Daily Maverick

Why do we allow multinatio­nals to treat us with disdain and trample over us with impunity?

- Sasha Planting is an associate editor at Business Maverick.

This week two reports were released that make gigantic claims about the behaviour of Big Tobacco. In this case British American Tobacco (BAT). The reports are based on analyses of whistle-blower documents and court records by the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath and published by STOP, a global tobacco industry watchdog, and allege that BAT, a Fortune 500 company, ran a mass surveillan­ce operation and informant network in South Africa and made questionab­le payments to the tune of $600,000 to dozens of indi- viduals in 10 African countries.

This seems explosive to me. But there has not been much reaction from BAT’s head office – Globe House in London – beyond a generic statement saying that the company “emphatical­ly rejects the mischaract­erisation of its anti-illicit trade activities”. In other words, just another day, just another annoying report. Perhaps BAT assumes that if it just waits long enough it will all go away. After all, that is what has happened in the past. In January, the UK’s Serious Fraud Office announced that after an extensive investigat­ion and comprehens­ive review of the available evidence, it did not have a case worthy of prosecutio­n. It launched a probe into BAT’s activities in August 2017, after a 2015 BBC programme described cases of its employees bribing officials in East African countries, including Rwanda and Burundi, in an effort to undermine anti-smoking laws.

BAT cooperated with the Office during its investigat­ion and ultimately the investigat­ion ran out of steam. The problem is that new claims keep surfacing. These are no ordinary claims. They relate to the systematic corruption of African government­s via clandestin­e operations with militarist­ic names like “Deep Jungle”. In South Africa the reports talk about the penetratio­n of our intelligen­ce and law enforcemen­t environmen­ts.

You would imagine that with our history, law enforcemen­t, investors, and society in general would be screaming for answers. Yet it seems we have all become too jaded to care. How is it possible that the evidence of whistle-blowers is never enough? The fact is that two of the 200-odd BAT secret agents are pretty well known in SA. And their actions have had significan­t consequenc­es on our society. The one is, of course, Belinda Walter, who was handled and paid straight out of Globe House, London. The other was Mike Peega. What these two also had in common, other than being paid BAT secret agents, is the fact that they were the primary protagonis­ts that started the whole “SARS Rogue Unit” propaganda. They started it in early 2014, they were key to the sham Inspector-General of Intelligen­ce report of 2014, and they were also both handled by rogue agents in the State Security Agency. What they also have in common is their relations with the now defunct Multi-agency Tobacco Task Team, which was littered with rogue intelligen­ce agents.

This week’s report, titled British American Tobacco in South Africa: Any Means Necessary, cited two whistle-blowers who worked for FFS, the security company that was retained by BAT until 2015. They spoke of activities that were “outside the law” and included sophistica­ted surveillan­ce, breaking into premises, stealing mail, tapping of phones. Does this ring a bell? This is exactly what the six individual­s within the so-called

SARS Rogue Unit were falsely accused of. And they were persecuted by the likes of the EFF, Public Protector Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane, former SARS commission­er Tom Moyane and the Radical Economic Transforma­tion faction within the ANC – all of whose interests collided to form one unholy union. The lives of those in the socalled Rogue Unit, like too many other whistle-blowers in this country, were ruined. In the meantime, the real culprits escape unscathed. In its drive to sell more and more cigarettes, BAT is treating Africa and her people with disdain and disregard – buying them off when they get in the way.

What we should remember is that when law enforcemen­t and tax agencies are compromise­d it affects developmen­t; it restricts the ability of the country to react, whether to a public health challenge or any other challenge. We allow companies like these to pursue their own agendas with impunity, and the cost is our own democracy. Our regulators show no inclinatio­n to act, and SARS is apparently still refining its strategy to deal with illicit cigarettes (and in this regard the evidence suggests that BAT is no angel, regardless of what it says). At the same time portfolio managers, for all their talk about investing according to environmen­tal, social and governance principles, hold BAT in more than 300 actively managed unit trusts.

I realise this is one of the most attractive investment opportunit­ies for funds that are forced to invest in SA-listed stocks, but investing in an unethical company that views Africa as the Last Outpost must ultimately come at a price. Investors need to ask themselves whether the dividends are worth it.

 ??  ?? By Sasha Planting
By Sasha Planting

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