Final Word

Sheriff Gordhan and his battle with bootleggers


 Key background to the raging battle between Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan and the Hawks, is probably in a file, locked up in the Treasury’s safe, on illicit fleecing of the national purse by bootleggers.

We reported last week about strong indications that the so-called investigation into a special probing unit (dubbed a ‘rogue unit’) in the Treasury during Mr Gordhan’s tenure as the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, is an attempt to keep a dossier compiled by that unit under wraps. The aim being to protect those fingered in the dossier.

Some of the issues, widely reported to be covered in that dossier and revealed by Mr Gordhan, include illicit tobacco trade of more than R2 billion, illicit drug trade of more than R5 billion, dogging of custom duties worth R500 million and tax evasion worth more than R200 million.

All of these activities, or misdemeanours, snugly fit into the present-day definition of the term ‘bootlegging’, with the perpetrators known as ‘bootleggers’.

It is generally accepted that ‘bootlegging’ is an American term. However, as we will show further on, although the term was popularised early in the 20th century during the days of so-called prohibition in the United States, its roots might lie further back in history.

Why bootlegging

According to most sources, including the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the term comes from the notion that if one wears long boots, one could hide items inside the top leg to transport or conceal from others – be that law enforcers (if it concerns illegal liquor, drugs or incriminating documents) or potential enemies (if it is a knife or pistol).

According to one source it was particularly common among American cowboys who “would smuggle the flat liquor bottles in their boots to sell or trade with the Indians”. It is important to note that in 1851 it became illegal to trade in or supply liquor to Indians.

During those trading encounters they at times also felt, besides needing liquor to help smooth transactions, the need to be prepared to defend themselves. The boot-legs would then be used to conceal weapons like knives and pistols.

In America the bootlegging term also first became generally used in the context of illegal liquor trade. Specifically so in Kansas, which was the first state to pass prohibition laws in the 1880s and where it is claimed the term first appeared in print.

The term came into full bloom as part of the American vocabulary when the 18th amendment to the US Constitution introduced a national prohibition of alcohol from 1920 until its repeal in 1933.

Earlier roots

The taxation of alcoholic beverages has, due to its social popularity, historically been just too big a temptation for rulers not to milk. And in its wake would follow smuggling and tax-dodging.

As early as the 16th century the British government had ‘revenue cutters’ in place to stop the smuggling that drew the attention of the ‘organised crime’ of the time – pirates. Pirates often did a roaring trade by running smuggling routes to heavily taxed colonies.

But some sources claim that the term indeed goes back to the late 1700s in Cornwall, during the build-up to the United States War of Independence. The United Kingdom, being close to financial ruin, like South Africa today, raised taxes enormously to pay for the conflict. In the process the local fishing and other industries in Cornwall collapsed and smuggling became a core industry.

Wider use

From the late 19th century the word ‘bootleg’ became increasingly used in connection with anything that was purposely kept out of sight. By the time that America’s prohibition came around it really caught on in a big way.

There were times in various parts of the world when the sale of alcohol was limited for various purposes and restricted to limited trading hours on limited days – from the mentioned sale to American Indians in the US and blacks in Apartheid South Africa to locations like the Prince Edward Island during the first half of the 20th century.

The term also spread to other areas of the economy beyond the liquor industry. During the 1960s, for example, those of us who were poor students, were pretty pleased if we could lay our hands on ‘bootleg’ tapes (copies) of top-selling artists like Bob Dylan or Cliff Richards and the Shadows.

Final word

And as ‘sheriff’ Gordhan’s battle in the SARS Wars illustrates, bootlegging has become a massive and dangerous industry, which does not even give the government structures of the day – democratic or otherwise – a miss.

 Also read: Battle for the grades and South Africa’s “9-12”

by Piet Coetzer

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