What to expect from South Africa’s cigarette sale court battle happening this week

South Africa is set to hear three major court cases this week which will have a significant impact on the country’s businesses.

The primary focus for many South Africans will be the Pretoria High Court case around South Africa’s prohibition on the sale of cigarettes.

The courts will also deal with the reopening of the country’s schools as well as a landmark case on defamation and companies.

The cases are outlined in more detail below.

Ban on the sale of cigarettes

The ban on the sale of cigarettes is expected to be heard by a full bench of the Pretoria High court this week.

The case is being brought against government by the Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) which is arguing that the banning of the sale of cigarettes is irrational.

Fita has said that the judges hearing the matter will use Tuesday (9 June) to consider the legal arguments advanced by the parties, and the matter will proceed to be heard on 10 June.

While government is arguing that smoking could lead to an increase in coronavirus cases and even death, Fita said that this is not an issue that is limited to cigarettes.

“One of the first issues that we find difficult with the government’s stance is the arbitrary nature in which these regulations are implemented,” said Fita chairperson Sinenhlanhla Mnguni.

“If we go into the depths of the legal argument it is quite baffling as they state in their own papers, and even in some of the medical reports that they rely on, that there is no link between smoking and Covid-19.

“We accept that there is harm that is suffered by one’s lungs especially if they are a long-term smoker, but that cannot be undone by a cessation of six weeks.”

Minister Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is the primary respondent in the case. She has argued that Cabinet has a duty as contained in the Constitution to ensure that people’s lives are preserved and this forms part of that mandate.

In an affidavit filed with the high court in Pretoria last Wednesday, Dlamini-Zuma said the temporary ban on the sale of tobacco products during level 4 was to “protect human life and health and to reduce the potential strain on the health care system”, TimesLive reports.

Dlamini-Zuma has also presented scientific research which shows that the severity of Covid-19 outcomes was greater in smokers than non-smokers.

While the South African smokers are eagerly awaiting clarity around the case, the financial impact of the ban on cigarette and tobacco companies has already been felt.

British American Tobacco said in a trading update that it expects global cigarette and tobacco heating product volumes to be down as a result of Covid-19 lockdowns persisting longer than anticipated in some key emerging markets, most notably in South Africa, Mexico and Argentina.

“Closures and other lock-down measures in certain countries, in particular South Africa, Mexico and Argentina, have persisted longer than anticipated. In South Africa there are still no signs of the Covid-19 related tobacco sales ban being lifted,” BAT said.

In response to a parliamentary Q&A, President Cyril Ramaphosa indicated that there is no clear date set for when the ban will be lifted.

“At this stage, it is difficult to determine when the ban on the sale of tobacco and related products will be lifted,” he said.

“This will depend on such factors as the progression of the disease in South Africa, the readiness of our health systems and evolving knowledge on the nature and impact of the virus itself.”

Ramaphosa added that prohibition on the sale of tobacco products was not taken lightly.

Reopening of schools 

The Pretoria High Court will consider a case brought by the Educators’ Union of South Africa (EUSA) to stop the reopening of schools.

The case – which will be heard virtually on Tuesday – is based on concerns that the government has acted recklessly in reopening the country’s schools which could lead to the death of students and educators.

“There is no way that a department that has deliberately overlooked the fact that schools do not have toilets and water after 26 years of democracy can have any good intentions for us,” the union said in a statement on Monday.

“Once again they are overlooking the fact that many schools in townships and rural areas will not be opening due to structural shortages which they had the obligation, change and money to fix.

“The need for tenders and self-enrichment has become their only priority.”

Defamation and companies

The Western Cape High Court is expected to make a landmark decision this week on the issue of freedom of expression and the rights of corporations.

GroundUp reports that the case centres around the Perth-based Australian mining company Mineral Commodities (commonly referred to as MRC).

MRC has brought a case against six local activists based on critical, and allegedly defamatory, comments and statements made in media articles, radio interviews, public lectures, social media posts, books and other means. Together,  the defamation cases feature total damages claims of R14.25 million.

The defendants argue that it is a ‘SLAPP’ suit.

SLAPP typically involve lawsuits in which major corporations with big budgets bring defamation cases involving huge damages claims against much smaller opponents and critics – such as environmental groups or individual activists – to intimidate them to silence and/or commit them to long and expensive litigation that exhaust their resources, preventing further criticism and possible judicial adjudication.

You can read more about the case on GroundUp’s website here.

Read: South Africa’s programme to stem the coronavirus tide is failing

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What to expect from South Africa’s cigarette sale court battle happening this week