Long Read

British American Tobacco: Dirty Deeds in Africa

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One year after taking over British American Tobacco’s (BAT) operations in Africa, Norman Davis gave an interview to the firm’s inhouse newsletter.

It was 1995 and BAT had reason to be satisfied, as Davis made clear: “In Mauritius, Uganda and Malawi, for instance, we effectively have a 100 per cent market share, and our share in Kenya is around 92 per cent.” But it was not enough. “It [Africa] represents immeasurable wealth, and it’s frustrating for Africa that these resources have never been exploited,” said Davis. “There is no lack of opportunities. It is up to us to grasp them.”1

For a long period, BAT was barely challenged in Africa by other tobacco multinationals or local rivals. Its presence stretches back more than a century, first as an importer and then as a manufacturer of local and international brands. By 1980 it had subsidiaries and affiliates in 12 countries and licensed manufacturers in a further five. It had the leading brands in Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Sierra Leone and strong performers in Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda. Nonetheless, this only provided 4% of the company’s total turnover.2

Hand in hand with that market expansion came a corrupting influence on governments across the continent. BAT has used its economic muscle to keep tobacco control measures to a minimum. Anyone getting in its way, whether tobacco competitors or health campaigners, have found themselves facing the full might of this colonial giant.345

As Matthew L Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told the Guardian newspaper in 2017:

“British American Tobacco sees fragile states as one of the few remaining growth markets for its deadly products. For a company that doesn’t care how it makes its money or what laws need to be broken to ensure future profits, countries experiencing instability present a unique opportunity.”6

It is clear that BAT treats countries in Africa primarily as markets to be exploited rather than independent sovereign states. Find out more about BAT’s exploitation in Africa using this interactive map:

Now, new evidence has come to light revealing how BAT apparently bribed, threatened, and undermined the State and competitors across Africa. This information, obtained from whistleblowers, leaked documents, interviews and official reports, paints a damning picture of the activities of this blue chip UK company. BAT has denied the allegations saying that it “emphatically reject the mischaracterisation of our conduct” and that “acting responsibly and with integrity underpins the foundations of our culture and values as a company”. 7

You can read the reports at BAT Uncovered and further background via Tobacco Tactics’ The BAT Files page.

On this page we examine British American Tobacco’s malign corporate influence in South Africa in particular.

Historically, British American Tobacco South Africa (BATSA) has been the largest manufacturer and distributor in the country. However, in the last decade that dominance has come under attack from local brands. The country is not the biggest market in the continent, but it is one of the wealthiest and has political and economic influence over much of southern Africa. To be dominant in South Africa is to also be very well-positioned in the region.

“We will disrupt the enemy. We will destroy their Warehouses. We will blow up their supply lines.”

It can be too easy to reach for military metaphors when discussing business activities. However, in the case of BAT in South Africa, this was a war. It involved security staff from the UK and ex-policemen from South Africa. It used surveillance and apparent bribery. It used, military style language. As one subcontractor tasked with disrupting BAT’s competition put it: “We need to work as a unit, lean mean fighting machine. We will disrupt the enemy. We will destroy their Warehouses. We will blow up their supply lines.”8

And as with any war there are casualties. Every year an estimated 25,000 to 42,000 people in the country die from tobacco related diseases.9

In protecting its trading position, BAT used its Anti-Illicit Trade (AIT) Division. This was meant to crack down on smuggling and counterfeiting. Instead, the team looked to disrupt competitors. In South Africa they turned to a company called Forensic Security Services (FSS) for the particularly dirty work.10 They also used members of the South African police departments charged with enforcing the law objectively to target rival tobacco firms.

Back in 2002, competitor Apollo Tobacco accused BATSA in court of colluding with state officials and operatives at BAT’s service provider, FSS, of “industrial espionage.” The head of Apollo, Hennie Delport, accused BATSA and FSS of breaking into his offices and planting listening devices in order to disrupt Apollo’s operations.11 BATSA denies the allegations which have yet to be determined in court.

Twenty years on there is evidence to suggest BAT was engaged in similar corporate espionage on an industrial scale via FSS. One senior FSS personnel member said that, under BATSA and BAT’s orders, FSS undertook a “systematic campaign of maximum disruption to the production plants and business”.12 That meant using surveillance to monitor shipments, infiltrate factories and warehouses, plant tracking devices, recruit informers and liaise with law enforcement to order bogus stops and seizures.

“All the people at FSS were ex-Apartheid managerial positions.”

Many FSS employees were veterans of the notorious Apartheid police department, Reaction Unit 9, which was infamous for “questionable shootings” and brutal force. As the ex-FSS employee turned whistleblower Francois Van Der Westhuizen would later tell the BBC: “All the people at FSS were ex-Apartheid managerial positions. All of them had links, direct links back to certain factions within the police, within law enforcement, within the revenue service. So it was just the old guard continuing.”13

Directing them were UK BAT personnel. They had ‘burner’ phones and travelled under aliases when visiting South Africa to brief and train operatives.1415

The BAT operation comprehensively penetrated the South African law enforcement community. FSS also obtained physical access to Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department’s CCTV control room, allowing it to monitor 240 cameras, including one in particular positioned outside competitor Carnilinx’s offices.12 BAT was part of the state’s Tobacco Task Team set up to fight the growth of illicit trade.16 BAT’s relationship with the police meant it could manipulate the Tobacco Task Team, providing intelligence to guide where it wanted the police to act. In return FSS got access to classified police material including personal data on officials at rival companies.

As a Government Commission of Inquiry would later say to the Task Team: “The one thing the Tobacco Task team did not investigate was the illicit trade in cigarettes, but investigated instead the investigators who once investigated that trade”.17 “For all this effort, one would imagine that between BAT and FSS they would have had some astonishing successes pinning criminal charges on their competitors. They didn’t—and that was apparently not the goal anyway. The goal seems to have been to simply to disrupt them to taunt them.”18 notes ex-South African Revenue Service official Telita Snyckers in her book Dirty Tobacco: Spies, Lies and Mega-Profits. South African state efforts to control illicit tobacco had effectively become a division in BAT’s corporate armoury.

Not only did BAT target rival companies but the BAT informant ring also infiltrated organized crime groups, including Pakistani, Mozambiquan and Zimbabwean syndicates. FSS whistleblower Francois Van Der Westhuizen has described how he got “illegal sources on board” including from the South African “mafia.” The whistleblower alleged that one sensitive source was a notorious crime boss: “He’s an underworld figure that ran the South African police system at this stage,” adding, “I was dealing with him on behalf of BAT. I had to debrief him to get intelligence from him.”13

The South African operation did not stop at the borders. Tobacco shipments went into Mozambique, Swaziland, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe and Zambia, so the informants followed them. Meanwhile, South African operatives were flown over to the UK to be wined, dined and briefed. They were joined on at least one occasion by a South African Police Service captain. And the paperwork describing the system of payments used to fund this spy network suggests BAT was also sending agents to Latin America.19

From its London headquarters at Globe House, BAT operated a continent-spanning informant network to pursue its economic interests. Globe House sits barely a mile away from where another global corporation was founded on similarly aggressive lines, authorised in its founding charter to wage war and which maintained its own army and navy. In doing so the East India Company “[transformed] itself into an aggressive colonial power.”20, stripping India and the Caribbean of its wealth over several centuries to benefit shareholders in London. And it did so with the tacit approval of the UK government which, at best, looked the other way and at worst was complicit in the exploitation.

BAT is following in that colonialist tradition.


Phil Chamberlain

Further Reading

BAT Uncovered

British American Tobacco in South Africa: Any Means Necessary

Buying Influence and Advantage in Africa: An Analysis of British American Tobacco’s Questionable Payments

TobaccoTactics Resources

The BAT Files

South Africa Country Profile

British American Tobacco

TCRG Research

R.R. Jackson, A. Rowell, A.B. Gilmore, “Unlawful Bribes?”: A documentary analysis showing British American Tobacco’s use of payments to secure policy and competitive advantage in Africa, 13 September 2021, UCSF: Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.

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  1. British American Tobacco, BAT Bulletin, February 1995, Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, Bates no. 500161146-500161167
  2. D. Tucker, Truth library, Tobacco: An International Perspective, 1982, Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, Bates no. 401295534-401295605, accessed August 2021
  3. British American Tobacco, Africa: Ashtray of the World, The Sunday Times, May 13, 1990, available from Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, Bates no. 2500078937-2500078947
  4. R. Jackson, Tobacco industry accused of ‘intimidation and interference’ in Kenya, The Guardian, 2 March 2015, accessed August 2021
  5. S. Boseley, Threats, bullying, lawsuits: tobacco industry’s dirty war for the African market, The Guardian, 12 July 2017, accessed August 2021
  6. S. Boseley, Revealed: how British American Tobacco exploited war zones to sell cigarettes, The Guardian, 18 August 2017, accessed September 2021
  7. BAT, BAT emphatically rejects mischaracterisation of anti-illicit trade activities, BAT web site, 13 September 2021, accessed September 2021
  8. J. van Loggerenberg, Tobacco Wars, Inside the Spy Games and Dirty Tricks of Southern Africa’s Cigarette Trade, Tafelberg, 2019, p53
  9. South Africa, Tobacco Atlas, accessed September 2021
  10. J. van Loggerenberg, Tobacco Wars, Inside the Spy Games and Dirty Tricks of Southern Africa’s Cigarette Trade, Tafelberg, 2019, p90-91
  11. J. Van Loggerenberg, Tobacco wars: inside the spy games and dirty tricks of Southern Africa’s cigarette trade, Tafelberg,  2019, p90-91
  12. ab]D. F. van der Westhuizen, Founding Affidavit, Carnilinx and BAT Holdings SA, BATSA, FSS, and others, December 2015, Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, Bates no: PROD0000213, accessed September 2021
  13. abD. F. van der Westhuizen interview quoted in British American Tobacco in South Africa: By Any Means Necessary, September 2021, accessed September 21
  14. Leaked Document, April Week 1-4 Combined.xlsx, 9 May 2013, Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, accessed September 2021
  15. J. van Loggerenberg, Tobacco Wars, Inside the Spy Games and Dirty Tricks of Southern Africa’s Cigarette Trade, Tafelberg, 2019, p63,110-111
  16. S. Sole, Big Tobacco in bed with SA law enforcement agencies, Mail & Guardian, 20 March 2014, accessed August 2021
  17. The Nugent Commission, The Commission of Inquiry into tax administration and governance by the South African Revenue Service, November 2018, accessed August 2021
  18. T. Snyckers, Dirty Tobacco: Spies, Lies and Mega-Profits, Tafelberg, 2020
  19. J. van Loggerenberg, Tobacco Wars, Inside the Spy Games and Dirty Tricks of Southern Africa’s Cigarette Trade, Tafelberg, 2019, p110; Investigative Meeting Held at Cape Town, British American Tobacco (BAT AND BATSA), RE: BRI/259 Project Victoria, 01.02.2017
  20. W.Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, pxxxi, London: Bloomsbury, 2019