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Opinionista

Smoke and memories

Terry Bell was the founding principal of the primary division of the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Mazimbiu, Tanzania.

It is 28 days into a national lockdown – and a ban on cigarette sales in South Africa. As an ex-smoker, memories came flooding back of 39 years ago in Tanzania.

Nicotine is an extremely addictive substance. I know, having in the past been hooked for many years. And it can drive people to act in desperate ways. For this, I have the remarkable evidence of having lived through and observed the effects of the complete withdrawal from cigarettes of an entire country.

It happened in Tanzania 39 years ago, when there was a dire shortage of tobacco paper, which had to be imported. And the effect was as nothing to what has happened following the ban on cigarette sales during the present lockdown. This ban has just made life a bit difficult for nicotine addicts around SA, for those who could afford it had stocked up.

Cigarettes are also still available in South Africa, and are still being manufactured, imported and distributed. Only now, the trade has gone underground, opening up opportunities for gangsters and others after a quick buck: the desperate, out of stocks, can still get their fix, but only at inflated prices.

The same applied in Tanzania in 1981, but only for a very limited period. Because even the profiteers ran out of supplies. And profiteering addicts almost certainly kept their last supplies to themselves.

The only cigarette brand available in Tanzania in the early 1980s was the ironically named Sportsman. Locally manufactured, these cigarettes were available even in the most remote village shops, either in packets of 20 or cartons of 10 packs. And very inexpensive: from memory only S1.50 (1.50 Tanzanian shillings) a packet.

Before the great tobacco drought there were rumours for several weeks that the country’s only cigarette factory had run out of paper or that some machinery had broken down. But nobody seemed to think this might lead to a complete hiatus. However, there was a possibility that supplies might be limited for a time.

My wife, Barbara, and I, living and working at the ANC school situated on a former sisal estate north of the provincial town of Morogoro were both smokers then. And, because of the pressure of work, we only ventured into town occasionally for additional supplies such as cigarettes. As a result, we tended to keep stock to ensure we never ran out. As a result of the rumours, we bought a couple of extra cartons.

Within days, reality struck: no more cigarettes would be produced for the foreseeable future. This precipitated a run on all stockists. Morogoro’s shops were – or at least their owners claimed they were – completely sold out of Sportsman within a day. And there were no substitutes and simply no new supplies to be had.

A couple of young boys from villages on the outskirts of Morogoro quickly woke up to the opportunity: they raced off into the bush to villages further afield, depleting local shops of their cigarette stocks. Sold back in Morogoro for 10, 20 or more times what they had paid for them, one of the lads earned enough money in a week to buy a new bicycle.

But even these supplies soon dried up. Desperate smokers tried to fashion cigars from salvaged tobacco leaves or tried to smoke tea leaves, both without success. This situation saw the emergence on Morogoro street corners of “puff boys”, young men in the then-fashionable bell-bottomed trousers and tailored shirts who would ostentatiously light up a cigarette and offer a quickly gathering crowd “puffs” for one shilling each.

The shillings were paid and the addicts did not puff, they dragged in deep, each cigarette rapidly becoming an increasingly long, glowing ember. No more than four such puffs and the cigarette was no more: burned down to its filter. But that meant S4 a fag or the equivalent of S80 a packet. Mind you, by then it was not unheard of for a packet of 20 to sell for up to S100 to those who had the money.

Since S100 was the total monthly cash payment then for staff, smokers in the ANC complex could not afford such prices. So the scramble began at the complex to beg, borrow – even steal – just one fag. And the degree of voluntary social distancing practised among some smokers – usually sourced to simmering political disagreements – vanished as addicts tried desperately to ingratiate themselves with those who were known to have supplies.

When the scramble started, we sold – at no profit – one or two packets to close friends. A mistake: it was clear we had supplies and we were targeted. But we too were addicts: we looked after ourselves. We lied; we became tobacco scrooges while surreptitiously puffing away, keeping our daily consumption to seven cigarettes each.

It was then that a good friend arrived on our doorstep with word that the ANC had procured a supply of water-damaged Czech cigarettes. It was possible they would soon be distributed in limited quantities to satisfy the craving of ANC smokers.

Since our friend was involved in logistics, this was probably true. And, probably on edge because of our limited nicotine ration, we let down our guard. We noted that it was just as well relief was at hand, because we had just two cartons of cigarettes left.

Our friend, very much a fellow addict, pounced: he begged. He pleaded. As comrades we should share. Let him have one carton and we should all have enough to tide us over until relief arrived. Eventually – and reluctantly – we relented after securing the solemn promise that the carton would, on pain of death, be returned as soon as feasible.

At least our friend was correct about the relief. Only days before we smoked the last of our remaining Sportsman, the sometimes slightly water-stained packets of Grand cigarettes arrived. They were from Czechoslovakia and made with strong black tobacco, a rather rougher treat than the golden Tanzanian variety.

Smokers were rationed to a couple of packs a week and, despite the inflated prices available in Morogoro, there were never any reports of Grand being sold by ANC smokers, such is the hold of nicotine. But there was still some begging and pleading from those who had failed to adequately pace themselves to the next ration.

And then, just as suddenly as it began, the cigarette drought ended. Sportsman was again available in town and the “puff boys” disappeared. Most other smokers on the ANC complex switched back to the milder Tanzanian weed, but we had, by then, become hooked on the dark tobacco of Grand. As a result, before leaving the complex and school in 1982, we never insisted on the return of that carton.

Now, nearly 40 years on, and with a national cigarette ban in place, the memory came flooding back. Our indebted friend, with whom we lost contact is now, we hear, living in retirement somewhere in Gauteng. If he reads this, he can be assured we no longer want the carton of cigarettes returned: once the lockdown and bans are over, he can instead substitute two decent bottles of wine. DM

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