Consumer rights and human dignity

We South Africans need to wake up and take action. We are sleep-walking into a nanny state with government starting to treat us like children as if we are unable to think for ourselves or make our own decisions.

Chris Hattingh

To maintain our dignity, we must be allowed to choose, and have our choices respected so long as they do not violate the legal provisions and the rights of others.

The Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi, is intent on taking away some of our basic rights and freedoms which are guaranteed under South Africa’s Constitution and for which many people suffered. The Minister wants to take away our freedom to make lifestyle choices by making laws that will tell us where we can smoke, what we can drink, and how much, if any, salt, fat, junk food and sugar we can eat. Telling us what to do, instead of allowing us to decide for ourselves based on our lifestyle, personal health and general living circumstances removes our right to dignity and freedom.

You may think the right to eat, drink and smoke whatever you choose is not all that important, but it is of great consequence. Freedom is not divisible. Our history teaches every one of us to remain vigilant and guard our personal freedoms and liberty. When you willingly allow the state to remove some of these freedoms, even under the guise of protecting your health, you launch yourself onto the very slippery slope to losing fundamental liberty.

The government and Minister Motsoaledi plan to introduce laws to ban smoking tobacco in all public places and eliminate smoking areas, to prohibit marketing and advertising and force tobacco manufacturers to sell their products in plain packaging. If you are a smoker, you, the paying consumer, will no longer have the right to easily spot your favourite brand on the shelf or to help you choose, to read on the packet why you should buy one kind or another. Government thinks you cannot make that decision for yourself.

South Africa is turning into a nanny state very quickly. It wants to do so much for us, even things that we can do for ourselves. But to do this, it is taking away basic rights, like the right to choose, consumer rights and freedoms. This is sad for a society like ours that has a Constitution that promises liberty, freedom of choice, and consumer rights. Under apartheid, the government believed it had to act as a nanny to look after black people. The laws making it possible for government to do this threatened punishment and treated black people as though they were irresponsible. 

Today, government thinks everyone in South Africa needs to be looked after. It has started with the simple things – tobacco, alcohol, and sugar. It has already started talking about salt and fast foods. All of these are in the minister’s sights. What will stop it next year from ruling on things like unprotected sex, getting advice from a sangoma, or using alternative medicines. Why not then extreme sports or driving a fast car? After all, all of these activities are potentially dangerous –  which is the reason, according to the minister, why there must control by laws and regulations. And nothing is beyond the minister’s zeal.

Instead of telling us what to do, the minister should give us good information, useful advice, educate not regulate us. Tell us what we need to know, give us the latest medical information then leave us alone to make up our own minds. Do not tell us how to live and – do not make laws to force us to do what somebody who does not know us thinks we should do.

The only way to deal with issues and challenges concerning health, is to educate the public. Make people aware and empower them to make the right decisions rather than regulate things. Stop the hands of time from running back to the apartheid era. Stop regulating the personal habits of adult citizens because it is morally wrong and a total denial of their right to human dignity and freedom of choice.

Chris Hattingh is a Researcher at Free Market Foundation

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