Customs officials seized R10 million worth of illicit cigarettes that had been declared as tissue paper at the Durban harbour this weekend, the SA Revenue Service (SARS) said on Thursday.
The seizure, which was based on a tip-off, follows a similar bust in Cape Town a few days ago, where another R6 million worth of cigarettes were confiscated. In June, meanwhile, over R5.5 million of illicit cigarettes were seized at the Kopfontein border post, having reported the destruction of another R30 million in illegal cigarettes earlier that month.
The vessel containing the latest haul had been delayed at outer anchorage in Durban due to the recent riots in KwaZulu-Natal, and the container only released on 16 July. A subsequent cyberattack on Transnet's systems caused further delays, which meant the container was only released from the port on 28 July.
But once it was scrutinised on the Transnet system, it was found to contain illicit cigarettes that might also be counterfeit, SARS said.
"After an arduous search on 29 July 2021, it was established that the cargo was delivered to a storage facility at Old North Coast Road in Glen Anil.
"On 30 July, a search warrant was obtained at the Verulam Magistrate's Court and SARS entered the premises. Inside the warehouse were 950 master cases of Pacific 14mg cigarettes (illicit product) and 50 boxes of tissue paper," SARS said.
The goods were confiscated and deposited at the SARS state warehouse. A criminal case has been opened with the SA Police Service and investigations are ongoing, SARS said.
Cigarette producers have been engaged in a war over pricing in the wake of a tobacco sales ban under the initial Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, saying the ban allowed illicit trade to flourish.
British American Tobacco South Africa (BATSA) has labelled the South African Tobacco Organisation's (SATO) proposed minimum price of R22 for a pack of cigarettes a "flimsy cloak for tax evasion", saying it will not cover taxes.
This was after a survey conducted by market research company Ipsos showed that about 41% of sampled retailers were selling a pack of 20 cigarettes below the survey's minimum taxable amount - including excise duties and VAT - of R21.60.