Johannesburg - For months, the police's tactical response team, also known as the amaBerete, was deployed in Limpopo to provide an armed police escort to multinational cigarette company British American Tobacco (BAT).
BAT boasts of having more than 85% of the cigarette market in South Africa.
Yet despite declaring R81bn in profit from its global operation last year, BAT received police protection for free.
The amaBerete are an elite police unit – they’ve been deployed in Marikana and to quell xenophobic violence. In other words, they work in risky situations where ordinary police officers might struggle to cope with the situation.
However, City Press has established that the service they performed for BAT often entailed the soft task of TRT members riding shotgun inside cigarette vans from spaza shop to spaza shop as BAT employees carried out day-to-day deliveries.
The practice was exposed in January after members of the TRT complained to the SA Policing Union (Sapu) that they were being treated like private security guards.
Sapu president Mpho Kwinika says they became concerned when they realised police officers were being made to abandon their day-to-day duties to guard a private company.
“We wrote to the provincial commissioner [in Limpopo] and, when we didn’t get a response, we wrote to the minister of police seeking that the matter be attended to,” says Kwinika.
Various sources have described how TRT members were instructed to dress in plain clothes while carrying their police weapons, and were placed either inside BAT cigarette vans or in unmarked rental cars.
Sapu provincial secretary Solly Bulala explains: “Their work is to confront – if they must shoot to save lives and properties, they will do so. But you can’t take such people to investigate cigarettes. The police must not be used like a private company ... It’s demoralising for them.”
In January, Sapu sent a letter to Limpopo provincial commissioner Lieutenant General Sehlahle Masemola demanding to know why police management had okayed “the utilisation of SAPS members [TRT] to protect foreign business interests”. (BAT is registered on stock exchanges in New York, London and Johannesburg. Their head office is in the UK, although their South African subsidiary, British American Tobacco SA, is locally registered.)
City Press has also seen a copy of a second letter, forwarded by Sapu to national police commissioner General Riah Phiyega and other senior police officials, in which a junior officer, Lieutenant Boitumelo Ramahlaha, complains about the “serious exploitation” of the Polokwane TRT members being “deployed to work and transport cargo” for BAT.
“This placed these members’ lives in serious danger of possible attack by fellow police officers, as it would have been difficult to identify these members as they executed their ‘duties’ in civilian clothes,” the letter reads.
“How does the SAPS plan to recover monies paid to these members during their absence from the actual control and command of [the] SAPS, and who will be held accountable?”
Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi is of the opinion that these allegations are a ploy by Ramahlala to divert attention away from an investigation currently ongoing against him.
Sapu says the Limpopo SAPS agreed to stop using TRT members in this way after they complained, but the Hawks confirmed that, in Limpopo, other units of the police were continuing to provide “police patrols as and when threats are detected” as “the Limpopo police management committed to work together with BAT in areas where attacks are prevalent”.
“The decision was taken in a management meeting where the provincial commissioner, all deputy provincial commissioners, cluster commanders, station commanders, component heads and BAT management committed to work together in light of escalating attacks on their delivery vans,” Mulaudzi said. “The police have a vast and multifaceted role in society and do not necessarily act as crime fighters, but also provide a range of services to the public.”
Sources say that BAT cigarette vans have been receiving police protection for at least two years. The police would not comment on when the practice started, but defended their decision, saying it is aimed at reducing the high number of cigarette-truck hijackings.
“Our statistics reveal that the hijacking of BAT vehicles is at an unacceptable level and it requires a different and more decisive tactical approach from both a crime-prevention as well as a crime-combating point of view,” said Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo. “We provide observations and escorts so as to prevent crime from taking place or when we have credible intelligence so that we can effect arrests.”
BAT says they have been particularly hard-hit by attacks on cigarette trucks, with 1 412 of their vehicles being targeted last year. Unlike other cigarette companies, BAT delivers its products directly to retailers, often in distinctively marked vans that indicate to hijackers that they are full of cigarettes and cash.
SAPS national spokesperson Solomon Makgale told City Press: “Almost all the cigarette hijackings involve BAT products.”
He added that it was not the case that “each and every BAT vehicle out there on the road is being escorted by an SAPS vehicle. We provide observations and escorts if the risk identified warrants such. If any of the cigarette manufacturers feel that they are experiencing hijackings, they are free to contact us either directly or through the Tobacco Industry of Southern African or Consumer Goods Council of SA. BAT has its own security company.”
Videos handed to City Press show that the SAPS strategy often involves police vehicles following BAT’s clearly marked cigarette vans around as they carry out everyday deliveries.
A video recorded in March shows what appears to be a sector policing vehicle escorting a BAT cigarette van around the Gauteng township of Kagiso.
At one point they pull into a secure parking area behind a security gate of a supermarket. While the BAT employee delivers cigarettes, the police vehicle idles in the parking lot.
The same practice is allegedly happening in Vereeniging, Brits, Ga-Rankuwa, Mamelodi West and Thembisa, as well as other provinces.
“They come to the station, then we give them escorts to wherever they want to deliver,” a police officer from Vereeniging said. “They don’t pay; it’s just to prevent the robberies.”
A former police officer with knowledge of the practice told City Press: “When the police receive a complaint, they escort the vehicle back to the police station and then they go and attend to the complaint.
“The police are not supposed to be reactive – you are meant to be visible in your area, to prevent crime. But now these guys are stationary in front of the spaza shop waiting for the deliveries to go, while a crime is being committed [somewhere else]. A complaint an officer received [about another crime] could have been prevented if he was patrolling, driving around.”
The former SAPS man said officers had raised questions about who would pay for the petrol and wear and tear on police vehicles, but they were told that at least the number of cigarette-truck hijackings was going down.
In Kagiso, when the Community Policing Forum (CPF) learnt that police vehicles were being used to protect cigarettes instead of members of the community, they asked for a meeting with station management.
CPF chairperson Wilhelmina Mutane said: “There was a time we were saying: ‘We don’t have enough cars.’ All our cars were old – sometimes it was old tyres, sometimes the brake or the clutch – our cars were broken. So we did question it with the SAPS. We said in that meeting: ‘This doesn’t work for us. They’re a business – let them hire their own security.’”
Official 2013/14 crime statistics for Kagiso record that there were 59 murders, 581 cases of assault to cause grievous bodily harm, 708 house break-ins and 519 cases of robbery with aggravating circumstances.
The number of truck hijackings? Only three, although BAT and the police say attacks on their trucks could be recorded as “other crimes”.
BAT spokesperson Tabby Tsengiwe, responding to City Press, said the company had hired Fidelity Security to protect some of its vehicles but that “like all businesses in South Africa [BAT] is both encouraged and entitled to call upon and receive the support of the SAPS. No payment for such public services have been requested by the SAPS of us and, in any event, this is a public service for which no payment is expected.”
The police top brass deny BAT is being offered special treatment and they insist they have offered similar protection to fuel-delivery trucks, mining companies in Marikana and, more recently, the Autopax buses that were attacked in Mamelodi.
But many of BAT’s competitors are incredulous. They say they have never been offered similar services and demand to know why BAT is being subsidised by the South African taxpayer.
The Fair-Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) says its members spend an estimated 20% of their expenses on security services, including hiring private security companies to protect their vehicles.
Fita spokesperson Jo Erasmus said: “No Fita members have ever been offered free or paid security services by the SAPS. “Fita members, who are predominantly South African-owned companies ... are paying for very expensive security services, which the SAPS provide at no cost to the monopoly.”
Another tobacco company, Philip Morris, also confirmed they had never been offered or received this kind of service from the police.
Yusuf Kajee, chief executive of the Durban-based Amalgamated Tobacco Manufacturing, said: “If the government is giving that service to one person in the industry, it must be given to all the people in the industry. I’d like the security as well.”
Saps free-trade zone
Other videos and photos from police stations in Randfontein, Vanderbijlpark and Lenasia show customers buying cigarettes and collecting stock from BAT vehicles parked inside the parking lot of the police station.
The former police officer told City Press: “Say for example a vehicle is having a complaint and they cannot escort, then the public will come into the police yard and buy the stocks. The guy in Randfontein told me he’s selling the stock inside the yard because the member who’s escorting him is off duty.”
Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo confirmed that the SAPS did allow BAT to trade inside police yards.
“In certain areas, given the potentially high risk factor and our limited resources, we do allow this,” he said, adding that the police had made similar concessions for stokvels and bread and milk trucks.
The police insist they are not providing free security services to BAT but are rather acting to combat crime surrounding the hijacking of cigarette rucks.
Several weeks ago they launched a new phase in their campaign, aimed at “intensifying the fight against hijacking of trucks carrying cigarettes”. Called Operation BATman, the police say the new operation has led to the arrests of 359 suspects and 8 417 cartons of cigarettes being recovered.
Despite the choice of name, the police insist that “no cigarette company is excluded”.
'We did not feel like police'
Tactical response team (TRT) members are some of the most highly trained officers in the SA Police Service. But for six to eight months they were made to feel like security guards working for a private company.
This was the experience of a TRT member City Press spoke to on condition of anonymity.
The officer described how, starting in June last year, they were instructed to report to BAT’s depot in Polokwane. They would receive their orders from there, which would often mean they were told to either ride inside the cigarette trucks or in unmarked cars rented from Avis.
For the rest of the day, they would ride around with the BAT vans, delivering cigarettes to cafes and spaza shops.
The officer said they were told to dress in plain clothes and, although they had their police-issue weapons, they did not have bulletproof vests. Their concern, the officer said, was that, if an attack happened, there would be no way for them to identify themselves as police officers.
The officer said it was never clear what their mandate was, but that doing the work made them feel as though they were security guards working for a private company, instead of highly skilled officers.