Dear Mr President,
On the 23 March 2020 you stood before us all, your people and announced a nationwide lockdown. In that address Mr President, you also made the following pronouncement:
“Our country finds itself confronted not only by a virus that has infected more than a quarter of a million people across the globe, but also by the prospects of a very deep economic recession that will cause businesses to close and many people to lose their jobs.
Therefore, as we marshal our every resource and our every energy to fight this epidemic, working together with business, we are putting in place measures to mitigate the economic impact both of this disease and of our economic response to it.”
Mr President it is these words that have propelled me, as the Chairman of the South Africa Tobacco Transformation Alliance to write this letter to you.
And I know that I speak on behalf of all our members when I say that we endorse and fully support government’s attempts to control and contain the spread of COVID-19, and to save lives. However, Mr President I fear that as the legal tobacco sector we’ve largely been either ignored or dismissed by those you have tasked to ensure all measures and regulations protect the legal and honest contributors to our economy.
The legal tobacco value chain that we are part of as farmers, represents all the companies and people involved in the legal production of local tobacco products and it supports more than 30 000 families. As South African tobacco farmers, yes, we’ve been able to harvest leaf, but we have not been able to sell our crops. Both processors and local legal manufacturers have adhered to the current regulations and shut their operations.
However, Mr President what is disparaging is seeing daily media reports of how our communities are being flooded with illicit cigarettes. To add salt to the wound, we witness some of these illicit traders presenting themselves as a legitimate voice representing our sector, when we know very well, they do not buy our South African leaf, nor do they support our local economy.
Last year alone, as SATTA members we contributed 78% of the total cigarette excise revenue, almost R10 billion. Surely Mr President you will therefore agree with me when I say “it’s time we protected not only our citizens from this deadly virus, but we too need to protect our economy from criminal illicit traders who’ve infested our communities with illicit cigarettes.
A sensible and controlled altering of the restrictions would allow for the collection and payment of an estimated R35 million in extra tax every single day of this lockdown, in total R1.3bn – and enable us to make a very real contribution to government’s ability to keep the economy going.
We are aware about the risk related to smoking, however a recent report of the “The US Center of Disease Control (CDC) on Covid-19 Risk Factors did not conclude that current smoking was a risk factor”. The national lockdown is intended to stop the CORONA virus from killing our people – but it may end up killing the businesses of our members, killing our livelihoods, killing our future and personally killing my business as a small tobacco farmer.
We appeal to you, Mr President to please review the regulations on the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products and open the sales and distribution of those products in supermarkets, petrol forecourts and spaza shops, together with essential goods, as many countries allow.
Ntando Shadrack Sibisi
Chairman, South Africa Tobacco Transformation Alliance