OPINION: All voices must be heard on the sugar tax - especially those whose livelihoods are affected by it

A spoonful of sugar sits beside the word tax spelled out in sugar.

Published Dec 13, 2022


by: Andrew Russell

On 30 November 2022, Healthy Living Alliance (Heala) Programmes Manager, Nzama Mbalati, published an opinion in support of increasing the Health Promotion Levy.

In it he called on government to hear all voices on health and reminded health activists that their “hard-won victories need constant protection from industry interference.” The argument from Mbalati merits closer scrutiny as it reveals a number of flaws in the pro-sugar tax argument.

For one thing, Mbalati should be required to expand on what qualifies as a victory.

Is it the more than 16 000 jobs and R2 billion lost in the first year of the implementation of the sugar tax? Cane growing communities in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga as well as value chain partners certainly do not consider this a victory.

As Mbalati notes, even four years after the introduction of the sugar tax, obesity remains at above 26% in South Africa. There remains to date no evidence that the sugar tax has done anything to improve this key metric.

Instead of providing any evidence for the effectiveness of the sugar tax, Mbalati relies on bare statements like “[a]n increase in the health promotion levy will go a long way to helping South Africa’s under-resourced health system support equitable access to health care,” expecting that the public won’t ask simple questions like has it done so yet and, if not, why should we believe that it ever will?

Another problem is the persistent vilification of growers who are trying to engage health activists and government to help find a solution that brings South Africa closer to its desired health outcomes while protecting vital rural livelihoods.

Contrary to Mbalati’s assertions, growers do not enjoy unfettered access to government. Attending sessions organised by the National Council of Provinces as part of its Taking Parliament to the People programme, alongside thousands of other KwaZulu-Natal residents, is not interference – it is the right of citizens whose constitution requires the government to facilitate public participation.

To cast it otherwise is disingenuous and part of a long running theme for HEALA of trying to silence growers by vilifying them for daring to speak up.

“As HEALA, we recognise that every job matters during these tough economic times,” says Mbalati. “We also sympathise with industries such as rural cane growers in KwaZulu-Natal who have been dealt a heavy economic blow due to floods in the region.”

This sentiment is simply incompatible with a call to increase the sugar tax at such a perilous time for South Africa’s growers. The floods of April 2022 were only one in a succession of blows to the industry. Most recently, the decision by the Tongaat Hulett board to enter its South African operations into business rescue has put tens of thousands of livelihoods on the North Coast of KwaZulu-Natal at risk.

Asking growers to try to save these jobs while straining under the weight of the sugar tax is unconscionable and economic suicide for a provincial economy on the brink.

Mbalati also pays lip service to the notion of food justice. In the past, the prism through which this was discussed was food security. But more recently, the focus is shifting towards food certainty, a more holistic approach that looks beyond the availability of food, to its affordability and whether people have opportunities to earn a living so as to access the available and affordable food.

Mbalati falls short of incorporating food certainty into his notion of food justice, no doubt because then he would have to talk about the one million South Africans who rely on the industry, whose access to food is being threatened by the sugar tax.

Despite the lack of evidence for the effectiveness of the sugar tax, its proponents continue to try to push South Africans into a false choice – more sugar tax, or worse health outcomes.

But these are not our only choices. While sugar tax proponents have not shown any interest in working with the sugar industry and other stakeholders to find job-saving alternatives to the sugar tax, SA Canegrowers has repeatedly stated its willingness to work with government, health experts and other related stakeholders to craft a holistic approach to South Africa’s health challenges.

Such an approach needs to be built on facts, which is why we suggest beginning with a dietary intake study to find out how South Africans are consuming their calories and why obesity is so prevalent. This fact-based approach is admittedly harder than scapegoating sugar-sweetened beverages, but it will have the benefit of helping us to craft solutions that actually work.

In the absence of such an approach, one thing growers can agree with Mbalati on is the need for greater transparency. If Minister Enoch Godongwana even maintains the sugar tax – let alone increasing it – South Africans broadly and growers in particular are owed an explanation of the rationale for this decision.

For in the absence of evidence for its effectiveness, there is no possible justification for maintaining the tax; not in the current economic climate.

Contrary to Mbalati’s assertion, the industry is not playing with the lives of people in South Africa – we’re trying to save livelihoods in an economy with a 32,9% official unemployment rate. The time for playing is over, and this is true of South Africa’s experiment with the ineffective and destructive sugar tax.

There is too much at stake to stay the course on a failed intervention that continues to threaten desperately needed South African jobs. We can only hope that government will hear this message before it’s too late.

* Andrew Russell is the chairperson at SA Canegrowers.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL.