Harare – Authorities in South Africa and Zimbabwe are battling to contain the roaring illicit trade in cigarettes across their border, resulting in the military being roped in to confront sometimes violent smugglers.
This follows South Africa’s decision to ban any trade in cigarettes in March as part of its novel coronavirus control measures.
Choking the formal trade has given oxygen to illicit dealing, and South African tobacco companies say the ban is costing millions of rand per month.
According to officials who spoke to The Southern Times this week, the smugglers mostly exploit the highly porous borderline between the two countries, whose most formidable barrier is the crocodile infested Limpopo River.
Some daring and well-heeled smugglers pay their way through the formal port.
Ironically, the smuggling has proliferated despite South Africa spending R37 million on a new high-tech fence along the border.
Although the two countries have upped border patrols in recent months, they are finding it hard to effectively monitor the expansive borderline which has over 200 illegal entry points.
South Africa Police Service Limpopo province spokesperson Brigadier Motlafela Mojapelo confirmed in a telephone interview on Tuesday that they were having a torrid time trying to get a handle on the matter.
He said while most of the cigarettes are destined for the South African market, they had managed to establish that some of them end up being exported beyond the region.
“We make arrests almost on a daily basis, but with the level of smuggling, a lot more are escaping from our claws,” he said.
“In the past three or four months, we have arrested more than 100 Zimbabwean and South African criminals involved in this illicit business. Once they manage to get over the border, they move the contraband into warehouses in Musina for onward despatch to other parts of the country. Some of the cigarettes are actually shipped overseas,” Brig Mojapelo said.
He added that SAPS has had to enlist the support of the South African army, given the sometimes violent disposition of the smugglers.
The latest such blitz, Brig Mojapelo said, took place last Sunday and resulted in the seizing of cigarettes worth R1 million. Four suspects were arrested.
“The fight against the smuggling and dealing in illicit cigarettes in the province has been intensified and on Sunday when four suspects were arrested, three vehicles were recovered and illicit cigarettes valued at more than R1 million confiscated.
“Members of SAPS, the South African Defence Force and Customs jointly conducted the snap operation. All four suspects are Zimbabweans,” Brig Mojapelo said.
South African Revenue Services head of media and communication Siphithi Sibelo said the illicit cigarette trade costs the country about R8 billion in unpaid taxes annually.
“There is a huge tobacco black market in South Africa mainly fed by cigarettes from Zimbabwe and this costs the country about R8 billion annually,” Sibelo said.
Investigations by The Southern Times said boxes of cigarettes were often loaded alongside legitimate cargo on haulage trucks.
The contraband is removed from the trucks about 20km before the border town of Beitbridge and then taken across the boundary via illegal points on the Limpopo River, risking crocodile attacks.
The smugglers are assisted by guides who have mastered the art of avoiding both patrols and crocodiles.
For 33-year-old Stanley Muleya (not his real name), the coronavirus lockdown has come as a blessing.
While he used to help illegal migrants jump the border, he now helps smugglers – who can pay much more than he used to charge before COVID-19.
“We get most of our clients from Harare. We know all the safe routes to the river and our duty is to take them there and our job is done. Other people take over from there,” he said.
“This is easier and more profitable than working with human beings. I get paid … as much us R200 and this is a great opportunity for us. Sometimes we run into trouble with police patrolling the area but we always pay our way out. Mostly we have studied their routines and we know how to (circumvent) them.”
‘Lift the ban’
The Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (FITA) is pressing the South African government to lift the ban on the sale of cigarettes.
In recent court proceedings to try to get the ban lifted, FITA said government ministers had failed to provide evidence that smokers were more prone to coronavirus, which was the justification given by the state for implementing the ban.
A recent study by University of Cape Town researchers showed that 90 percent of smokers had bought cigarettes during the lockdown despite the ban.
The study said smokers who could not find their usual brands had access to other products that were making their way into South Africa from China, the DRC, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
Authorities in Harare are aware that smugglers are taking cigarettes across the border into South Africa.
Zimbabwe Republic Police national spokesman Paul Nyathi said: “We have indeed received numerous reports of cases of smuggling of cigarettes and other goods and we are investing all these cases. We have made a few apprehensions already. Patrols and surveillance are conducted jointly with other security services among other things to combat all forms of illegal activities including smuggling.”