Bribes of up to $500 000 and the clandestine planting of surveillance equipment and spies in Southern Africa are just some of the damning allegations levelled against British American Tobacco South Africa (Batsa) this week.
The National Council Against Smoking wants the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks) and the Special Investigating Unit to probe Batsa for allegedly bribing the late former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe with between $300 000 and $500 000 to secure the release of three directors of a security company implicated in robbery conspiracies.
The council said it had sourced the bribery allegations from a BBC current affairs programme.
“Thousands of leaked documents shown to the BBC also reveal BAT was paying bribes in South Africa and using illegal surveillance to damage rivals. Most of this work [was] outsourced to a South African company called Forensic Security Services (FSS), [which] worked with Batsa from 2000 to 2016,” the council said.
“It is not surprising that BAT is once again entangled in such accusations; decades of tobacco industry interference tactics with policy are well documented, and it is disappointing that not much is being done to stop the industry from meddling behind the scenes. Companies must be held accountable for their role in corruption.”
“As is to be expected, BAT has denied the charges. It is difficult though not to conclude that the usual way for BAT to do business in Africa is through corruption and this will continue until the company is investigated and charged,” the council added.
Its views were echoed by the Fair-trade Independent Tobacco Association, which, through its chairperson Sinenhlanhla Mnguni, claimed that private investigators were planting surveillance equipment inside the homes of the association’s members, as well as “setting up of an illegal spy network in neighbouring Zimbabwe”.
In a statement this week, Mnguni also alleged that Batsa colluded with state representatives in South Africa in its supposed spying, while committing alleged money-laundering to pay the “spies”.
“We have had sight of sworn to and draft affidavits obtained from former state officials, intelligence agents and persons who were involved in these practices in respect of the above.
“These clearly demonstrate that there was clear collusion between the multinationals, their private investigators, and state officials to drive a clear agenda against some of our members,” Mnguni said.
“These practices were not lawful, have had, and will continue to have a negative impact on our members [in] growing local businesses.”
In a statement to the Mail & Guardian, BAT said a UK investigation in January 2021 had cleared it of all wrongdoing. “The criminal illicit cigarette trade has a significant detrimental effect on society and should be the focus of collective effort and attention by all stakeholders,” BAT said. “We emphatically reject the mischaracterisation of our conduct by some media outlets.”