Illegal cigarette traders living from hand to mouth and hoping they don’t get burnt
Down to her last loaf of bread, a Johannesburg chef knew she would have to act quickly to make money.
Building on a network of 35 peers in the food industry, she began selling and delivering cigarettes in contravention of lockdown regulations.
The woman, aged 24, is well aware of the risks if caught. Recently she narrowly avoided arrest while purchasing 35 cartons of cigarettes from the owner of a franchise of a well-known retail chain.
Using her contacts in the wholesale sector, who supplied her with restaurant stock, she connected with a thriving illicit cigarette supply chain.
“It’s a challenge to find enough stock to keep up with the demand. I sometimes have to phone three or four different suppliers to get enough stock.”
She said she sells a multitude of brands, from Peter Stuyvesant to locally produced cigarettes such as RGs.
“The costs vary. Stuyvies cost me over R1,500 a carton. Depending on the price I usually sell them for a couple of hundred rand more, which covers my delivery fee, takes care of any risks and makes me a nice profit. If I have to I will sell by the box, but I usually prefer to sell a carton.
The costs vary. Stuyvies cost me over R1,500 a carton. Depending on the price I usually sell them for a couple of hundred rand more, which covers my delivery fee, takes care of any risks and makes me a nice profit.
“A box of Peter Stuyvesant can go for R250. Local cigarettes like RGs, which usually sell for R15 a box, I now sell for R80.”
In one day last week she sold three cartons of Peter Stuyvesant.Her customers find her through word of mouth and negotiations around pricing are tough, she said.
“People think I have lots of cartons just lying around at home. They don’t realise that I have to buy, and that is highly risky.”
She said her close shave occurred as she was leaving a supplier’s shop with her stock. “As I left the police came storming in. I thought that was it. I fortunately had cooldrink in my hand and just walked out like I was a scared customer.”
Before she collects her stock, she WhatsApps her suppliers to put in orders.
“Once I arrive I leave my backpack with the store owner, go to the back of the store and buy a few items like cooldrinks or a pie. By the time I have paid, my backpack is loaded with the smokes.”
She does deliveries on her scooter, which looks like a pizza delivery bike.
“I WhatsApp the client and arrange a time and place to do the deliveries, which are usually at their homes.
“I arrive at a designated time, hoot and act like I live there. That’s to avoid raising any suspicion. Most of my clients I have never met before.
“With big orders I ask for eWallet transfers. The smaller orders are usually done cash. I always have a float with me like at the restaurant, so I can give people their exact change.”
“Morally, I know it’s a crime and I don’t like being a criminal, but what choice do I have? Like with the restaurant work, my customers help put food on my table.”
Also cashing in on the illegal cigarette trade is a 42-year-old Soweto restaurateur deprived during lockdown of his income from managing restaurants on the West Rand.
He said selling cigarettes helps take care of his teenage son and pay the bills.
“Yes, I know it’s a crime. No-one wants to be arrested but everyone needs to eat. I don’t want to be a criminal, but I’m being forced to.”
He said he has runners selling his stock as loose cigarettes to people on the street.
“Usually a loose cigarette costs between R1 and R2.50. I now sell loose cigarettes for between R4 and R8 depending on the brand. I buy a carton from neighbourhood shops for R800 and sell it for a minimum of R1,800.
Morally, I know it’s a crime and I don’t like being a criminal, but what choice do I have? Like with the restaurant work, my customers help put food on my table.
“Supplies are easy to get. It’s not like the others who live in the suburbs who have to let shops know they are coming. I just arrive, ask for a carton and leave.”
He said when word got out that he was selling cigarettes, people used to come knocking on his front door.
“I had to stop that pretty quickly because it was too risky. Now I use two to three runners. It spreads the risk.”
Where are the illicitly sold cigarettes made?
Sinen Mnguni, chair of the Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association, which represents local tobacco manufacturers, said: “Some of our members manufacture cigarettes in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, which are bought legally by people in those countries and then smuggled into SA.
It doesn’t mean our members are illegally selling cigarettes meant for export.”Gold Leaf Tobacco’s lawyer, Raees Saint, said the sale of certain brands could be explained by people having bought huge stocks before the ban.
British American Tobacco SA spokesperson Johnny Moloto said its factory had been allowed to produce for export only. He said it appeared that most cigarettes seized in SA were locally produced.
“But new brands not previously seen in SA have also appeared, suggesting new supply networks have grown during the lockdown.”
Neither the police nor the office of co-operative governance & traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma responded to detailed questions.
Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.