The ban on the sale of tobacco products has been contentious from the moment that the national lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19 was announced. Now, more than 100 days later, it remains a hot topic with government and tobacco companies slugging it out in court while activists wage their battle against the ban on social media.
A group called Let Our Voices Be Heard SA, which lobbies support for the ban via its Facebook page as well as an online petition, believes that the government's decision is infringing on the rights of citizens.
They place the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of Cooperative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who they accuse of profiting from her alleged connections to the black market trade in illicit cigarettes. This despite numerous denials by the government that Dlamini Zuma was behind the decision to ban cigarette sales, and the minister's vehement denials that she has a relationship with any of the alleged cigarette kingpins her name has been linked to.
IOL spoke to Linda Barnard, one of the organisers of a planned national protest on Wednesday against the ban, to try and understand what motivates the group and how they think their "drive slow" protest will persuade the government to lift the ban.
Q: Can you tell us why your group feels so strongly about the ban on the sale of tobacco and vaping products?
A: Millions of people smoke in SA. If it is so harmful the government should assist us over a long period to help people quit. Smoking is something that has been allowed for years. They allowed us to get addicted. Now they want us to stop overnight. For those who have been smoking for many years it's very dangerous to just go cold turkey. We live in very stressful times with the lockdown. Finances have never been so bad for most families. Many people are without jobs now. To take cigarettes away is not helping. Thousands of farmers and factory workers in the tobacco industry is also without income for months now, making it difficult for people to survive.
Q: What do you hope to achieve with the planned protest on July 8?
A: I'm hoping that the government will see that all races are fed up with their dictatorship. I'm hoping they will stop and listen to their people.
Q: The government has made it clear that they will oppose any attempt to fight the ban in court and that they will keep it in place until we go down to level 1 lockdown. This seems a long way off that we haven't reached the peak of the outbreak. What are your organisation's plans to try and speed things up?
A: Many organisations have shown the government that the reason they use for the ban has got nothing to do with (the) coronavirus. Even other countries have proven that. We all know this has got to do with NDZ and the black market selling of cheap cigarettes that is even more harmful than proper cigarettes we are used to smoking.
Q: Can you list the demands which you want the government to address?
A: We want the IMMEDIATE lifting of the ban. We want the government to listen to the people.
Q: What other plans do you have to mobilise support and have your voices heard by the government?
A: We are handing over a memorandum. We are doing slow drives and stand still protest. This in on 8 different places in the country. And many silence protest over the country.
The planned protest on Wednesday will see people meeting up at pre-arranged points in at least 8 cities nationwide and organisers are hoping for a large turnout.
"We have asked the protesters to wear different colour clothes on the 8th, this represents that we are different races who will participate. We also call on people to wear orange masks because orange is the colour of prison clothes and we feel our rights are being incarcerated. Wear a mask because the government has silenced our voices and we need our rights and voices to be set free," said Barnard.