WATCH | From kitchens to criminals: meet Jozi's illicit cigarette pushers

08 June 2020 - 16:13 By Emile Bosch

South African smokers have been unable to legally purchase cigarettes since the commencement of a nationwide lockdown on March 26. 

An independent study by the University of Cape Town found that almost 90% of smokers in the country have managed to purchase cigarettes on the illicit market. 

The lockdown, implemented with hopes of preventing the spread of the Covid-19 virus, has had a severe impact on the restaurant industry and its workers. 

Eileen*, a trained chef with dreams of a career in pastry, has been without work for the entirety of the lockdown. 

Unable to purchase a loaf of bread and relying on money from her parents to support her basic needs, Eileen has resorted to the illicit trade of cigarettes as a means of survival.

Making use of her scooter, she travels around Johannesburg delivering cigarettes to a small circle of clients. 

"It’s a small, trusted circle. I’m not going to go tell you about someone, where I can find something, if I don’t trust you. I don’t trust anyone, so I am careful," she says. 

Considered a crime under coronavirus restrictions, Eileen's new source of income does not come without its burdens. 

"Morally it does make me feel bad, it does make me nervous. I’m not proud of it," she says.

Restaurant manager Phillip* finds himself in a similar position. 

"Look, I'm a father and I have kids - my son is 13. What I'm doing I'm not proud of, but I need them to eat," he says. 

Phillip has been purchasing cartons of cigarettes and getting people to sell them on the streets of Soweto. He says he can earn  R1,200 for each carton sold.

But he lives in fear of a police crackdown on the illicit cigarette trade and is unsure of how he will continue supporting his family. 

The Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) is currently in court with the government over the ban. It argues that the ban is detrimental to the country. 

Fita argues that despite the ban, people are still moving around to find cigarettes. 

"What we saw as a result of the ban is that people were moving around, due to the addictive nature of nicotine, to source cigarettes that were now available in the illicit market," said the association's chairperson Sinen Mnguni. 

Mnguni has also questioned why there has not been a similar ban on sugary items despite scientific research linking diabetes to complications with the coronavirus.

"Perhaps government should have put in place some sort of mechanism for smokers if they were going to implement this ban to help them to quit the particularly addictive substances," said Mnguni. 

Until the ban is officially lifted, the black market continues to serve as a means of survival for those unable to work. 

* Not their real names.