/ 19 May 2020

Profit vs pandemic: British American Tobacco’s Covid-19 stunt

The tax agency said this "track-and-trace marker technology" would help it monitor the illicit tobacco trade
Tobacco products have been banned since Cyril Ramaphosa announced the nationwide lockdown. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


The implications of British American Tobacco’s aborted attempt to bully Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and the National Command Council responsible for South Africa’s battle against the Covid-19 pandemic run deeper than we have cared to examine. 

 The company’s attempt to use the courts to reverse the government’s ban on the sale of tobacco had nothing to do with what is in the interest of the public nor the South African economy. Instead, the haughtiness of the tobacco giant is simply in line with a trend of post-apartheid South Africa’s tyranny of the markets, a trend that has underwritten our nation’s failed neoliberal experiment. 

It is under this neoliberal economic order that we are the most unequal country in the world, with the poor getting poorer and the wealthy firmly entrenched at the top. A legacy of obscene opulence and unmitigated corporate accumulation has not only undermined the notion of South Africa as a democratic state but has further entrenched corporate’s rule by proxy. 

If left unchecked, private corporate interests will gradually undermine the very democracy that many South Africans died for and gradually replace the seemingly long-forgotten doctrine of “the people shall govern” with a tyranny of “investors” and “lenders”. 

Noam Chomsky called them a “virtual Senate” or, in our South African case, a “virtual National Assembly”, that seeks to replace our democratically elected leadership and their legislative authority with the will of the markets. 

It is for this reason that, 26 years since our transition from white-minority rule to democracy, more than 90% of our wealth remains in the hands of the top 10% elite. British American Tobacco and much of the corporate machinery, as is the case around the world, is not only opposed to government regulation that threatens profit, but further considers its private interests, profit maximisation, and authority as equal if not above that of democratically elected representatives. 

It is this power dynamic and understanding that informs the audacity of a company that clearly tells us that “smoking kills” to still insist on the sale of that which kills during a pandemic. Their courage to go as far as threatening our government with legal action is founded on greed and a sense of power under the tyranny of the markets. Similarly, the company’s actions would have nothing to do with smokers’ interests, if there were any. 

It is therefore appropriate for us to thank and laud the collective wisdom of the National Command Council responsible for our country’s fight against Covid-19 for putting the health and wellbeing of South Africa ahead of corporate profit and greed. Continuity in this approach will only serve to strengthen the confidence and trust of people in their democratically representatives and government. 

While others question the legality of the National Command Council, we must perhaps make it a permanent structure responsible for rapid implementation of the government’s programme of action. 

Our population’s lack of attention to this power dynamic is worsened by the lack of depth in mainstream media reporting and our nation’s obsession with looking at every issue through the lens of individuals involved at the expense of what is really at play. 

In Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward Herman and Chomsky draw our attention to how the toxic convergence of private corporations’ interests and ownership of mass media directly compromise media houses’ outlook and editorial independence, if there ever was any. Three decades since their work was published, we can still draw a straight line between those who own shares in British American Tobacco and the ownership and control of some of our major newsrooms. 

And yet, instead of interrogating and untangling this power dynamic and probing the true source of bias in our media, many of us were conveniently distracted by the peripheral suspension of reporters Xoli Mngambi and Jane Duncan. The two journalists simply read out the original script in their attack on Dlamini-Zuma and President Cyril Ramaphosa.Their apology and subsequent suspension are a mere publicity stunt. They will soon be back at work and we will all move on. 

What we should not move on from is the implications and lessons from the manufacturing of consent and the political economy of mass media in post-apartheid South Africa and what we need to do about it. Herman and Chomsky were inspired by Australian social scientist Alex Carey whose account of the 20th century remains relevant in this hour: “The 20th century has been characterised by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.”

The Covid-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented threat to South Africa’s post-apartheid order. As witnessed globally, the pandemic’s reach will transcend national healthcare systems and its effect will be felt on every aspect of human life. One positive side of Covid-19 is that the National Health Insurance (NHI) debate is finally settled. The urgency of universal access to quality healthcare can no longer be a matter of debate. Never in the history of our democracy has the health of one person, regardless of class, race or gender, ever been so directly connected to the health of an entire nation and an entire world. 

World economies, including our own, can no longer afford to not have a universal access to quality healthcare for all. Its cost, like the education of our youth, cannot be looked at through a narrow budgetary lens. Our experience of Covid-19 should therefore serve to reinforce our steadfastness and pace towards the immediate realisation of the NHI as conceived and adopted by the government. 

Ramaphosa’s parliamentary response in August 2019 should inform the road ahead. “We have enough resources in this country to give every man, every woman, and every child healthcare but we refuse because we want to promote the interests of a few to the detriment of the rest. We shall change this, and we are irrevocably committed to do this.” 

The government’s declaration of the State of Disaster presents the country with an unprecedented opportunity for all of us to reimagine the social, economic, cultural and political dimensions of our society as a whole. All policies, practices, institutions and values ought to be reviewed and rethought in terms of their fitness for the era after Covid-19. 

At the heart of the new era must be our resolve to create a better life for all by developing a pragmatic national reconstruction and development programme aimed at addressing the social, economic, spatial and political legacy of our colonial and apartheid past. Indeed, as Canada’s 10th prime minister (1921 to 1948), Mackenzie King, stressed, once a nation parts with the control of its credit and money, it matters not who makes the nation’s laws. Until the issuance of currency and credit is restored to government, and recognised as its most sacred responsibility, all talk of sovereignty, of Parliament, and of democracy, is idle and futile. 

It is time for us to guard against the tyranny of the markets, defend democratically elected leadership and put the wellbeing of our nation first, even if it means risking everything. 

Mukovhe Morris Masutha is a manager for research, strategy and policy analysis at the ANC’s policy unit and executive director at the Centre for Emerging Researchers in Johannesburg. He writes in his individual capacity.