RON SMITH: HOW HE HAD CAPTURED THE SWAZI STATE (PART II OF III)
When the noose was closing in on the late businessman Ron Smith, Prosecutor Ansie Venter made some interesting yet startling remarks on why it took over ten years to arrest him.
"Smith was never able to be prosecuted in Swaziland because there is no law there for the trafficking of drugs,” she told reporters in 1999.
“We all knew he was across the border but could do nothing about it. He was also on a good footing with the Swazi king," Venter, a South African prosecutor, continued.
Venter was right but not entirely. It was true that Smith had courted his way into the inner circle of the then young monarch who had, for all intent and purpose, not yet found his own footing around running a big, dynamic and complex royal family.
The King was still young and many of the senior royal family members had an upper hand in running the country.
It therefore became a competition of who could bring the monied Smith closer to the royal family in general and the King in particular.
And so the competition began. Like Robin Hood, Smith funded a number of government projects and the local media was awash with stories praising his generosity and philanthropic heart.
The grand opening of the Tiger City in Manzini was spectacular in all respects, attracting the who's and who of the country. The building was officially opened by His Majesty King Mswati III in a glamourous ceremony.
The Tiger City came to be associated with its trade mark “sikhwela mahhala” , a yellow bus that used to transport customers from Manzini town to the complex at Zakhele for free.
The event was glamorous in not just the grand display of opulence but also in the who it attracted, from the local councillor in Manzini to Members of Parliament, Cabinet and business gurus of all shades of grey.
Everyone was tripping himself just to be noticed by Smith and every Minister was fighting to offer Smith one favour or the other perhaps to help fund their campaigns or to make them look good in the eyes of the electorate.
Smith had a lot of errand boys, many of whom are now renowned businessmen. Some run construction companies, luxury resorts and many other companies.
Their names are known to The Bridge but will not be revealed not just for ethical purposes but also because we do not want to intimate they were an offshoot or beneficiaries of Smith's drug empire. But it does remain interesting that all of of Smith's acolytes went on to become businessmen of note.
Besides the Tiger City building, Smith owned a 2855 square metre farm in Manzini. Among some other properties Smith operated a Rama Movie Rental and video machines, operated “Meticash Discounters” “WoodAfrica Builders Supplies and manufacturers".
Through the proceeds from all his businesses, alleged to be used to launder money, Smith was able to fund a number of royal family members' lifestyles and was generous in activities that involved some politicians and in some rare cases even some none governmental organisations.
The one man who was the first to publicly blow the lid on Smith was businessman and then Senator Walter Bennett who ran a sole crusade to dissuade members of cabinet and royalty from associating with the Smith's.
Bennett became enemy number one of some politicians as he was seen as jealous. Meanwhile, local police with the Federation Bureau of Investigations (FBI), the Scorpions—South Africa's organised crime division—and America's DEA had long been on Smith's trail.
They had been investigating him for ten years and had long put him under heavy surveillance. At some point, Smith told the Times of Swaziland that he was annoyed with all this association with drugs and invited the police to investigate him so he could clear his name.
“I'm sure that my partners are aware that I have been wrongly accused," he said in an interview with the Times of Swaziland.
"If I am a dog the police should find the fleas on me. In the past, I invited police to stay with me for two years to prove that I was involved in drugs. They did not. They told me I was under surveillance but I never saw them."
He claimed to be a victim in South Africa because he was a foreigner. About four years ago, Bennett revisited the issue of drug mafias in the country and recalled how an unnamed businessman heavily linked with drugs had captured the entire Swazi state.
The outspoken former senator made a number of sensational claims during his parliamentary hearing on dagga licensing in the country.
Speaking at a portfolio committee on the conundrum on dagga licensing, Bennett alleged that there was an underground illegal heroin syndicate that has been operating in the country for a while.
He said the syndicate included top officials from the Royal Eswatini Police Service (REPS) and some politicians, including Cabinet. “The syndicate was not happy with the whole process of wanting to license the cannabis industry.
It was highly possible that it was plotting how to hijack the whole process of licensing the industry,” Bennett was quoted saying by the Swazi Observer.
He added that the country was from a time when it was dominated by renowned drug lords such as Ron Smith of the Tiger City fame. He claimed many government officials, including police officers, benefitted from Smith.
He said even bishops benefitted financially. During the funeral of Smith in 2011, his son, Ralston, alleged that his father was hated by one jealous “prominent person” whom he did not mention by name.
Delivering his speech at Smith's memorial service held at the Cathedral in Manzini, Ralston said soon after one of his father’s companies, Tiger Group, became one of the pillars of the kingdom’s economy, daggers were drawn against him.
"He then became a target of malicious slander by a prominent person who had always been jealous of his success in business. Despite the negative impacts such an ordeal had on his life and business interests, not once did my father ever complain. Instead, he turned the other cheek," Ralston said at the memorial.
Even though Ralston did not mention the alleged jealous prominent person, it was clear to some that he meant Bennett.