Pretoria - While South Africans will have many stories to tell once lockdown is over, ways smokers have circumnavigated the ban on cigarette sales must be one of the most dramatic.
The ban - which started on Day 1 of lockdown on March 27 and remains in place today - has seen those dependent on nicotine go to extraordinary lengths to get cigarettes.
From office workers to housewives, teachers, lawyers and even pensioners, normally law-abiding citizens have resorted to dodgy deals, and have been willing to pay exorbitant prices for a packet of cigarettes.
As a 72-year-old smoker who lives in an upmarket eastern suburbs old age home said: “Quite frankly my dear, I am too old to worry.”
Grandma M said she had her “connections” - about which she was not very clear - but someone who knows someone has ensured she has had a steady supply of cigarettes during lockdown.
“This is not my brand,” she says, but during this time “one can’t be choosy, can you?” Even though she’s a pensioner, she had paid R80 to R100 for a no-name brand box of 20.
And, while she is not much bothered by lockdown rules, she will not break the rules of her retirement home so she does not leave the premises. Instead, her supplier delivers to the gate where the guard will call her down to collect her packet.
As the lockdown continues, the availability and cost of cigarettes has become steeper. And, while some smokers have seen it as a chance to quit and others have turned to vaping, there is still a strong market for illegal cigarettes.
This - along with individual rights - is one of the arguments put forward to allow the legal sale of cigarettes because, as those selling on the black market enrich themselves, SARS is losing vital revenue from cigarette tax.
City worker Mr H, a decent honest man who cannot do without his cigarette breaks working under lockdown, said the prices being asked were ludicrous especially as he had to take a salary cut.
Cigarettes are openly offered on social media and the going rate is R850 to R1200 per carton.
He had been on leave before lockdown forced him and his family home, and he had not realised that it would become impossible to buy so he did not stock up on cigarettes.
H went into lockdown with just two packets and it only hit him when, a few days later he drove around trying to buy more.
He managed to buy four packets from a tiny garage shop. On the way home he passed a cafe he had not been in before and, after some negotiation, managed to buy eight packs of his usual brand at the usual price.
By the time these ran out, his local cafe was open again and he got a carton of Sharp Menthol - a cheap brand - at R350.
“It was cash-only. I had to wait in my car and the guy comes out, opens your back door and pushes the box under the seat, and says go! When that carton ran out, I went back to him, but he said he had run out of stock.”
Desperate H found himself deeper in the underworld “I got a number for one Habib,” who would provide him with a carton of his preferred brand for R600.
While he waited, he found an old cherry cigar, given to him eight years ago when his son was born.
“That lasted me a day while I tried to get hold of Habib.
“So one day, without smokes, I’m on edge. Habib says I can come but he only has Voyager at R350 a carton.
“He tells me to stop in front of the shop and go up to the gate. When I got there he tells me to drive around for 10 minutes and then go up to the gate of the block of flats above his shop.
“There another guy pushes a
bag with two cartons under my seat and tells me to get the hell out of there.”
Meanwhile, the local shop has been raided by the cops so that option no longer exists. Instead a schoolteacher he knows offers his connection but his connection is running scared.
Back to the original supplier, but now it is R700 for a carton of a dodgy brand.
H has a few packets left and watched keenly as the president gave his address on Wednesday hoping for relief. “I can’t afford this any more,” H said his pockets were empty and his nerves frazzled.
Research from the Human Sciences Research Council shows that people from across the spectrum have found ways to buy cigarettes illegally during lockdown.