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‘Those who zol’: Dangerous discourses in a time of crisis

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To date, South Africa is the only country in the world to have banned both alcohol and cigarette sales during lockdown. When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the government would be reversing its cigarette ban, it took only a few days for minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to declare that there had been a change of plan: cigarette sales would remain illegal. The minister defended the reversal on “health-related” terms, stating: “As you know, besides the effects of tobacco on a person’s lungs … the way sometimes that tobacco is shared does not allow for social distancing but also encourages the spread of the virus because when people share cigarettes, obviously if one of them has the virus it will be shared amongst them and then they go home and then spread it at home. And even those who zol … sometimes, when they zol … they put saliva on the paper and then zol and then they share that zol.”

The debates that followed were fierce. An estimated 11 million people in South Africa currently smoke. While many supported the move, opponents of the ban questioned whether the ban was evidence based; highlighted the tax revenue that the government stood to lose; argued that the ban would simply encourage black market trade, and accused key decision makers of being in cahoots with figures in the illicit tobacco trade. Businesses threatened to sue the government, whereas some citizens castigated the Cabinet for undermining civil liberties in a paternalistic and power-hungry manner.

These opinions also emerged in the Lockdown Diaries we read from 70 residents across occupations, informal settlements, township and suburbs in Cape Town. Over the past six weeks, they have been reflecting with us on their experience of the Covid-19 crisis. Their opinions on the ban differ greatly.

What they share, however, is an understanding of the government messaging around the ban: as well as damaging people’s lungs, Nathi, from Khayelitsha argues, cigarettes promote the spread of Covid-19 because “most people in the local townships … share cigarettes … it’s dangerous for people to share cigarettes”. Samkelo, from Imizamo Yethu, agreed. “You know it is difficult to finish your own cigarette”, he explained, “as friends [and those who might not have] they want to have some from mine … those who are using BB or Boxer [loose tobacco brands]… use saliva to prepare these and in this case it is highly dangerous to be [sharing]”. Esethu, from Khayelitsha, echoed their sentiments. “Here in the township two to three people can smoke on one cigarette and that’s a problem, the virus can move too quickly,” he concluded.

In the reems of column inches and social media posts that have been written about this debate, very few have critically interrogated the spectre of the social smoker at the heart of Dlamini-Zuma’s message. And yet, this messaging is problematic on two fronts.

First, it fails on its own terms. The cigarette ban has not stopped people from accessing cigarettes, it has simply increased the price at which cigarettes are being sold on the black market. Local prices vary but, as Ameena relates in Woodstock, in some areas even low-end packs of cigarettes are now being sold for about R150 a packet. If the expense of cigarettes forced people to share before, this tendency will only have increased under the ban.

Second, the narrative creates a stigmatised scapegoat for the spread of Covid-19: the social smoker in South Africa’s townships and informal settlements. The question is not whether people share cigarettes in a township. The question is not even whether sharing that cigarette can help to spread Covid-19. The question is whether that act of sharing a cigarette is so uniquely important in spreading the disease that it deserves to be singled out in a government briefing; whether this is the danger to be met by the full force of the law. 

The answer is “no”. In practice, sharing a cigarette is just one of the many forms of sharing that people do during everyday life in townships and informal settlements. Sharing a cigarette — like sharing food or drink — is an act that blurs joy and necessity, care and obligation. These forms of sharing happen across the city, although they are likely to be particularly present where economic hardship blurs the line between mutuality and dependency. 

Other forms of sharing — sharing communal taps and toilets — are not found in all corners of Cape Town. “We [are] supposed to be inside”, writes Nosiphiwo from Khayelitsha, “but we have to go outside for the toilets ’n water.” Sometimes the efforts that residents made to keep facilities clean were limited by the resources they could access. “I am using a communal toilet with four households,” explains Zukiswa from elsewhere in the township, “and there is no chemicals to clean the toilets.” This kind of sharing is bound to increase the spread of Covid-19. And yet, it is the cigarette in the hand of the social smoker, not the shared tap or toilet they might use, that is the subject of government intervention.

In the midst of a pandemic, the greatest risks are always faced by the most marginalised and oppressed. In such times, the guiding principle of any government must be to tackle those risks at their root, by fighting structural injustice not those who are subject to it. By mobilising the law against the spectre of the social smoker in South Africa’s townships and informal settlements, the government is spending crucial political capital punishing those it should be protecting.

At the political studies department of the  University of the Western Cape (UWC), Fiona Anciano is an associate professor; Mmeli Dube is an activist and PhD candidate; Mfundo Majola is a master’s candidate and researcher and Boitumelo Papane is a researcher and master’s candidate. Sarah Jane Cooper-Knock is a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh

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