The bus drivers, waiting to to ferry the protesters who had marched and delivered a memorandum to the National Treasury, left virtually no space for motorists or pedestrians.
The buses took up positions between Bosman and Lillian Ngoyi streets, bringing the heart of the city centre to a halt for more than an hour.
The drivers lounged around waiting for the protesters who hung around Church Square after delivering a memorandum of demands to the office of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene.
But Tshwane Metro Police Department spokesperson Senior Superintendent Isaac Mahamba said they had issued a warning to motorists to avoid Madiba Street during the legal march. “The call was to ensure there would be no repercussions to bus drivers or the organisers of the march,” he said.
“When there is a legal march and we issued a warning prior to it, we can close that road for the duration of the protest. We chose not to so that we could accommodate our motorists.
“However, there are circumstances when we have no choice but to close certain roads completely and motorists have to use alternative roads, and this was one of those cases.”
In the memorandum to the minister, the organisation encouraged the government to criminalise tobacco products sold below the minimum collectable tax of R17.85 per pack of cigarettes. The memorandum also urged officials to fund health and tax inspectors to wage war on the illicit trading of tobacco products and other counterfeit goods, or watch the masses lose jobs and die of related illnesses.
Thousands of participants had gathered at the Tshwane Events Centre and marched along WF Nkomo Street, turned into Bosman and then into Madiba, singing and chanting and waving placards.
They took their time, making it from start to finish in just over an hour, under the watchful eye of metro police and SAPS officers, and led by union general secretary Katishi Masemola.
The large crowd shut down every intersection along the way until they arrived at Church Square.
Masemola said: “We do not understand how the government and Treasury can allow cigarettes to be sold for R10 per pack while that is significantly lower than the tax due per pack. Clearly something is not right but these products are found in our stores. We are calling on the Treasury to fund a programme for the South African Revenue Services, the Department of Health and the police to work together to combat this trading of cheap, dangerous and untaxed goods.”
Social media platforms were flooded with videos of people exposing counterfeit goods, he said, but the government had not been provoked enough to take drastic action.
“These products threaten the jobs and health of South African citizens because they are produced at below standard factories. We don’t even know where the tobacco used in some of these cigarettes are farmed because they are transported in various illegal ways past our borders.”
The crowd demanded that the government also strengthen its efforts to fight uninspected imported poultry, sugar, white spirits and illegally traded fish species like abalone and lobster.
Most of the marchers were people whose jobs were directly threatened by the untaxed tobacco manufacturers and “poorly regulated” Brazilian and European poultry products and other counterfeit goods. They represented tax compliant companies like British American Tobacco, Festive Chickens, Mobile AgriSkill Development, the Limpopo Farmers Development Co-operative and Limpopo Tobacco Processors.
An elderly woman, Rose Nkosi, from Soweto, gave an emotive address outside Treasury and received applause from the crowd that was under heavy police watch.
She said there were a lot of foreign nationals who were in the country illegally because Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba allowed them to cross South African borders with ease, while it was harder for South Africans to travel abroad. “Some of them are selling bread that you put in water and watch it turn into rubber. They produce goods in dodgy shacks and sell fake cold drinks. It is time for President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government to act and protect our children,” she said.
Masemola told the Pretoria News that the union was standing firm on its decision to oppose the Department of Health’s proposed Tobacco Bill. He said the bill would harm small township businesses by criminalising smoking within 10m from taverns. He said this was because townships were small.
“The bill will also force tobacco manufacturers to use plain packaging and that will only allow these fake and untaxed manufacturers to trade their products unnoticed. We also oppose the bill because it will force retail stores not to display tobacco products, and that’s basically taking away consumers’ choices.”
The memorandum was received by Treasury chief risk officer Lwazi Giba on behalf of Nene.