The ban on cigarette and alcohol sales during the lockdown has created an underground market of rampant deals all over Pietermaritzburg.
And it’s not only dodgy characters indulging in the goods offered. Those supporting it are normally law-abiding citizens and many professional people. A Weekend Witness investigation, conducted this week, revealed a “dial-a-fix” network on social media with door-to-door cigarette and alcohol deliveries.
Sources say phone calls and SMSes to place orders for cigarettes and alcohol have been going on since the lockdown was announced and that the availability and accessibility has made it easy for people to buy and get their buzz.
Some tuck-shop and pub owners, and their connections, have formed WhatsApp groups advertising what they have in stock. The connection puts in an order for the third party and the pickup for the booze or tobacco is arranged.
Once the alcohol or cigarettes are collected from the supplier, then the connection drives to the third party’s home and drops it off discreetly.
But the sneaky sales come at a high price.
A 750ml bottle of whisky, which usually goes for no more than R350, will sell now for R600 or R700. An inexpensive bottle of gin, which was R180, now costs R350. Even a six-pack of cider has increased from R69 to R200.
The cheapest bottle of wine has become unaffordable for many at a price tag of R200.
Smokers say they are paying up to R130 per 20-pack, which cost upwards of R35 before lockdown. A loose cigarette has gone from R2.50 to R5.
The exorbitant prices are attributed to the risks being taken by those making the illegal sales and the consumers don’t seem to care. The pricey alcohol and cigarettes are flying off the underground shelves according to sources who spoke to Weekend Witness.
A woman from a Pietermaritzburg suburb, who asked to remain unnamed for fear of reprisals, said the message spreads “through word of mouth”.
“Mostly, its smokers who inform one another if they know anyone selling,” she said.
She said during the first week of lockdown, a pack of cigarettes cost between R60 and R90 in the townships. “On level 4, the price hike just became ridiculous. In the first week it was R100, but after a few days a 20-pack was R130. I think this is ridiculous and these people who are selling are taking advantage because they know smokers need to nurse their nicotine addiction,” the woman said.
She said she had spent more than R1 000 on cigarettes since the lockdown period began.
One Imbali, Pietermaritzburg, man who has been a smoker for almost 20 years said he still manages to satisfy his cravings through the black market. “I buy cigarettes every day, but it’s been very hard at times to find them,” he told Weekend Witness. “The guys selling the cigarettes have increased prices, saying they’re adding more money because of the risk of being arrested and if I don’t want to buy it at the said price, I must leave it,” he explained.
The 26-year-old said he had no choice but to agree to their demands because he can barely get by without his guilty pleasure.
Another resident said: “Cigarettes are easy to get if you know where to look.”
The resident mentioned that cigarettes were being sold in various suburbs in the city. “Three weeks ago, a carton was selling for R280, but as soon as the uplifting of the ban was cancelled, the price went up to R320 and will continue going up every day,” he said.
Two other residents said they knew of people who get stocks of booze and cigarettes in Durban.
Weekend Witness has been reliably informed that cigarette sellers operating downtown in the Pietermaritzburg CBD were allegedly collecting their stock from a “heavily guarded building” in the Durban CBD.
An alcohol seller who spoke to the Weekend Witness was abrupt and furtive.
“I can’t talk to you on the phone. I’ll tell you all of this in person. When do you want to meet?” he asked aggressively when asked if he had any stock available.
He refused to say where he was operating from and arranged a rendezvous in Scottsville, Pietermaritzburg, but later cancelled saying he had run out of stock.
Another Pietermaritzburg man said he had stocked up with alcohol for a traditional ceremony in September and so started selling “accidentally”.
Asked how she found her way to an illicit supply, one smoker said: “I guess intuitively I know who to ask — usually fellow smokers. I have not bought directly, always through someone who knows someone. At the start of the lockdown, I paid R550 for a carton [which was about R100 to R150 more than on the shelf].
"Now for the same cigarette I have just paid R800! These are not what you would call black market cigarettes, they are the real thing. I believe you can pick up ‘cheaper brands’, what they call CK’s and D’s, for about R40 a packet [they are usually about R18 in the shops]. So its a massive mark-up. Its all very underground.
“The general consensus is that you can buy from [informal] shops. But the two in my area are not selling [I tried].”
“I have not bought booze on the black market. Someone offered me wine [at R150 a bottle for something which would probably cost about R80] which I didn’t buy but someone I know did. And this week I was offered some spirits [gin and brandy] at R400 a bottle [cheap stuff]. I was tempted [to buy the gin], but when I got back to them, they said the stocks had been sold.”