether the president and his Cabinet were in alignment. He posted side-by-side pictures of Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma with the caption: “Mzansi for sure! We are led,” alluding to the mixed messages form the president and the minister.

@RenalsoGouws tweeted: “The EFF must be happy that cigarettes will still not be allowed under level 4. I am assuming their funders are very, very, very happy with this decision!”

US journalist Nina Teicholz cited a recent UK study which found that heart diseases and obesity were the greatest risks to Covid-19, while smoking was placed 11th as a risk.

Tax Justice SA, which exposes illicit trade and corruption, also lambasted the decision, saying crime syndicates dealing in illicit trade “will be partying tonight”.

Reporter Lindsay Dentlinger tweeted: “[SA Revenue Service] commissioner Edward Kieswetter says the ban on cigarette sales has cost the revenue service over R300m in the past month.”

@MaxduPreez challenged government’s stance that the ban was for health reasons. He cited a study published in The Economist which stated that “smokers seem less likely than non-smokers to fall ill with Covid-19”.

British American Tobacco gave Dlamini-Zuma an ultimatum: Reverse the ban or face court action.

Days later, @DjNewAfrica tweeted: “British American Tobacco says it will no longer pursue legal action against Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma over her decision to reban cigarettes selling. They were never gonna win. Last time their boss, Johann Rupert, took Nkosazana to court over cigarettes banning he lost.”

A caller on Radio 702 named Benny, said: “I am a spaza shop owner. Cigarettes are being sold on the black market. And ... because a single cigarette is now much more expensive, people in townships are more likely to share cigarettes because they club together for expensive smokes.”

By week three, the pro-smoking lobby started to outweigh the anti-smoking lobby


EFF deputy president Floyd Shivambu tweeted: “The state has an obligation to protect the people, and the argument that alcohol and cigarettes should freely flow because they’re being traded illegally is weak. There are so many things that are illegally happening, and state’s response cannot be legalisation of illegal things.”

Many news stories focused on the declaration that smokers caught with cigarettes outside their homes would be forced to produce till slips.

One news story: Lockdown: Dlamini-Zuma pushes for tobacco, alcohol ban to continue until Level 1 “News24, May 22” received more than 15 000 likes from supporters of the ban.


@julianrademeyer tweeted: “Lighting up the illicit market – A new report by the University of Cape Town’s [UCT’s] @Tobaccoecon has found, unsurprisingly, that SA’s cigarette ban has roundly failed, serving only to give impetus to the illicit trade.”

Yusuf Abramjee tweeted: “Research study shows majority of smokers bought cigarettes during lockdown”, with a link to a news story about the UCT research.

Blessings Ramoba, the president of the Mining Forum of SA, tweeted: “First of all, I’m not a smoker. I cannot, for the life of me, understand the mindset of where this is coming from! What is the point of banning smokes? To me, this is just a complete power trip. Aren’t we living in a democratic country? Why make our people suffer more?”. The tweet received almost 2 000 likes and retweets.

The notorious Man’s NOT Barry Roux tweeted: “Leadership Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has told the national coronavirus command council that the sale of tobacco and alcohol should continue to be banned until the country reaches Level 1 of the lockdown.”

Tim Modise responded: “I wonder why [government] would be prepared to forfeit R1.4 billion per month in taxes while ignoring the billion rands illicit tobacco business. Meanwhile, thousands of licensed liquor businesses have been forced to operate criminally to survive.”

#dlaminizumamustfall trended on May 22 as social media users vented their frustration over the ban.

@TiyiBevhula tweeted: “Where was minister #dlaminizuma when the decision to reopen schools was taken? It seems she is more obsessed with tobacco and liquor, not people’s lives.”

On May 24, a video of the president’s address, during which he said alcohol would be sold under strict conditions but not tobacco, was viewed more than 61 500 times.

Week five started with a resurgence of support for the ban


“Mother of the nation. Principled and with a backbone too. Retweet for appreciation. Re a leboha Mme Clarice NDZ,” is how one tweet described Dlamini-Zuma.

EFF leader Julius Malema came to the minister’s defence against critics, saying: “We have been observing an unnecessary attack on Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. It’s nonsensical and unacceptable. We all know where [she] comes from with her battle against tobacco. It’s a principled stance she has taken.”

Former DA leader Mmusi Maimane took exception to the media focus on the ban.

“I wish these journalists would ask about schools and not cigarettes,” he said, garnering 4 500 likes and retweets.


Steenhuisen tweeted: “So you can gather in a confined space with 49 other people but you cannot have your haircut, go to the beach, or go to a park or smoke a cigarette? Bizarre....”

Cardiologist and anti-smoking researcher Dr Konstantinos Farsalinos said on Radio 702: “There is zero evidence that smoking will propagate or increase transmission of Covid-19.”

By week six, the battle went to court

Journalist Heidi Giokos tweeted on June 4: “The state has NOT been granted postponement in the Fita vs State matter on the prohibition of cigarette sales. Second attempt at postponing the matter by government. Judge presiding over the matter says both parties agreed to the date.”

@mikegbaines tweeted: “Now government wants a two-week court extension to explain their #CigaretteBan. A ban they introduced a month ago, but are only now scratching to provide evidence for the ban’s rationale. Dlamini-Zuma courts contempt after missing deadline in tobacco ban case.”

Tax Justice SA tweeted: “70 days of #LockdownSA cigarette ban have cost @GovernmentZA R2.45 billion in lost sin tax. That’s enough to pay the wages of [more than] 10 000 doctors and 30 000 nurses for 10 weeks. Instead it’s filling the pockets of crooks in illicit trade.”

Radio station SAfm tweeted: “The high court in Pretoria has reserved judgement in the [Fita] application to have tobacco products unbanned. Judge [Dunstan] Mlambo says the full bench will consider the submissions and email [its] judgment.”

An eNCA video posted on June 10 and titled The Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association says lifestyle diseases pose a higher health risk to #Covid19 patients than smokers is viewed 4 500 times

By week seven, the gender-based violence crisis had overshadowed the smoking ban

@SiboSeale tweeted: “I’m not seeing [Police Minister] Bheki Cele huffing and puffing over what happened to [Tshegofatso Pule, who was found hung on a tree in a field in Roodepoort] and Naledi [Phangindawo, who was hit and stabbed with an axe and knife in the Eastern Cape] the same way he was marching to arrest people during lockdown.”

Radio and television host Anele Mdoda received more than 21 000 likes after tweeting: “We, as South Africans, demand the same urgency given to Covid-19 by government to be directed to the slaughter of women in South Africa. It is a pandemic and the numbers are even worse. The same power used to ban cigarettes and alcohol will do.”

Petitions as of Friday, June 19 at 4.30pm:


Support the National Command Council on Covid-19 decision to ban the sale of cigarettes: 30 357 signatures.


Lift the ban on cigarette sales in South Africa: 640 085 signatures.

Lift Cigarette Sales Ban in South Africa: 70 572 signatures.

The Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change is a not-for-profit organisation based at the UCT Graduate School of Business and incubated by the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership. It was established to track and counter misinformation and disinformation, fake news and divisive or polarising rhetoric that is promulgated online to undermine social cohesion, democratic integrity and the stability of nation states.

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