Bheki Cele warns DA-led Western Cape that sale of cigarettes remains illegal

Police Minister Bheki Cele. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

A showdown appears to be looming between the national government and the DA-led Western Cape government after the latter unilaterally decided to lift the national proscription on cigarette sales.

Police Minister Bheki Cele said on Thursday in Pretoria at an interministerial briefing that the ban on cigarettes applied countrywide.

“It doesn’t matter where you are, cigarette sales are not allowed. That includes the Western Cape,” said Cele.

Cele further revealed that more than 17,00 people had been arrested in South Africa at last count at the end of March since the start of the lockdown on Friday.

Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel declared shortly before the lockdown began last week that cigarettes would not be included on the list of basic goods, and so their sale would not be allowed.

https://twitter.com/BeardySa/status/1245768832561618944?s=20

The Western Cape province released a statement on Wednesday explaining the lift days after the National Disaster Act outlawed the sale amid the 21-day national lockdown.

“Central to our strategy to support businesses and the economy in the Western Cape is helping businesses understand and adapt to the lockdown regulations so that as many businesses as possible can continue to operate during this challenging time,” the provincial government said.

You would be allowed to buy a pack only if you include essential goods on your shopping list.

The province further explained the businesses that were allowed to operate were as follows:

  • Grocery stores including large retail chains as well as smaller corner grocery stores, fruit and veg shops, butchers and convenience stores at filling stations.
  • Pet and veterinary stores are permitted to be open. They may ONLY sell animal food and animal medicines.
  • Health food shops that sell food, hygiene products and/or cleaning products are permitted to be open. If open, these stores may ONLY sell essential goods.
  • Cellphone shops are not allowed to be open. They would only be allowed to sell airtime, and this can be bought at any grocery store, spaza shop or online.
  • Money lending businesses are not permitted to be open.
  • Cigarettes may be sold during the lockdown, but only together with essential goods.
  • Businesses can deliver essential goods to people’s homes, but they can’t deliver hot meals or any non-essential goods to people’s homes.

All of the above is now in question after Cele’s comments. It was not immediately evident how he intended to enforce the ban, but the SAPS in the Western Cape report to the national government, not the provincial one. The SA National Defence Force also does not answer to the provincial government.

Tax Justice SA (TJSA) had welcomed the lifting of the lockdown ban on cigarettes sales as a vital step in the fight against illicit trade. TJSA founder Yusuf Abramjee called on other provinces to follow suit as this would also help curb the virus.

He said: “Banning tobacco sales encourages South Africa’s 11 million smokers to seek their cigarettes from illegal traders, fuelling the illicit economy and spreading the virus by increasing people’s movements.

“Before the lockdown, one in every three cigarettes sold in SA was illicit, costing us R8 billion in lost taxes every year. The lockdown ban has seen previously law-abiding citizens driven to the illicit market, where no tax is paid, and these tax-paying customers may be lost forever at a time when SARS needs every cent of tax it can raise.

“If the sole objective of the lockdown is to stop people moving around, that is defeated if people can’t buy cigarettes at stores they visit anyway for their essential goods.

“This will help to halt the spread of the virus and stifle illicit trade.”

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