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Cigarettes ban irks, but for the state, ignorance is bliss

Bureaucrats believe ignorance has a certain dignity

In Summary

• Government secrecy led to lawsuits and lawlessness by ignorant masses

A man smokes a cigarette
A man smokes a cigarette
Image: FILE

Governments love their secrets and will go to great lengths, even to the extent of making themselves look bad, just to keep the general public from knowing simple truths.

For me, one of the best illustrations of this love of secrets is the fact that just about every government in the world has a version of the Official Secrets Act.

In Kenya, for instance, I know there have been moves to open things up, such as the introduction of the 2016 Access to Information Act, but there are still many in government who believe in Jomo Kenyatta's alliterative dictum: Serekali (government) ni sirikali (powerful secret). 

 
 

Here in South Africa, there is the South African Protection of State Information Bill, commonly referred to as the Secrecy Bill. It is a highly controversial piece of proposed legislation, which aims to regulate the classification, protection and dissemination of state information, weighing state interests up against transparency and freedom of expression.

In 2013, President Jacob Zuma refused to sign it into law and sent it back to Parliament for reconsideration. But last year, there were media reports that the State Security Agency (SSA) wanted it back on the table for discussion.

All thinking citizens want greater transparency and accountability from their governments, but governments would prefer to drape a cloak of mystery over their inner workings.

The Open Government doctrine holds that citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight. When its proponents try and get the state to open up, they end up having conversations like the one below from 'Yes Minister', my favourite TV series about governance matters.

First, let me introduce the characters: Bernard is the Minister’s Principal Private Secretary or PA. His loyalties are often split between his Minister and his Civil Service boss, Sir Humphrey, the department’s permanent secretary.

Bernard: But surely the citizens of a democracy have a right to know.

 

Sir Humphrey Appleby: No. They have a right to be ignorant. Knowledge only means complicity in guilt; ignorance has a certain dignity.

 

I was thinking about all of this while watching the battles between South African Cabinet Ministers and members of the public over the issue of cigarette sales  being banned during the lockdown.

The government's position was just to say: Cigarettes are banned with no explanation. Of course the public reacted badly and the more they asked why they couldn’t have their fags, the more the government stonewalled. 

Even when it became clear that there was a thriving black market in cigarettes that the police seemed unable to stop and the taxman was losing money because of it, the government stayed uncommunicative.

It wasn’t until very late in the day when things had gotten out of hand that government deigned to explain itself. It said the cigarette sales ban was because according to the pandemic modelling they received from the various medics advising them, smokers who catch Covid-19 have higher ICU admissions and higher need for ventilation. 

Meanwhile, because the country has a limited number of ventilators, it would be prudent to maintain the smoking ban until such a time that the country was over the peak of Covid-19 cases.

Had the government not made such a big deal of unnecessary secrecy on this issue, most smokers would have understood the situation and it might never have become the ugly issue it is now with lawsuits, abuse on social media and lawlessness by people who are ordinarily law-abiding.

Follow me on Twitter @MwangiGithahu