The deadly smoky business

The deadly smoky business

MASERU-’MATŠEPO Moqoapo was minding her business in a wholesale shop when a worker approached her, and promised to arrange for the businesswoman to buy cartons of cigarettes.
She liked the idea, and parted with M25 000 in cash.
That was the last time she saw the man and her money.

Because cigarettes are so scarce, and profitable these days, Moqoapo seemed undeterred by the botched deal that she was willing to give it another chance.
So, when she saw some people on social media advertising cigarettes, Moqoapo picked up the phone to place an order last week.
Again, she had fallen for a scam, and this time it ended in a gun fight involving the police.

This week, Moqoapo told thepost her heart “is bleeding” and she is unable to talk about the ordeal.
“I won’t say even two words. I will do so when the time is ripe,” she said.
But, the fact that she was prepared to try out a second deal after being swindled the first time – and that more people are taking to such scams – speaks volumes of how cigarettes have turned into a precious commodity amid serious lockdown-induced shortages.

Lesotho imports most of its cigarettes from neighbouring South Africa.
Lockdowns aimed at slowing the spread of Covid-19 have affected deliveries, and smokers desperate for some puffs are willing to pay as much as M10 for a cigarette.

The police on Monday warned the public to be wary of a syndicate that is scamming people by claiming to be selling huge quantities of cigarettes.
“We are receiving reports in Maputsoe that there are some people who have been robbed of their monies under a false pretext that they would be sold cigarettes,” police spokesman Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli said.
At times, the situations have turned violent.

When Moqoapo, the duped businesswoman, tried to stich a deal with her social media “suppliers”, a police officer ended up sustaining gunshot wounds.
A policeman happened to be around when Moqoapo met her supplier, and he asked the man to open the consignment.
Instead, the man pulled out a gun and fired at the officer.
He was immediately whisked away by his accomplices who were in a waiting car, but he had sustained injuries after the policeman fired back.
While at a local hospital for medical help, the policeman saw the cigarette “supplier” writhing in pain on a bed and immediately alerted his colleagues.

Superintendent Mopeli said the man is in custody and an attempted murder case has been opened.
However, Moqoapo has reached an out of court settlement with the man who duped her the first time for him to pay back the money.
Meanwhile, the police officer commanding Teya-Teyaneng police station, Senior Superintendent Phahla Letsosa, said three police officers have been charged with defrauding two men of M24 000 over a tobacco scam.
He said they are yet to deal with those police officers after appearing in court.

“It is unfortunate that the police officers who have to maintain law and order are the ones who dabble in crimes,” Senior Superintendent Letsosa said.
For those able to dodge the scammers, business is flourishing.
A single cigarette that sold for between M2.50 an M3 before the lockdown is now going for between M5 and M10, depending on the brand.
Tobacco suppliers on the official market are now rationing supplies, with customers at times allowed to buy only two packs of 20 cigarettes each.
“Cigarettes are the new marijuana,” said Tšeliso Komete, a vendor in Maseru.

“Getting stock is hard but when you have it (customers come in large numbers to your stall) like bees that are attracted to a flower with pollen,” Komete said.
Towards the end of June, Komete sold five packs of cigarettes for M800, unaware that the same quantity would fetch double in two weeks.
“Someone came here and asked me to sell to him, only to learn later that he was going to sell in South Africa and he made tons of money,” he said.
And with shop shelves empty, smokers at times get desperate, and even crooked, said Komete.

“On Saturday I caught a customer trying to take more than what he had paid for,” he said, adding, “People are desperate and greedy at the same time. Now everyone wants to sell cigarettes, it is a way of making quick cash,” he said.
Most smokers, he said, do not even complain about the high price.
Last Sunday Komete said he knocked off around mid-morning after his stock sold out.

“I had made enough from that sale, probably made even more than a taxi makes in a day. I had to go rest and prepare for the following day,” he said.
Katiso Mahloane, another vendor, said he has been selling cigarettes, gum, airtime and sweets at the Maseru bus stop for five years but cigarettes were always the lowest selling commodity – until now.

“When you have stock (of cigarettes) you are a king. Everyone wants some, especially in the early morning hours and after work,” Mahloane said.
“Even those who previously preferred to buy a pack from the stores are now buying from us. They do not have time to queue or run around looking for shops to buy from,” he said.
“We are suffering and no one is coming to our aid so if cigarettes can help us make money now let it be,” Mahloane said.
“Can I get a Stuyvesant?” a client said, before buying two for M14.

In less than five minutes, Mahloane had served four clients.
“You see what I am talking about, business is good,” Mahloane said.
Like other traders, he is constantly worried about fraudsters.
“One of our colleagues lost M3 000 by buying toilet paper and sticks disguised as cigarettes. I don’t know how they did it but they had even managed to wrap the boxes nicely one could not suspect a thing,” Mahloane said.

The influx of “fake” cigarettes is another challenge.
“Everyone is just trying to make quick cash and because we are desperate for stock they target us. We do not buy from people we do not trust. We prefer to buy from suppliers that we have been working with all this time,” Mahloane said.
“If they do not have I would rather wait for the following day rather than risk losing my hard earned money to fraudsters,’’ he said.
Supplies have become so scarce that traders are always “hustling” to get stock.

Lebohang Lebajoa, another street trader, said “satisfying my customers has become a challenge now”.
“I think our suppliers do not have enough stock too. South Africa is fighting tooth and nail against the sale of cigarettes. The little we get might be what was remaining in their warehouses,” Lebajoa said.
“Demand is too high but supply is getting lower by the day.”

Lemohang Rakotsoane & Majara Molupe

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