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Election Watch: SAHPRA Becomes a Political Football as BFASA Channels EFF Agenda

BFASA allegations a rehash of false EFF accusations

The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) has once again found itself in the firing line as the cannabis licensing debate intensifies – and can do little else but be a whining victim. The Black Farmers Association of South Africa (BFASA) has accused it of being in cahoots with “Big Pharma” and the white business establishment, and is locking locals out of cannabis reform. BFASA President Lennox Mtshagi launched a personal attack against SAHPRA chairperson Helen Rees on 12 October 2021, accusing her of having an inappropriate relationship with big pharmaceutical companies. He said her husband, Dr Faizel Randera had vested interests in vaccine producer Aspen, and as a result, was compromised.

The BFASA accusations appear to be a rehash of the same allegations made against the couple by the EFF in June 2021 over a Covid-19 vaccine row. These were proved to be false. The EFF’s Fans Mokoena said that Randera and Rees had interests in a medical company, Liseko Investments, which was in a relationship with Aspen, producing J&J vaccines. Mokoena tweeted this on the same day that Julius Malema and hundreds of supporters gathered outside SAHPRA’s offices for their “march to save lives” and demand approval of the Chinese and Russian Covid-19 vaccines for use in SA.

Liseko Investments said at the time the comments were defamatory and malicious. In a statement on 26 June 2021 it said: “We take deep exception to the scurrilous libel directed at Liseko and its directors and will pursue such legal remedies as we deem appropriate,” Liseko Chairman Dr David Seeketa said Dr Randera held no direct or indirect interest in the business or its operations and that Liseko had sold its shares in Aspen in 2015 prior to Dr Rees’s appointment at SAHPRA.

 

Right grievances, wrong target

Even if the BFASA is playing to the EFF’s script ahead of the 1 November 2021 and its allegations are baseless, it has legitimate grieviences. SAHPRA has issued 31 cannabis licenses, all for multi-million rand facilities affordable only to, mostly white, big business. Considering South Africa has an estimated 900 000, mainly black, cannabis farmers, it is clear that the economic benefits of legalisation are not trickling down to the rural poor. The glaring gap in the National Cannabis Master Plan is how these farmers are going to be incorporated into the mainstream, and that is a political decision, not a SAHPRA one.

The BFASA has got the right grievance but the wrong target. SAHPRA is not a political entity. It was formed by the amalgamation of the former Medicines Control Council (MCC) and the Directorate of Radiation Control and derives its mandate from the Medicine and Related Substances Act (Act No 101 of 1965 as amended) as well as the Hazardous Substances Act (Act No 15 of 1973). It comprises a board chaired by Prof Rees. Board members are chairs of several scientific committees and are experts from our universities and academic hospitals. It has a CEO who leads the operational team. Core to its function is to ensure the registration of safe, efficacious and quality medicinal and other therapeutics for the people of South Africa. BFASA’s real target is the Minister of Health, hence their demand he accept their memorandum at SAHPRA’s Pretoria offices after their protest march next Tuesday, 19 October 2021. And you can expect a strong EFF presence at the march as well as it makes political capital out of its association with BFASA’s legitimate gripes.

 

SAHPRA a helpless and easy political target

SAHPRA cannot do anything to avoid becoming a political football ahead of the elections. It cannot fight back as it is not a policy-making body; it is a regulator. The only institution that can save it is its parent, the Ministry of Health, which in itself is compromised by corruption in general, and – when it comes to cannabis – ineptitude in particular. The National Cannabis Master Plan is supposed to be driven by the Department of Agriculture (DALRRD), which is being hamstrung by the Departments of Justice and Health, which are essentially prohibitionist. Government is in a complete muddle over cannabis reform and SAHPRA’s going to have to take it for the team next Tuesday!

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