From: The New Age
The added danger of having to halt “armed” Zimbabwean cigarette smugglers has now been added to the burden of the thinly stretched ranger corps in Mapungubwe National Park.
The 14 men whose job it is to protect the ecological integrity of the 12000ha park that takes in the Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe borders are no strangers to intercepting Zimbabweans en route to Gauteng with loads of illegal cigarettes.
“We cope, but it’s hard work and long hours,” the park’s conservation manager, Martin Engelbrecht, said.
The rangers, with limited assistance from an SA Army deployment at the Pontdrift border post, have stopped “a good number” of cigarette smugglers but Engelbrecht is concerned for their safety now that firearms have entered the equation.
“Until recently our rangers have only intercepted smugglers carrying illegal cigarettes along with food and water to sustain them to their pre-arranged pick-up points. Rangers have now seen smugglers openly carrying firearms and we have to call on the assistance of soldiers.”
Paradoxically, one of the park’s major attractions includes a large portion of what was a major military base set up to prevent the incursion of guerrillas into the “old” South Africa. The Greefswald military base on a hill overlooking the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers was seen as an integral component of national security. Today it is the starting point for leisurely walks to one of three look-outs where visitors can see wildlife move freely between the three countries.
“Obviously there is no fence to act as a deterrent and the presence of wildlife, including crocodile and hippo, does not seem to put cigarette smugglers off. This means our small ranger team has to put in that much more effort patrolling.”
Johannes Masalelesa, a Mapungubwe interpretive guide, is frank about illegals, both immigrants and smugglers, who use the park to get into South Africa.
“They are all Zimbabweans. People from Botswana do not have to come to South Africa – they live in a rich country.”
Cigarette smuggling is estimated to cost the government about R4bn in unpaid excise duties and VAT each year according to the Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa (TISA).
“Estimates are about 19 million illegal cigarettes are sold on South African streets and at unscrupulous cafes, spaza shops and retail outlets a day,” TISA chief executive Francois van der Merwe said.
Last year more than 400 million illicit cigarettes and 224 tons of leaf tobacco were destroyed by TISA at various sites across the country in the presence of SARS officials. Van der Merwe points out the illegal trade in tobacco products make it the world’s most widely smuggled product.
“It is a multibillion-dollar business, fuelling organised crime and corruption as well as robbing governments of much-needed tax revenue.”