Johannesburg – For months, the police’s tactical response team, also known as the amaBerete, was deployed in Limpopo to provide an armed police escort to multinational cigarette company British American Tobacco (BAT).
BAT boasts of having more than 85% of the cigarette market in South Africa.
Yet despite declaring R81bn in profit from its global operation last year, BAT received police protection for free.
The amaBerete are an elite police unit – they’ve been deployed in Marikana and to quell xenophobic violence. In other words, they work in risky situations where ordinary police officers might struggle to cope with the situation.
However, City Press has established that the service they performed for BAT often entailed the soft task of TRT members riding shotgun inside cigarette vans from spaza shop to spaza shop as BAT employees carried out day-to-day deliveries.
The practice was exposed in January after members of the TRT complained to the SA Policing Union (Sapu) that they were being treated like private security guards.
Sapu president Mpho Kwinika says they became concerned when they realised police officers were being made to abandon their day-to-day duties to guard a private company.
“We wrote to the provincial commissioner [in Limpopo] and, when we didn’t get a response, we wrote to the minister of police seeking that the matter be attended to,” says Kwinika.
Various sources have described how TRT members were instructed to dress in plain clothes while carrying their police weapons, and were placed either inside BAT cigarette vans or in unmarked rental cars.
Sapu provincial secretary Solly Bulala explains: “Their work is to confront – if they must shoot to save lives and properties, they will do so. But you can’t take such people to investigate cigarettes. The police must not be used like a private company … It’s demoralising for them.”
In January, Sapu sent a letter to Limpopo provincial commissioner Lieutenant General Sehlahle Masemola demanding to know why police management had okayed “the utilisation of SAPS members [TRT] to protect foreign business interests”. (BAT is registered on stock exchanges in New York, London and Johannesburg. Their head office is in the UK, although their South African subsidiary, British American Tobacco SA, is locally registered.)
City Press has also seen a copy of a second letter, forwarded by Sapu to national police commissioner General Riah Phiyega and other senior police officials, in which a junior officer, Lieutenant Boitumelo Ramahlaha, complains about the “serious exploitation” of the Polokwane TRT members being “deployed to work and transport cargo” for BAT.
“This placed these members’ lives in serious danger of possible attack by fellow police officers, as it would have been difficult to identify these members as they executed their ‘duties’ in civilian clothes,” the letter reads.
“How does the SAPS plan to recover monies paid to these members during their absence from the actual control and command of [the] SAPS, and who will be held accountable?”
Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi is of the opinion that these allegations are a ploy by Ramahlala to divert attention away from an investigation currently ongoing against him.
Sapu says the Limpopo SAPS agreed to stop using TRT members in this way after they complained, but the Hawks confirmed that, in Limpopo, other units of the police were continuing to provide “police patrols as and when threats are detected” as “the Limpopo police management committed to work together with BAT in areas where attacks are prevalent”.
“The decision was taken in a management meeting where the provincial commissioner, all deputy provincial commissioners, cluster commanders, station commanders, component heads and BAT management committed to work together in light of escalating attacks on their delivery vans,” Mulaudzi said. “The police have a vast and multifaceted role in society and do not necessarily act as crime fighters, but also provide a range of services to the public.”
‘We did not feel like police’
Tactical response team (TRT) members are some of the most highly trained officers in the SA Police Service. But for six to eight months they were made to feel like security guards working for a private company.
This was the experience of a TRT member City Press spoke to on condition of anonymity.
The officer described how, starting in June last year, they were instructed to report to BAT’s depot in Polokwane. They would receive their orders from there, which would often mean they were told to either ride inside the cigarette trucks or in unmarked cars rented from Avis.
For the rest of the day, they would ride around with the BAT vans, delivering cigarettes to cafes and spaza shops.
The officer said they were told to dress in plain clothes and, although they had their police-issue weapons, they did not have bulletproof vests. Their concern, the officer said, was that, if an attack happened, there would be no way for them to identify themselves as police officers.
The officer said it was never clear what their mandate was, but that doing the work made them feel as though they were security guards working for a private company, instead of highly skilled officers.