/ 27 April 2020

Tobacco and a tipple gave comfort during times of war

'A detailed report of Ipsos’s findings was disclosed publicly on July 5. ... It exposed that illegal cigarettes are on sale in more than 100 000 shops for around R10 on average
If citizens are required to endure extraordinary circumstances, they need some form of creature comforts. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


Minister for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma announced in mid-April  that, far from being lifted, the current ban on alcohol would be strengthened. Perhaps the government should take some cues from history about leading people through tough times.

In the trenches of World War I, countries from both the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente provided tobacco to soldiers. In addition to the horrendous conditions that soldiers had to endure in the trenches, they had to contend with the boredom between offensives and the terror of “going over the top”. Governments on both sides of the conflict recognised that one of the few comforts they could provide to their troops, in the hope of raising morale, was tobacco.

When the Nazis decided to start bombing British cities during World War II, it frequently forced people living in cities into underground bomb shelters, where they had to spend hours at a time until the all-clear signal indicated that German bombers had departed. The Blitz was particularly severe in London, but also targeted other British cities. 

Prime minister Winston Churchill, himself a smoker, recognised the role that tobacco could play in maintaining morale among civilians and staunchly defended smoking and drinking, even against the advice of some of his senior military commanders, like Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. As a result, smoking was allowed in bomb shelters and the sale and distribution of tobacco continued throughout the war.

Americans, too, recognised the value of providing something familiar to soldiers in times of turmoil. From World War I to the Vietnam War, American troops were provided with cigarettes as part of their ration packs. In prisoner-of-war camps cigarettes helped maintain morale among Americans and Brits.

Arguments about the legitimacy of the South African Defence Force’s campaign in Namibia and Angola during the 1970s and 1980 aside, the steps taken to maintain morale remain applicable. Many national servicemen, whether they supported or opposed the ideology of the time, will remember the anticipation of “two-beers-a-night”. Bars and messes were popular, and often exclusive, unwinding spots for men who were compelled to spend time away from their families by their government.

The current lockdown in South Africa seems like a walk in the park compared to what soldiers and civilians had to endure in the past. Nonetheless, it is insightful to look at the steps that governments took to ensure that morale remained as high as possible.

By contrast, the Nazis were, for the most part, against smoking. Hitler was a vehement anti-smoker and there was a large anti-smoking movement in Germany. Although smoking was not prohibited in Nazi Germany, certainly not in the Wehrmacht, it was not encouraged to the same extent as it was among the Allies. Tobacco was not viewed as a morale-boosting measure. Instead, taxes on tobacco were used to swell depleted government coffers. 

Earlier this year, Minister Tito Mboweni raised South Africa’s taxes on tobacco and alcohol, citing budget deficits as the reason. Merely a month later, however, it seems the government can cope without those taxes. The deficits Mboweni referred to will be exacerbated by the current lockdown, meaning that the government needs to pursue avenues of tax collection, not close them.

Apart from the exception of Nazi Germany, 20th century governments realised that, if citizens are required to endure extraordinary circumstances, they need some form of creature comfort. This invariably took the form of alcohol or tobacco. History has shown that people can and will endure significant hardship, as long as they are allowed access to a smoke and a tipple. The suggestion of the Western Cape government, that sales of these items should be allowed only in conjunction with the purchase of essential items, will minimise the effect of a resumption in sales on the lockdown.

Churchill advised: “Study history, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.” President Cyril Ramaphosa has certainly gone a long way towards uncovering the secrets of statecraft buried by his predecessor. But history always has a secret or two left up her sleeve.

Will Gordon has a PhD in history. He has published on military history and has an interest in socio-military relations. Covid-19 cabin-fever inspired him to try his hand at popular writing