Cigarettes 'exported' from SA during lockdown never got out: report

SA-based companies may have had a hand in supplying the black market during Covid-19 tobacco ban

07 October 2020 - 17:39
By naledi shange AND Naledi Shange
Millions of cigarettes which were meant to have been legally exported out of SA did not make it to their destinations but were illegally sold in the country, with huge markups.
Image: Reuters Millions of cigarettes which were meant to have been legally exported out of SA did not make it to their destinations but were illegally sold in the country, with huge markups.

While tobacco companies in SA have denied being behind the large number of cigarettes available on the black market during the country's lockdown, a new report claims that the industry may indeed have had a hand.

When SA moved to reduced lockdown levels in May, the tobacco industry reached an agreement with the government that it could continue to produce cigarettes — but only for export. At the time, the sale, transport and distribution of tobacco and related products had been controversially outlawed.

But a Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime report has uncovered that at least 66% of cigarettes earmarked as “exports” did not make it out of South African borders, or did not reach their intended destination.

“Destination countries included neighbouring Namibia and Lesotho, as well as Mali in West Africa and Syria. In the case of the former two countries, not only were fewer cigarettes recorded as imports than were listed as exports from SA, but the number of cigarettes marked for these countries far exceeded their per capita consumption of the product,” the report states.

“This missing stock is likely lost to the black market, and given the proximity of Lesotho and Namibia to SA, it probably finds its way back home. In the case of exports to Mali and Syria, missing stock probably either never leaves SA, or it gets lost in transit and enters black markets abroad.

“If this is the case, it means that tobacco companies in SA are aiding and abetting an illicit global trade in these products that is not merely confined to Southern Africa.” 

Despite prominent cigarette brands being available on the black market alongside the low-quality foreign brands that made their way into country during the lockdown, the tobacco firms had claimed that these were either counterfeits or old stock which had already been in the hands of distributors.

The report, titled “When the Smoke Clears”, looked at the affects that the five-month cigarette sale ban had on the country.

It highlighted that with there being a total cigarette sales ban, SA became a perfect breeding ground for illicit traders as scores of smokers still needed to satisfy their cravings, needs and addictions.

Millions of cigarettes made their way into SA illegally, some of which were intercepted by authorities.

The report said the Portuguese writing seen on most of the illicit cigarettes available during the lockdown gave rise to the assumption that most of these were sourced from Mozambique, but there were also brands which apparently came from France and China.

Smugglers used the already pre-existing smuggling channels, including secret compartments in trucks and vehicles which were allowed into the country.

“A gang member in Cape Town who sold cigarettes during this time claims that his stock was sourced from Namibia. Some gangs also allegedly procured stock from ships docked in Cape Town’s harbour,” the report reveals.

“Lesotho has also been identified as a source or transit country, with consignments seized along its border with the Eastern Cape.

“These examples illustrate that there are multiple points of entry for illegal cigarettes, seemingly with few obstacles faced by operators.”

Chances of smugglers getting caught appeared to be slim, with smugglers paying bribes to law-enforcement officials. In some instances, police officers themselves were found trying to smuggle the illicit goods.