Bart Luirink

Tobacco mafia’s infiltration of South African state led to purge of good civil servants

A giant data leak from within the South African tobacco industry presents evidence of large-scale infiltration by the tobacco mafia of the South African police, justice and secret services. The documents, leaked last week by whistle blowers from within the private ‘big tobacco’ -paid research agency Forensic Security Services (FSS) and tweeted from @EspionageSA, show in detail how scores of state officials (171 in total) were paid to sabotage competitors in the tobacco sector. They did this inter alia through unnecessary seizures, blockades and lengthy administrative procedures.

The practices contributed to the victimisation of a number of non-corrupt law enforcers who were hounded out of their jobs and some of whom are still targets of mysterious ‘police investigations’ even now. Among them is also former ANC freedom fighter Ivan Pillay, who is known to ZAM and the former Anti-Apartheid Movement in the Netherlands from the ‘struggle days’(1). Up to May 2015, Pillay was acting commissioner of the South African Revenue Services, until then one of the most efficient and respected government institutions in South Africa.

A business associate of President Zuma’s son owns one of the shady tobacco companies

“In November 2013, shortly after Ivan Pillay stepped in as acting commissioner of SARS, the country's tax agency announced that it was requesting the prosecution of local tobacco companies for tax evasion and illicit trade. About 18-months later, Pillay and several other top officials found themselves jobless.” Thus reads the intro of an article in South Africa Daily Maverick, dated 23 February this year. The article, based on public as well as confidential documents that are now among those leaked, names British American Tobacco (BAT) as a prominent recruiter of state officials. It also mentions its smaller competitors Carnilinx –a sponsor of South African politician Julius Malema- and Amalgamated Tobacco Manufacturers, owned by a business associate of President Zuma’s son Edward in connection with similar practices.

The documents leaked last week from FSS, a private research agency working for BAT and the Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa (TISA), confirm that important state security, justice and police officials were paid to frustrate SARS’ efforts to clean out the sector.

Things turned sour for Pillay and his co-workers in the tax agency after their announcement that they were after the smuggling and tax-evading companies. At the time, both BAT and ATM had –partly, it is thought, through Edward Zuma- already built up good friendships with the South African State Security Agency SSA, with crucial individuals on its payroll. According to another hard-hitting newspaper expose, in South Africa’s City Press of 14 August 2014, these crucial individuals in the SSA then started ‘working to replace SARS’ top management, from acting commissioner Ivan Pillay to (the head of its investigative unit), Johann Van Loggerenberg because, as this newspaper also noted, the SARS investigators were after ‘tobacco smugglers.’

Dirty tricks campaigns launched against non-corrupt officials

The secret service-based group of individuals who were planning this dirty tricks campaign was labelled by City Press as a ‘rogue unit’ for its use of tax money to, inter alia, smuggle cigarettes and eavesdrop on citizens, not for state security reasons but for own shady business interests. City Press based its report on “hundreds of SMSes, emails and tape recordings that date from 2011 to 2014,” the content of which also overlaps with that of the documents leaked last week.

Besides SARS top management and investigative unit, the newspaper also announced that the ‘rogue unit’ in the secret service was also out to discredit police priority crimes head Anwa Dramat. City Press’s sources said that Dramat, who was to play a role in preparing cases against tobacco smugglers, would be implicated, through a dirty tricks campaign in the media, in a scandal around the “illegal rendition of Zimbabwean criminals” back to Zimbabwe.

As overall head of the police priority crimes division, Dramat would have had very little if anything at all to do with issues of rendition. But he, too would find himself jobless and prosecuted, as did Pillay, Van Loggerenberg and other tax investigators, one-and a half years after action against the tobacco mafia was first announced. City Press’ predictions of dirty tricks campaigns against the men came true, exactly as it had said

Top law enforcers replaced by close associates of President Zuma

Whilst accusations of ‘rendition’ against Dramat were being ventilated by in the media by unnamed sources, the label ‘rogue unit,’ which originally applied to the State Security Agency itself, was almost magically now attached to the investigative unit at the tax agency. In an unrelenting, year- long media assault  (mostly –as in Dramat’s case, in the Sunday Times, which got all its leads from ‘intelligence sources’), the SA Revenue Service’s investigators found themselves sensationally accused of running a brothel, spying on President Zuma and of using sophisticated and illegal video and audio equipment to spy intrusively and widely on citizens. (Ironically, the now-leaked documents show that it was FSS and its allies in the secret service that were doing such sophisticated spying. Its agents even tapped into people’s bank accounts and private data at the Home Affairs department.)

The Sunday Times would later apologise for its careless reliance on unnamed sources, and for getting ‘things wrong.’ But the damage was done. By mid-2015, Dramat, police complaints unit head Robert McBride and four SARS officials among whom Pillay and Van Loggerenberg had lost their jobs and were –and still are- facing police investigations and prosecutions. Close to a hundred other tax officials seen as loyal to Pillay and Van Loggerenberg had meanwhile been chased out of SARS or had resigned.

Tom Moyane, a former babysitter for President Zuma’s children, now heads the South African tax authority; Berning Ntlemeza, a former apartheid security branch policeman, commands the Directorate of Priority Crime Investigations; and Israel Kgamanyane manages the Independent Police Investigative Directorate in close consultation with police minister Nathi Nhleko, one of President Zuma’s closest associates. All three were directly appointed by President Zuma.

Also last week, in the aftermath of recent elections in which disappointed voters all but trashed the ruling party, President Zuma made a speech about intensifying the war on corruption.

(1)    See also: and (Dutch).