The lengthy ban on cigarette sales during the covid-19 lockdown has hit emerging farmers hardest

Tobacco farmer Senne Erasmus Sefoloshe employed 13 fulltime workers on his farm Hereford in Groblersdal in Limpopo province before the covid-19 lockdown, now only two are left.

“I have had to ask everyone to go home until we know what is going to happen,” Sefoloshe says as the two men remaining on the farm prepare the soil for planting vegetables which he hopes will bring some income in the coming months.

Normally in August they would be preparing for the new tobacco planting season. The crop is planted in September and harvested from December until April.

“But there is nothing we can do now because we don’t know what is going to happen. Everything is on hold,” says Sefoloshe.

He is a member of the Black Tobacco Farmers Association (BTFA) which organises mentoring programmes, helps farmers access markets and joins in the fight against the prevalence of the illicit trade of cigarettes.

The BTFA says in Limpopo where Sefoloshe is based, there are 45 black tobacco farmers who are growing 49 hectares of Sun Cured Virginia tobacco. They also grow 49 hectares of food crops in four areas of the province which include Elandskraal, Groblersdal, Venda and Mookgophong.

In the Groblersdal area there are 13 tobacco farmers formed into a cooperative who farm between 22 and 30 hectares every season. But the ban on tobacco products announced by government in March has crippled many of the farmers. The sector which includes large scale farmers provides an estimated 10 000 jobs nationally.

Since he started in 1998, Sefoloshe planted three hectares which in a good season fetched about 40 tons of tobacco leaves. When the lockdown was announced in March, he was in the middle of the harvesting season and going into the final drying and curing season.

Tobacco farmer Erasmus Sefoloshe has been forced to lay off 11 workers as a result of the lengthy ban on cigarettes. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba

Recently the Western Cape High Court heard arguments in which the British American Tobacco South Africa (BATSA) and nine others are challenging the constitutionality of the ban against the sale of tobacco products during the lockdown period.

Government announced a ban on the sale of cigarette and tobacco products in March saying this was to curb the spread of the covid-19 virus and to protect the health of citizens.

But the BATSA argued that there is no scientific proof to support the continued ban is fighting the decision against the minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma and two others in the Western Cape High Court. Judgment in the matter was reserved on Thursday.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says in a June report, Smoking and Covid-19 that “there are currently no peer-reviewed studies that directly estimate the risk of hospitalization with COVID-19 among smokers.”

The report goes on to say that “27 observational studies found that smokers constituted 1.4-18.5% of hospitalized adults.”

BATSA says the ban has had a devastating impact for tobacco farmers and has boosted the sale of illicit cigarettes which it says costs the country approximately R35 million per day in taxes.

The South Africa Tobacco Transformation Alliance (SATTA) has also joined calls for the government to withdraw the ban and went further to demand that an inquiry be set up to probe links between illicit tobacco traders and high-profile politicians.

SATTA chairman Ntando Shadrack Sibisi who is also president of the BTFA suggests complicity between some politicians and the illicit traders saying that “it’s very clear that there are other interests at play now.”

On Saturday night President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that cigarettes and alcohol would be sold from Monday 17 August.

But farmers like Sefoloshe are left to count the costs. 

“What I don’t understand about our government is that they are allowing products from outside the country. People are smoking but it’s not local [cigarettes],” Sefoloshe says.

“A loose illicit cigarette costs R1. A locally made cigarette costs R4. The R1 cigarette is not taxed, and the R4 one is taxed. Quality control is poor [on the illicit cigarettes], backdoor deals, [no checks by] bureau of standards,” Sefoloshe says.

WHO which is a strong campaigner against the smoking of tobacco says the illicit trade in tobacco products poses major health, economic and security concerns around the world.

WHO estimates that 1 in every 10 cigarettes and tobacco products consumed globally is illicit and that the illegal market is supported by various players, ranging from petty traders to big tobacco companies, and in some instances even organised criminal networks involved in arms and human trafficking.

Limpopo has emerged as the illicit cigarette smuggling hub since the lockdown, with police arresting over 20 suspected smugglers and confiscated thousands of boxes of fags. One of the biggest busts involved a large consignment hidden inside a fuel tanker attempting to cross the border from Zimbabwe where many of the smugglers are suspected to be coming from.

In a recent case, two suspects, Jino Van Denberg aged 28 and Worku Hordofa aged 34, arrested for smuggling and possession of illicit cigarettes and bribery. Police said the pair was arrested by the SAPS Provincial Highway Patrol Task Team in Polokwane on 29 July.

The suspects were allegedly found in possession of illicit cigarettes hidden underneath bags of oranges and packets of potato chips.

Police said a total of 79 boxes containing 3950 cartons of illicit cigarettes with an estimated value of over R200 000.00 were confiscated and two suspects allegedly offered the police a bribe of R11600.

While the battle against the illicit trade continues farmers wait for the resumption of business. Tobacco farming offers emerging farmers like Sefoloshe security. Unlike in the vegetable farming market where many emerging farmers are struggling to survive in the highly competitive sector, emerging tobacco farmers are at least offered contracts by buyers before planting which guarantees a return on their yield. They are also provided with seeds and mentors who monitor their crops, offer support and tips.

With the planting season set to commence in the next three weeks, the continued ban on the product has left farmers uncertain about what’s to come.

“I don’t know if the workers I laid off will ever return because we have to wait for the contractor to give us the go ahead. We can’t just plant without a contract. What will you do with the crop if no one has placed an order?” laments Sefoloshe.

Some of the laid off workers who come from areas such as Tafelkop, Dennilton and Leeuwfontein which are plagued by high unemployment, have been coming to the farm regularly to plead that he take them back.

For now, he hopes to survive on the sale of vegetables, many of which were destroyed when the water plant supplying water to farmers in the region was shut down without notice during the level 4 and 5 lockdown.

Sefoloshe reckons it would take the farmers between two to four years to recover from the impact of the lockdown.

“We may lose clients for good. There are costs to pay to keep the farm going. There are personal matters to take care of. There are workers to think of. We just don’t know,” he says.

* This work was made possible with a grant from the Google News Initiative Journalism Emergency Relief Fund (JERF)

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