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Opinion Piece

Show zero tolerance for criminals trading in misery

Prohibition is enriching gangsters while robbing the nation of vital funds – by Yusuf Abramjee, 13 July 2020


IN CASE anyone was in any doubt, our coronavirus lockdown is hurting the poorest the hardest and pushing them to the very brink of survival.


That’s now official.


More than half of those living in our most vulnerable communities say they don’t have enough money to buy food.


One in five cannot get access to the chronic medication they need. Even the more fortunate say bills for other essentials such as water and electricity are beyond them.


These harrowing figures are contained in extensive Government research into how the country is coping with the world’s strictest lockdown.


A doomsday scenario of children starving and whole communities in a fight for life does not seem an impossibility.


Such a disaster must have been one of President Ramaphosa’s primary concerns when he announced his R500 billion relief deal.


Whether that bold move proves to be enough to stave off boundless tragedy, only time will tell.


But what we know right now is that Government needs every cent of revenue it can get its hands on to fight this unprecedented pandemic, save lives and rebuild our nation once the worst has passed.


Before this crisis, SARS commissioner Ed Kieswetter acknowledged that South Africa is losing R100 billion a year to the illicit economy.


How we could use that money right now to save the lives of decent citizens. Remember, the President’s relief deal earmarks only R250,000 for food parcels. His boost for grant recipients is R50 billion, equal to only half of the illicit blackhole in state finances.


Instead of helping the needy, that looted money is cushioning the existence of criminals engaged in illegal trading across multiple sectors, including alcohol, clothing, pharmaceuticals and tobacco.


These crooks have grown fat after being allowed to plunder the nation during the ruinous years of state capture.


They steal the taxes needed to transform and rebuild South Africa, divert billions into foreign bank accounts and live like kings and queens in huge houses with 24-hour security to protect them from the citizens they are impoverishing.


Meanwhile, those law-abiding citizens have been denied the jobs, education, shelter and welfare they should expect and are now forced to live from hand to mouth as a deadly disease denies them the ability to eke out the barest essentials.


Since Jacob Zuma’s departure from power, major steps have been taken to combat the scourge of illegal trade.


But that fight was only beginning, and lockdown regulations have given a new lease of life to criminal syndicates who have used their sophisticated networks to exploit the unavailability of legal products.


The same Government research, compiled by the Human Sciences Research Council, shows illegal cigarette dealers have been making money hand over fist during this crisis.


One in four people in informal settlements have been able to buy cigarettes during lockdown. Throughout the country, cigarettes have been four times more accessible than alcohol, even though drinkers far outnumber smokers in South Africa.


Although we have seen illegal dealers being busted and border officers have reported an 80% increase in seizures of smuggled contraband, business has been booming for the kingpins masterminding this trade.


That fact alone bears out the wisdom of the Presidency’s decision to lift the ban on cigarettes from Friday. The move will see R35 million in excise revenues pouring into State coffers every day once again. Money that has been filling the pockets of criminals for the past month.


But these crooks won’t sit back and settle for their ill-gotten gains.


So we must not sit back and let them continue looting. There should be zero tolerance for those ripping off our country.


Illegal trade is not a victimless crime. The victims are the families we see on our TV screens desperate for food parcels and the children sitting in the street not knowing where their next meal will come from.


President Ramaphosa has spoken of a new social compact that must emerge from this crisis. One pillar of that compact must be a determination to stamp out illegal trade: follow the money, catch the crooks and lock them up.