WATCH | The 'tobacco tango' — inside the illicit cigarette trade

30 May 2020 - 08:00 By Aron Hyman
subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now

In a dingy convenience store in Cape Town city centre, a man sitting in the dark behind an unlit counter offers a pack of Mega Blue cigarettes for about R180. He is wearing no mask, and neither are some of the customers strolling in and out.

Government regulations are no longer respected at this corner store and TimesLIVE journalists are pretending to buy something which is now more difficult to get than dagga.

If you want to buy Marlboro, Camel or Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes it’s going to set you back R250, the fixed price for a pack of premium cigarettes in the Cape Town CBD.

The price may be set by the producer, the middleman or even the network of generic corner shops, but it doesn’t matter, because when cigarettes are illegal you can’t complain to the Consumer Commission about being ripped off.

The head of Wits Business School, Dr Jannie Rossouw, said it was likely the government was losing out on R1bn in tax revenue per month as a result of the ban.

And across the country cigarette brands never before seen here have reached SA’s shores through the black market.

“I call it the tobacco tango. It’s completely nonsensical to think the country’s 8 million smokers will stop smoking just because the government bans the sale of cigarettes,” said Rossouw.

“The question is will the legal cigarette market win back ground from the illicit cigarette industry once the ban is lifted?"

Rossouw added: “I never thought I’d live to see the day where it’s easier to get dagga than to get a haircut.”

The government’s logic around the banning of cigarettes includes that cigarettes cause lung problems which may increase the severity of disease among Covid-19 patients.

Minister of co-operative governance and cultural affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who is responsible for creating lockdown regulations, has doubled down on her defence of the ban.

Responding to a Pretoria high court challenge by the Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita), Dlamini-Zuma said: “Because of higher prices and reduced access, it is expected that a sizeable number of South Africans will stop smoking and remain quit after the lockdown. The poor and youth are particularly likely to quit.

“If fewer South Africans smoke, then the consumer demand for illicit cigarettes will fall and this will be accomanied by a decline in the illicit trade.”

This week TimesLIVE reporters were offered a new brand sold as “Chinese cigarettes” at convenience stores across Cape Town for R160 per pack.

A pack of "Chinese cigarettes" sold at R160 in convenience stores across Cape Town in contravention of the lockdown ban.
A pack of "Chinese cigarettes" sold at R160 in convenience stores across Cape Town in contravention of the lockdown ban.
Image: Aron Hyman

Law enforcement sources said the cigarettes were thought to have come into SA from Lesotho, but no further information could be found on the cigarette brand in SA. Cigarettes with identical packaging are sold on online Chinese cigarette markets as the Guiyan Kuayue brand.

On Sunday, health minister Zweli Mkhize is expected to hold an online media conference on “World NO Tobacco Day”, a World Health Organisation event to bring awareness to the ills of the industry which he said was increasingly targeting children through its advertising.

“This event is marked globally to increase awareness on the harmful effects of tobacco and nicotine products to human health. The World Health Organisation estimates that every year the tobacco industry invests more than US$9bn to advertise its products; and it is, increasingly, targeting young people with nicotine and tobacco products in a bid to replace the 8 million people that its products kill every year,” read the health ministry statement.

“Even during a global pandemic, the tobacco and nicotine industry persist by pushing products that limit people’s ability to fight coronavirus and recover from the disease. As part of their cunning and deception strategy disguised as a social responsibility, the industry has offered free branded masks and delivery to your door during quarantine and has lobbied for their products to be listed as ‘essential’.”

Mkhize said SA would crack the whip on the industry and was committed to “strict tobacco control laws”.

SA opinion quickly galvanised against Dlamini-Zuma and the lockdown after she overturned President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement in April that cigarettes could be  sold under level 4 of the lockdown.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma flanked by Adriano Mazzotti, left, and Carnilinx chief operating officer Mohammadh Sayed.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma flanked by Adriano Mazzotti, left, and Carnilinx chief operating officer Mohammadh Sayed.
Image: Supplied

She brushed aside claims about her alleged ties to tobacco baron Adriano Mazzotti as well as insinuations that she benefited from the ban, when it was raised during a National Council of Provinces Zoom sitting on Tuesday by DA MP Cathlene Labuschagne.

“There is no negative consequences of smoking that has been stopped during the ban unless the minister can prove otherwise,” said Labuschagne.

“Smoking continues but the industry has been taken underground. The only logical conclusion is that this is the sole aim of the cabinet and specifically the minister with regards to this ban. The minister is known to have visited Greece and the UK with Mr Mazzotti who now denies that they are friends.

“Where will the two unfriendly travel partners be going with their profits once the lockdown is done Mrs Minister?” 

Dlamini-Zuma responded: “I must put it on record that I’m not Mazzotti’s friend. Secondly, if anyone is doing crime in SA they must be arrested, whether it be crime in cigarettes or elsewhere."

Renegade social media groups started by citizens openly planning to “help each other out” with cigarettes and liquor after the extension of the lockdown also went underground and quickly became their own bootlegging markets organising on platforms such as Telegram.

TimesLIVE spoke to a bootlegging couple from Centurion whose Telegram group gives them not only loyal customers but also a huge network of eyes and ears looking out for possible law enforcement interdictions.

They typically make R1,000 a day and have the added benefit of feeding their own smoking addictions.

Martie (not her real name) said she and her husband Jakes (not his real name) got into bootlegging after she lost her job as a bookkeeper and he as a handyman due to the lockdown restrictions.

Now they make R1,000 a day trafficking alcohol and cigarettes, a business so profitable they say they hope to continue trading cigarettes legally after restrictions are lifted.

“In a way it’s good and in a way it’s not good. Look how expensive cigarettes are, it’s going to make us poorer, it’s bankrupting our country at the end of the day,” said Jakes.

Prices for cartons of cigarettes are posted on Telegram groups where orders can also be made for delivery.
Prices for cartons of cigarettes are posted on Telegram groups where orders can also be made for delivery.
Image: Aron Hyman

“The cigarette prices could be R400 today, tomorrow it’s R600, the day after tomorrow it’s R200 again. It goes up and down as the police seize the supply,” he said in an interview three weeks ago.

“Like, today it’s very difficult to get stock because the way I understand it the cops are in the Mayville area towards Pretoria’s side.”

He said a pack of RG cigarettes which were normally sold for R10 were now being sold for R65.

“We are the last people in the chain, there’s a huge chain it goes through before it comes to us,” he said.

Fortune has been on the couple’s side, but in the underworld, crime leads to more crime.

“We haven’t had to bribe the police yet, but it will probably happen eventually. Everyone who walks an illegal path will get caught at some point so we are trying not to make it a permanent income,”  said Jakes.

Martie added: “If you’ve built up your cigarette client base, those guys come back to you. With liquor they may only buy once and then not again, you can’t really rely on liquor for sustainable sales.

“Liquor is also a difficult product to move. We try not to do it any more, we are busy with our first order, so we’ll see whether we can trust this guy who we’re buying it from. We’re almost on our way to go and pick it up, so yes we’ll take it from there.”

Jakes has a criminal past, and he said his contacts from prison and from his days in crime had made it easier for him to operate as a smuggler, but he warned people not to judge.

“Look at them now, the government enforces a lockdown on us and now everything is illegal which you could normally use, and it makes everyone criminals,” he said.

National police spokesperson Brig Vish Naidoo said the high prices being charged by illegal cigarette traders could be attributed to the success of police action against illegal tobacco sales.

"The police can't be everywhere at the same time. We believe the reason why the price of cigarettes are so high is because of the successful police action reducing the supply," said Naidoo.

"These people that are continuing to sell cigarettes are doing it at a huge risk. When they are arrested and convicted,m that will go against them as a criminal record. They will lose their trading licence. They had better be warned."

subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now