Smuggling of cigarettes from Zimbabwe into South Africa through illegal crossing points along the Limpopo River, always a problem because of the tax differences, increased dramatically from the beginning of April when South African lockdown regulations banned cigarette sales.
Authorities estimate that around 30 percent of cigarettes sold in South Africa are smuggled from Zimbabwe including Pacific, Remington gold, Mega, Dullahs, Branson and Servilles brands.
This has been a problem for some time because the South African Customs Union taxes tobacco at much higher rates than Zimbabwe, opening arbitrage possibilities for smugglers.
The ban on tobacco sales under the South African lockdown just made supplying the black market even more profitable, so more people became involved. But a crackdown on both sides of the border has seen more than 30 people arrested in the last fortnight, and the seizure of cigarettes worth an estimated R4 million.
Ideally a crate of a dozen bricks of cigarettes, around 120 boxes, is bought at US$120 from Zimbabwean manufacturers and sold for between US$250 and US$300 to the syndicates who then smuggle these into South Africa, where they sell for anything above R15 000.
Those that illegally transport cigarettes across borders are paid between R100 and R300 per box and in most cases, this is done under the cover of darkness.
Matabeleland South police spokesperson, Chief Inspector Philisani Ndebele said Zimbabwean police had increased patrols to curb all forms of criminal activities on the border.
“We are on the ground and we will continue maintaining a heavy presence as we enforce the law,” he said.
South Africa’s police services spokesperson for Limpopo Province, Brigadier Motlafela Mojapelo said South African police had intensified patrols working with other security agents along the border and major roads in the province.
“The fight against the smuggling and dealing in illicit cigarettes in the province intensified on Sunday when four suspects aged between 32 and 34 were arrested, three vehicles and illicit cigarettes valued at more than R1 million were confiscated,” said Brig Mojapelo.
“Acting on a tip off, our officers, including the K9 (Dog Unit), the South African National Defence Force and Custom officials jointly conducted a snap operation along the N1 between Beitbridge and Musina.
“A vehicle with two people was then stopped, searched and found with illicit cigarettes that were packed in bags.
“A further probe conducted by the members at the scene led them to the nearby mall where another suspect was found loading illicit cigarettes into a vehicle.
“The suspect attempted to evade arrest but was quickly apprehended after a short pursuit.
“The vehicle and the cigarettes were confiscated.”
He said they also picked some further information that the contraband was to be transported to a certain warehouse in Musina town where more cigarettes were stored.
The official said the team rushed to the given address and on arrival, a vehicle already loaded with illicit cigarettes was found parked at the warehouse.
Brig Mojapelo said the reaction team found some suspects unpacking them. A suspect was found hiding between the boxes and was arrested.
“The following were confiscated during the arrests: three vehicles, an Opel Corsa pick-up van and two Nissan NP300 pick-up trucks, 4 040 cartons of cigarettes of different brands valued at R1 070 193.
“The suspects, all foreign nationals, are expected to appear in Musina magistrate court soon,” he said.