South Africa


South Africa’s 24-hour trend report – 4 May 2020

This is a summary of themes and narratives trending in South African social media on 4 May 2020.

Tobacco Debate

The top topic of the day was “sign the petition”: the unrelenting tobacco debate peaked twice in volume.

“Cigarette sales” and “sign the petition” trended fourth and sixth as conversation continued on the ban on tobacco sales during lockdown level 4. 

Public participation in the debate on the tobacco ban is growing as opposing factions seek support for their petitions.

“Support the National Command Council on Covid-19 decision to ban the sale of cigarettes” on had over 18,700 signatures on Tuesday.

Two separate petitions against the ban on tobacco sales are on 

“Lift Cigarette Sales Ban in South Africa” was started six days ago by Frans Joubert in response to the U-turn by government on the sale of tobacco during level 4. It had over 32,500 signatures on Tuesday. 

“Lift the ban on cigarette sales in South Africa” was started over a month ago by Bev McClean in response to the initial ban on tobacco sales during lockdown. It has gathered huge momentum, with over 500,000 signatures on Tuesday. 

Concerns over the level of unity within the National Coronavirus Command Council led to a high volume in conversations around the president and the NCCC, peaking in volume between 14:00 and 15:00.

The conversation was mainly about factions within the NCCC and the U-turn on lifting the ban on tobacco sales. 

UDM leader Bantu Holomisa said: “It will be a pity if politics of factionalism is allowed to show its ugly head in the middle of the war.” His comment triggered an immediate response from Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu: “Media reports are not true.” 

President Cyril Ramaphosa felt the need to say in his weekly newsletter: “It is wrong to suggest that there are ministers or a president doing and saying whatever they want on this matter.” The decision to continue the ban on tobacco sales “was a collective decision and the public statements by both myself and the minister were done on behalf of, and mandated by, the collective I lead.”

Several organisations have backed the decision to continue the ban on tobacco sales, including the World Health Organisation, the National Council Against Smoking, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the Human Sciences Research Council, the Medical Research Council, the Cancer Association of SA, Africa Centre for Tobacco Industry Monitoring and Policy Research, and the Heart and Stroke Foundation. 

Their joint statement says the ban will lighten the load on South Africa’s already fragile healthcare system. Tobacco users are more likely to become critically ill, need a bed in intensive care and require mechanical ventilation, and were at increased risk of death, they said.

South Africa is among only a handful of countries to have instituted a ban on tobacco. 

Twitter users did not respond kindly to eNCA’s tweet about the WHO supporting the ban, with many questioning the WHO’s authority on the matter and citing their underestimation of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association has taken government to court over the “inexplicable” and “draconian” ban on tobacco sales.

An urgent application has been brought against President Ramaphosa and Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.

The application calls for proof of the connection between smoking and the risk of contracting Covid-19 and questions the basis of the ban. FITA  says the ban “directly affects the freedoms previously enjoyed under law by approximately 11 million cigarette smokers and tobacco users in South Africa”. 

FITA has previously cited the economic impact of the ban: one manufacturer was said to pay R437-million in excise and R60-million in VAT in April and May 2019, indicating the lost revenue for government in 2020. 

Covid Organics

Among the many petitions on social media, one for the Madagascan herbal treatment for Covid-19 has gained traction. Madagascar remained among the top ten topics by volume, following President Andry Rajoelina’s call on African brothers and sisters to recognise their friends.

Social media is buzzing with information about the treatment – the WHO has responded with a statement about African traditional medicine.

Social media and news sites are discussing whether Covid Organics is a cure or a remedy. Many participants clearly understood the subtle difference, pointing out that there is no scientifically proven cure for Covid-19 at present. 

The information being shared online about the Madagascan mixture, which is made from the medicinal plant Artemisia, led the WHO to advise that it supports traditional medicines that have been scientifically proven to work. The WHO is working with research institutes to select traditional medicines that can be investigated for efficacy and safety in treating Covid-19. While this testing is underway, the WHO cautions against misinformation being spread on social media about the effectiveness of certain remedies. Products that have not been robustly tested put people in danger and provide a false sense of security, distracting them from proven preventative steps like hand washing. 

@Khayadlanga warned people to be careful as the Madagascan mixture had not been tested. He also mentioned that people said the same about the herb with regards to Aids. He posted an article confirming the Madagascan tonic was not sufficiently tested and data from the tests have not been made available. 

The Economic Transformation Activists started a petition about the Madagascan treatment three days ago, addressing it to the African Union, the United Nations, President Donald Trump and President Ramaphosa.

The petition says that while the WHO has made negative comments about the treatment from Africa, the National Academy of Medicine of Madagascar has said it recognised the medicinal virtues of the mixture. The petition aims for 25,000 signatures. About 18,244 were collected by Tuesday.

A sense of pride is persuading Africans to share their thoughts on a possible cure coming out of Africa. 

@SciTheComedist tweeted about Bill Gates building factories worth billions to find a cure, only for Madagascar to swoop in with: “Nah bro. All you need is tea.” This post was retweeted over 300 times.

Conspiracies about the WHO vs Africans flourished, reflecting the uncertainty and fear of many people as they wait for a scientifically proven cure. 

@OwaseMzantsi pointed out that Artemesia or “Umhlonyane” grows all over South Africa: “So why would we need to fetch it from Madagascar when it grows in our own yards?”


Tanzania, discrediting the test kits they received from abroad, left social media users wondering about the goat in the room. 

This follows a Reuters story that the kits were used on a goat or a pawpaw.

@AdvoBarryRoux said President Magufuli secretly presented samples from a goat, a sheep, a pawpaw, car oil and birds. All the samples apparently tested positive for the coronavirus.

Conversations about contaminated test kits resurfaced with references to contaminated UK test kits.

PPE Advice

Siyauyazi Mshengu (@realsiyauyazi)  posted a video to demonstrate the correct way to use a surgical mask: “Been wearing this the wrong way? Watch …”

The video has been viewed more than 170,000 times, with over 7,400 retweets and 11,300 likes.

People shared their own experiences with PPE. Many had not been wearing their masks correctly, and some felt that the steps were just too complicated for a mask. DM

The Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) is a non-profit organisation incubated at the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town. The CABC stimulates positive social change through engagement, dialogue and advocacy.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted