Smokers and bikers gather in Cape Town to protest against the government's ban on cigarette sales. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES
Smokers and bikers gather in Cape Town to protest against the government's ban on cigarette sales. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

Part of the reason the tobacco industry has managed to get away with most of its shenanigans might be that it has pulled off a silent coup. Any South African can tell you about the value of political patronage. Buying power may not be cheap but it makes you virtually Teflon.

In recent weeks rumours have gained ground that politicians are potentially benefiting from SA’s ban on cigarette sales. There has been no hard evidence of this yet, but there certainly seems to be enough smoke to fuel suspicion.

What’s clear is that globally the tobacco industry knows the value of capturing a political patron.

A Japan Tobacco International (JTI) presentation explores how best to navigate regulation: “Building allies across several ministries, developing the ability to influence the influencers; targeting their activities based on political power maps, finding the ‘right spin’ in relationships with key reporters, making effective use of door openers and spin doctors and developing one-liners that resonate with the public.”

This is probably why American comedian Jackie Mason is reported to have said: “It is more profitable for your congressman to support the tobacco industry than your life.”

At the heart of the tobacco industry’s success in thwarting regulation lies a simple truth: they are masters at playing politics.

There is a pattern of political patronage that is repeated across Southern Africa.

In SA, somewhere between 70% and 80% of its illicit cigarettes has been attributed to Gold Leaf Tobacco. That company is run by Simon Rudland, a man who is widely reported to be a big contributor to Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF party, who frequently attends its rallies.

Also in Zimbabwe, the company Savanna Tobacco’s Adam Moloi is married to former President Robert Mugabe’s niece.

Back home, plenty of political links between tobacco companies and politicians have been identified.

For example, people have queried the links between Amalgamated Tobacco, which is associated with Edward Zuma, and deputy justice minister John Jeffery; Phoebus Apollo, which was owned by Hennie Delport, has been linked to communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams; Royal Sonic allegedly paid to upgrade Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead; and Carnilinx, run by Adriano Mazzotti, helped finance Julius Malema’s EFF.

And, of course, there’s Tom Moyane, the former commissioner of the SA Revenue Service (Sars), who is widely reported to be a Zuma ally and under whose watch the cases against Amalgamated Tobacco and Royal Sonic quietly disappeared once Moyane had shut down most of the agency’s investigative units.

Opaque BAT

As for British American Tobacco (BAT), the largest tobacco operator in SA, who would its political patrons be?

While we have some insight into the political links of the independent tobacco manufacturers, we have less of a clue who the big players, like BAT, donated to.

What we do know that is that BAT’s security company, which planned to derail smaller competitors, reportedly boasted that the company “has the potential to overcome political obstacles”.

Evidence also suggests that a few years back, BAT seemed to have secured for itself the grand prize: the support of the State Security Agency and other law enforcement agencies.

More than one source has commented on the closeness of the relationship between the two — noting how some of their activities were often virtually indistinguishable, blurring the lines between the regulator and the regulated. With a country’s spooks and law enforcement on your side, perhaps you don’t need much else.

At least SA isn’t alone when it comes to politicians with ties to illicit tobacco. Consider these examples, from all over the world:

The ex-president of Paraguay, Horacio Cartes, reportedly owned the company that produced the majority of smuggled cigarettes in Latin America;

Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Đukanović was accused by Italian prosecutors of having run a cigarette smuggling operation worth more than $1bn – but he could not be prosecuted because he had diplomatic immunity;

  • Belarus, which only has two state-regulated tobacco manufacturers, has been the largest single identifiable source of contraband cigarettes smuggled into the EU;
  • Seven Gambian diplomats were convicted for dealing in illicit tobacco, defrauding the UK treasury of £4.7m;
  • North Korean diplomats at the Stockholm Embassy were caught smuggling cigarettes into Sweden at least twice;
  • In Jordan, politicians have been implicated in an illicit tobacco manufacturing scheme resulting in an estimated $100m tax loss; and
  • In one of the Balkan countries illicit tobacco largely comes from two factories in the country – both of them rumoured to be run by the state security agency.

Politics and illicit tobacco make good bedfellows. But these examples illustrate that we need more transparency and more accountability. Without this, big tobacco companies become too big to fail, while politicians will remain bound by golden chains to a dirty industry.

  • Snyckers, an independent illicit trade expert and former SA Revenue Service executive, is the author of ‘Dirty Tobacco: Spies, Lies and Mega Profits’


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