OPINION: It’s about trust, Mr President

Norman McFarlane

That trust dividend you generated when you first spoke to us about going into lockdown is eroding fast, Mr President, and here’s why.

Inspiring leadership extends beyond periodic appearances on national television, thanking the nation for its fortitude, and telling us that we are faced with yet further hardship, with little end in sight.

The understanding that we are in largely uncharted territory – as you make a point of telling us each time you extend the lockdown – does not mean that when mistakes are made in formulating, promulgating, and enforcing lockdown regulations, there exists no obligation to admit to such mistakes, and rapidly make the needed adjustments and accommodations.

Admitting that you have made a mistake, is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it is the mark of a strong leader whose humility allows him to apologise, thereby growing the trust calculus.

Whereas you have largely maintained the support of the bulk of the population as the bleak consequences of the lockdown have unfolded, the same cannot be said for your cabinet colleagues who are tasked with the business of formulating, implementing, and enforcing the lockdown regulations

For it is to them we turn after you have broadly outlined what is to come, for the detail of how our lives are to change in the coming weeks.

The notion that you, the national coronavirus command council (NCCC), or your cabinet, are infallible is beyond laughable, taken against the backdrop of your oft-repeated assertion that we are in uncharted territory, so when the collective errs, it is incumbent upon you to acknowledge the error and make the necessary adjustments, rather than doubling down.

A case in point, is the rising anger over the tobacco products ban. Whichever way you cut it, it has done a great deal to erode the trust calculus upon which you rely for a compliant population that will continue to stoically endure seemingly unending hardship.

The initial justification for the tobacco ban, so inarticulately enunciated by Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, was that because people share cigarettes and zols, it would encourage transmission of the virus.

In theory, once what reserves smokers might have had were exhausted, the ban might (but only just) have been justifiable, but as SARS Commissioner Edward Kiesswetter told the parliamentary profile committee on finance some weeks ago, the illicit tobacco trade has skyrocketed, undoing all the hard work of the last three or so years to stamp it out, and overall much needed excise revenue for the fiscus.

The going rate for a carton of cigarettes on the black market is anything up to R2 000, money that now finds its way into the pocket of organised crime, instead of the revenue stream of a legitimate tax paying enterprise where excise can be collected, and income tax paid on the balance.

By contrast, a legal carton, bought over the counter, will cost, on average, R450.

For the smoker who cannot do without that tobacco fix, imagine the quandary faced between buying that carton of illicit cigarettes at R2 000, and spending that money on much needed food, clothing and the like, particularly if, as is now so often the case, the smoker is unemployed, or has taken a pay cut.

The tobacco industry employs about 13 800 people, according to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, so, much like the wine industry, although on a far smaller scale, job losses can be expected, because what is being sold illicitly, does not come from legitimate sources. It is walked across our porous borders by couriers who, it is said, can each carry R200 000 worth of illicit product each trip.

Which brings us to the latest switching of horses in midstream, in the lead-up to your announcement on Sunday night, that the country will move to lockdown Level 3 on Monday June 1.

More than one news story claimed that Dr Dlamini-Zuma had “come prepared with academic papers that argued against the sale of tobacco products” on grounds of health reasons, but the details of those academic papers remain unknown. And what happened to the “transmission by sharing” justification, we wonder?

But that aside, bootleg tobacco products sidestep the regulations that govern proportions and quantities of nicotine, tar and so forth, all of which makes them even more of a health hazard than the regulated product.

To compound matters, the likes of Jesse Duarte and Ace Magashule have the temerity to publicly castigate society at large for questioning the good doctor’s motives in the formulation of lockdown regulations in general, and the ongoing tobacco products ban in particular, as if she is infallible and can do no wrong.

If you want South Africans to continue to support you in your endeavours to save lives, then you might want to consider playing open cards with us, and to put the kibosh on the apparently personal agendas that are clearly emerging.

If you don’t, you can kiss your rapidly eroding trust dividend goodbye.