For most people, the world of tax collection is opaque, existing in our lives simply as a list of onerous instructions emanating from a seemingly impenetrable government institution. In my world, casual discussions around tax collection occur mostly in one of two ways: as the source of vitriol or the brunt of vitriolic jokes. In these stories, we’re always the victim.
A former tax executive at the South African Revenue Service (SARS), Johann van Loggerenberg, has done the reader a great service in taking up writing about his experiences. His latest work, Tobacco wars, takes us further down the road into what it means to be a civil servant.
Van Loggerenberg became a familiar name a few years ago with the publication in the media of stories of the so-called “rogue unit” at SARS – stories now discredited as having been instituted to serve the nefarious goals that this book highlights. But it is not just a book about that.
First off, it reads like a thriller as it tells how a unit leading the fight against illicit tobacco came to be systematically dismantled, how events from 2013/14 developed into a whirlwind whose effects the author describes right up until this year.
It tells how even the most powerful tobacco companies were empowered in their shady dealings when corruption took hold of Jacob Zuma’s government.
In this way, Tobacco wars contributes to exposing the levels attained by state capture, and does so, importantly, by telling the stories of individuals.
It is a deeply personal story for the author. Indeed, these kinds of battles always are, but it shows how the war touched – and still touches – the lives of ordinary people, claiming reputations, jobs and even lives.
In fact, it goes wider than that: “… As things stand,” Van Loggerenberg writes, “every compliant taxpayer in the country is effectively subsidising the tax evaders.”
Every step of the way through the book is substantiated in an annexure of copious references.
Many parts of the story have appeared in media stories already, and some of it may not be news, but this is the version from a man at the centre of it. It also ties together many of the more granular aspects of the many characters and their practices.
Sipping his cool drink through a plastic straw, the handler told Baloyi, “Gold Leaf is a problem. They’ve grown over the years, they have a huge market in the country nowadays. We need to deal with them.” Baloyi just nodded and listened.
“We’ve come up with a plan. We need to sow discontent among the management at Gold Leaf and staff. This is where you come in,” said the handler. Baloyi just listened. “We think that if we can steal some of the stock, just a few cartons here and there, in a way that will make Gold Leaf’s management think their staff is involved, it is likely that they will begin to behave in a way that may just cause the staff to revolt.” Baloyi understood.
Among the many protagonists are a comprehensive band of powerful business people, former soldiers and ex-police, corrupt officials, street crooks and more.
In his foreword to the book, Sikonathi Mantshantsha, as deputy editor of the Financial Mail, describes the period that Tobacco wars details as “one of the darkest … since the dawn of democracy”.
Here, Van Loggerenberg’s book also provides yet another warning to readers in general about the value of information and misinformation in an age where we grossly underestimate what we give away in exchange for all this “free” information.
Overall, the book sheds light on the darker workings of a massive industry. But it also provides much-needed insight into SARS and the world of tax collection. In a sense, it may make this enterprise even friendlier for the common man.
Tobacco wars is an easy but discomfiting read. Van Loggerenberg has laid out the story, but also the level of apparent inaction of the authorities, on many cases. Many questions remain. The most important one: When will action be taken against the culprits?
Tobacco wars, inside the spy games and dirty tricks of southern Africa’s cigarette trade follows Van Loggerenberg’s previous works, Rogue: The inside story of SARS’s elite crime-busting unit (with Adrian Lackay) and Death and taxes: How SARS made hitmen, drug dealers and tax dodgers pay their dues.