Table Talk

Adriano Mazzotti says he had 'no relationship' with Dlamini-Zuma but is good friends with Malema

Adriano Mazzotti says he is just an entrepreneur trying to make a buck, that he's not close to NDZ but that he's good friends with Julius Malema. Nicki Gules spoke to him

07 June 2020 - 00:00 By Nicki Gules
Tobacco trader Adriano Mazzotti denies that he smuggles cigarettes and says Sars officials are in his factory all the time.
Tobacco trader Adriano Mazzotti denies that he smuggles cigarettes and says Sars officials are in his factory all the time.
Image: Alaister Russell

Adriano Mazzotti says if there is one thing he will regret for a very long time, it is asking Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to pose for a picture with him. Especially because she turned him down — twice.

There are various accounts of how Mazzotti came to be photographed with the then ANC presidential candidate at a London hotel in 2017.

In his book, The President’s Keepers, published in November of that year, Jacques Pauw wrote that Mazzotti paid for caps and T-shirts for Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign.

The Sunday Times later reported that Mazzotti had been funding her party presidential bid, having meetings with her twice a month, and drumming up contributions for her from other business people.

Mazzotti denies all of this, responding to the allegations with a highly amusing story in the boardroom of the Sandton firm of his lawyer to whom he has entrusted his media relations.

“I’m now under adult supervision,” he jokes.

He is dressed all in black and remarks that perhaps he shouldn’t have worn the monochrome outfit lest readers believe that he is every bit the gangster many claim he is.

At the time of the photograph, Dlamini-Zuma was standing with a group of people, one of whom he knew. He struck up a conversation with them.

“It’s just in my nature, I go and talk to anyone. Obviously I wanted to meet her because she’s a well-known person and is in the ANC,” he says.

The conversation, he says, swung to the price of T-shirts, an electioneering must-have, and, ever the hustler, Mazzotti says he pitched business for his brother-in-law, telling the campaign staff working on her ANC presidential bid ahead of the Nasrec elective conference of 2017 that he could get them a good price.

“The first time I asked if I could have a picture, she said no. Then I carried on talking. She actually rejected me completely. I should have listened! I should have walked away and none of this would have happened,” he says.

“And then, I’m that kind of person — I always tell my wife that that’s why I married her, because she rejected me so many times — I just don’t give up.

‘CAN I HAVE A PICTURE?’

"I carried on talking to the people around her until I got the opportunity again to speak to her and then a very high-profile businessman told her I was in the tobacco industry.

Then she was even more put off. “It really took me time angling and getting back to talk to her. Then we started talking about the ANC and I asked, ‘Can I have a picture with you?’ and she was, like, ‘Yes, OK’.”

The second photograph, of Mazzotti and Dlamini-Zuma standing with Mazzotti’s business partner Mohammadh Sayed, was taken when they were having a drink at a hotel in Houghton.

Mazzotti insists he and Dlamini-Zuma have 'no relationship whatsoever', and 'never ever' had twice-monthly meetings

“I approached the same tall guy that I recognised from London and started talking to her again and then Mohammadh wanted a picture, so I nagged again for a picture.”

Last week, Dlamini-Zuma denied she was Mazzotti’s friend.

Business Day reported Pauw saying he did not think she was “in bed with Mazzotti or tobacco” and there was “no evidence of links” between them after 2017.

Mazzotti insists he and Dlamini-Zuma have “no relationship whatsoever”, and “never ever” had twice-monthly meetings.

He says he collects pictures of himself with famous people — such as the one in Ibiza with Italian footballer Andrea Pirlo he posted to “p*** my cousins off”, others with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, whom he loved spending time with, and others with British boxer Lennox Lewis, to whom he once sold T-shirts.

But so affected was he by the fallout from his pictures with Dlamini-Zuma, he says, that he hasn’t posted an image of himself online for three years.

Born in Brixton, Johannesburg, and raised in Alberton, Ekurhuleni, in a working-class family, Mazzotti has achieved notoriety since the lockdown after allegations that he leveraged his relationship with Dlamini-Zuma to have tobacco sales banned during the lockdown so he could benefit from the black market.

“I have 8-million nicotine-deprived people around blaming me that they can’t smoke. And everyone is paying high prices for cigarettes,” he says, adding that he is very concerned about the safety of his wife and three children, aged between 17 and 26.

“Even my kids get messages from private numbers and people that follow them on social media say very nasty things about me. Like, ‘Your father’s a gangster and he’s benefiting from the lockdown because he smuggles cigarettes’, and people are paying 10 times the price because of me and I am the one making all the money.”

A recent survey by the University of Cape Town’s research unit on the economics of excisable products said the ban on cigarette sales had caused nearly half of smokers to switch to more available local brands, giving illicit traders a better foothold and creating a thriving black market.

The survey also found that local cigarette manufacturers, including Carnilinx, had increased their market share.

Mazzotti and his lawyers say the survey was flawed and dismiss its findings.

Mazzotti says the tobacco ban is “killing” his business, and that it is costing the Fair-Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita), of which he is a founding member, a “fortune” to take the government to court to reverse the ban.

The case will be heard at the high court in Pretoria on Tuesday.

Whatever little benefit the lockdown may have had for his products’ brand awareness won’t last, he says.

“As much as we at Fita are running around celebrating because we’re getting all this positive attention and people are saying they’re not going to smoke British American Tobacco brands any more and they’re going to smoke our brands, the minute Marlboros and others are available, they are going to buy that again,” he says.

Not even Mazzotti smokes his own cigarettes. His wife forced him to give up, he says, but he smokes the occasional cigarette socially, preferring Marlboro Ice.

With two South African Revenue Service officials permanently stationed at his factory during operating hours for the past year, he says, because of a decision by the SARS commissioner to focus on the tobacco industry, Mazzotti would find it tough to smuggle any cigarettes.

Cigarette factories opened on Monday with the start of lockdown level 3.

SARS are there auditing. They’re there every day at all the factories, making sure we’re not selling during the lockdown
Adriano Mazzotti

“SARS are there auditing. They’re there every day at all the factories, making sure we’re not selling during the lockdown. They come and count the stock every morning and two officials stay there permanently, and they rotate the officials between the factories.

"When you open, they have to be there. We have all signed a document to say we’re not allowed to operate without SARS officials being physically there, to count what comes off the machines,” he says.

Besides SARS officials, the police make regular stops at his factory in Johannesburg’s inner city, he says, like on Tuesday, when officers arrived to check out a tip-off.

“The police arrived in force and there were honestly about 20 of them, and there was even a backup unit, and they looked like Darth Vader. I told them to come inside and have a look,” he says.

“Everybody knows there is such a rivalry between factories. Also, cigarettes are so valuable now, and it is high risk.”

There have been four attempted break-ins at Carnilinx during the lockdown, Mazzotti says. And because the excise of about R18 per pack of cigarettes is paid by the manufacturer before the cigarettes are distributed and sold, he cannot afford any to go missing.

The lockdown, he says, has meant that a box of 500 packets he would have sold for around R10,000 is now worth R65,000.

“Everyone says we’re crying and it has only been 68 days, but we’ve made a point of paying our staff. I know lot of big business people who are not paying their staff. It’s like Richard Branson asking for a bailout, and, you know, sell your f***ing island,” he says.

“Smugglers are making ridiculous amounts of money and government is making nothing. All they’re doing is losing the revenue and they’re strengthening organised crime syndicates.”

This is perhaps ironic coming from a man almost always labelled a “self-confessed tobacco smuggler”.

The epithet, he says, emanates from a voluntary disclosure on his tax affairs he made to SARS when he was naïve. He insists that since 2013 he and his company have been tax compliant, and offers to show Mazzotti’s tax clearance certificate, saying that what remains is a normal business tax dispute.

Smugglers are making ridiculous amounts of money and government is making nothing

While he has been unable to sell cigarettes, Mazzotti and his partners have spent the past six weeks branching into a very different business — manufacturing face masks.

They have converted one of the floors of their building in downtown Johannesburg to a mask factory, and the machines they bought arrive from Malaysia this weekend.

Mazzotti says that Emirates airline has already placed an order. And though Dlamini-Zuma may not be his friend, he has others — like his childhood mate Mikey Schultz, who shot mining businessman Brett Kebble.

There is also, famously, EFF leader Julius Malema.

Malema and his family live next door to the Mazzottis in Hyde Park, Johannesburg, in a house Mazzotti owns in a neighbourhood that is home to some of SA’s richest and most powerful people, including President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Malema and Mazzotti drink Tanqueray gin together and “disagree on a lot of things”.

“I really enjoy his company. We get together, we hide away from our wives, we drink and do things normal boys do. Please don’t write that, my wife will kill me,” he says.

GAVE EFF R200,000

Malema also rejected Mazzotti “a lot” at first, he says. “I made it my mission to become his friend because I liked him. He doesn’t like us very much,” he said, in an apparent reference to white people, “or he pretends not to, so I made it a point of making a very good friend of him.”

Mazzotti gave the EFF R200,000 in 2012 for the deposit his party paid to fight its first election. Since then, there have been allegations that Mazzotti has financed Malema’s lifestyle and bought Malema’s wife, Mantwa, a car.

“Julius hires the house through an agent. I never bought them a car. They pay their rent. My wife and his wife are friends. The kids are often around, the little ones; they love my wife. We socialise together; I go to all their parties. I don’t go to their political functions any more because of the stories that will come out. They invite me but I don’t go,” he says.

I will sit with the devil if he’s going to buy something from me and pay me. I’m an entrepreneur

“We look at the world differently. I told him he sees voters and I see consumers. I tell him, you’ve got to get votes, I’ve got to sell s***. I will sit with the devil if he’s going to buy something from me and pay me. I’m an entrepreneur.”

The two apparently disagree vehemently on the lockdown, as well as the interpretation of the Freedom Charter.

“As a businessman I think [the country’s wealth] should be privatised but everyone should benefit. As a socialist he thinks it should be state-controlled. But you can’t trust government with anything. I keep telling him, ‘Look at this. You can’t even trust them with a lockdown. How are you going to trust them with our property?’

We argue about that as well,” Mazzotti says.“His agenda [to have the lockdown continue] is terrible in my opinion.”

His friendship with Malema has cost him others. His family once received invitations to his children’s friends’ parties and family events almost every weekend, but when the news broke that he had paid the EFF’s election deposit, those dried up, as did weekends away with other families.

“I choose to remain who I am and that’s it. I’m not a choirboy, I know that,” he says.

Mazzotti is now racking his brains to recall if there was any other time he and Dlamini-Zuma may have crossed paths.

“I remember I was in the same place as her another time, but I didn’t speak to her. And then that came back to me. And I thought, ‘Oh f***. I didn’t mention that. My God, did someone take a picture?’

“I’m living on my wits because I’m wondering what other pictures are out there that somebody is going to find.”

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