In a plush bar in Johannesburg, Sizwe Ncapayi leans against a gleaming wooden bar counter, strikes a match and – with a flick of his wrist – lights a thick cigar. The businessman smacks his lips as he takes a puff. Ncapayi swirls the smoke in his mouth, rolls his eyes, exhales rapidly and declares, “Wonderful flavor!”
The cigar he holds between thumb and forefinger while sipping his cognac and chatting with his lovely companion is a Cuban Cohiba that costs well over US$ 100. Ncapayi says he spends “quite a lot each month” on cigars, “but not as much as some people over here.”
Most good quality cigars on sale in South Africa range in price from US$ 6 to $50 each. But there are others that are far more extravagant, such as the world’s most expensive cigar – the cognac-infused His Majesty’s Reserve brand. It’s made by the United States-based company Gurkha and produced in the Dominican Republic. It costs US$ 750. That’s almost 6,000 South African rands for a single smoke.
“No ways would I pay so much for one cigar,” Ncapayi says, scoffing, adding, “but I know quite a few people here who would.”
The young entrepreneur smokes mainly cigars, he says, “because it shows people that I am now able to afford the finer things in life … When smoking a cigar, you are like, achieving. You’ll be not smoking as such but making yourself big, advertising yourself.”
New cigar smokers: young, black and very successful
Ncapayi is typical of a new, rising breed of cigar smokers, according to Colin Wesley, South Africa’s leading cigar trader, who supplies most tobacconists in the country. These new cigar smokers, he says, are young, black and extremely successful.
“Cigars have always been associated with achievement,” says Wesley. “These young professionals, including many young black businessmen, like the big, expensive brands. Some of them come in and say, ‘Give me your biggest and most expensive cigar.’ They are not shy to spend money.”
The tobacconist argues that this makes sense: “If you think about it, even if they’re spending 250 rand (US$ 35) on a cigar – it may be a lot of money, but it’s not a lot of money for something that’s considered to be (among) the best in the world.”
There’s a “feeling of achievement” in that, says Wesley. “We can’t all drive Rolls Royces and Maseratis and things like that – but a lot of us, at some stage in our lives, will be able to afford one of the best cigars on earth.”
Chasm between rich and poor in South Africa
Yet South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world. As the nation’s slums expand, so do its lavish suburbs, where people pay many millions of rands for opulent houses. While millions of citizens earn less than a dollar a day, South Africa is also home to the most millionaires (in dollars) on the continent.
And as opportunities have opened up in business after decades of apartheid-inspired white economic domination, increasing numbers of black people are now getting rich.
Expensive Cuban cigars are a status symbol for South Africa's elites
“They can afford to spend money on the most powerful status symbols – one of which is the cigar,” says Wesley.
Brett Mulder, who manages what is arguably the finest cigar bar in Africa, in Johannesburg, says he’s seen a “major spike” in cigar sales in recent years. “On a given night here you’ll find hundreds of people, dancing, eating and smoking cigars.”
“The palates of South Africans, including black South Africans, have matured over the past 10 years especially,” he says, and they want luxury items, like cigars and champagne.
Anti–smoking laws ‘spark’ more cigar smoking
It strikes many as ironic that the increase in cigar consumption in South Africa is happening along with a drastic drop in cigarette smoking, as the government intensifies what’s already some of the world’s toughest anti-smoking legislation.
Smoking in public is illegal in South Africa, and higher taxes on tobacco products make cigarettes too expensive for many South Africans. Deterrents such as these have helped drive cigarette smoking in the country down to the lowest rates in modern times.
Yet, the National Council Against Smoking wants even stricter anti-smoking regulations and higher tobacco taxes. But it acknowledges that while almost 40 percent of South African adults smoked cigarettes in the mid-1990s – about 17 million people – now just over 20 percent are regular cigarette smokers – about seven million people.
Colin Wesley, South Africa's foremost cigar trader. He says many new cigar smokers are young, black and extremely wealthy
While there are no statistics available as to how many South Africans currently smoke cigars, tobacconist David Masterson says increasing cigar sales are an obvious indication that more people in the country are smoking them.
“It used to be that South Africans of all incomes smoked,” he comments. “But now, with the costs involved, it’s almost as if smoking’s become more exclusive. And the people who can afford to smoke these days tend to be the people who can afford to spend money on higher-end products – hence their penchant for cigars….”
Wesley agrees that harsh anti-smoking legislation may have inadvertently “sparked” higher sales of cigars in South Africa. He says he sees more “casual” smokers abandoning cigarettes in favor of cigars – especially “small but top quality” varieties.
“I think their feeling is that a pack of cigarettes is so expensive these days that they may as well spend their money on fewer, but higher quality, cigars,” Wesley explains.
Affluent South African cigar smokers shield themselves from the harsh anti-smoking laws by enjoying their habit at home or in exclusive cigar bars and clubs, where the owners buy a special, expensive license that permits their patrons to smoke on the premises.
Ferraris, Lamborghinis and beautiful women
One of the “chief categories” of cigar smokers who regularly frequent his establishment, Mulder says, is “the gentleman with far too much disposable income to spend on anything tangible, so he needs to smoke (his money). Those kinds of customers go for the largest, most expensive cigars that we stock.”
He says these smokers “just want to be seen smoking (cigars). They would never come here on a Tuesday or a Wednesday night, because those nights are more quiet and intimate here.”
These smokers “flaunt” their cigars, he says. “They probably wouldn’t smoke too much of it but they’d have it in their hand the whole night. As soon as it got wet or damaged, they’d just buy another one. A lot of the guys like that will arrive in Ferraris or Lamborghinis, and they will have the most beautiful woman sitting next to them in the whole club – if not three!”
The popularity of cigars in South Africa is growing, while cigarette smoking in the country declines due to harsh ant-smoking laws
Johannesburg businessman and self-confessed “party animal” Andile Nkosi confirms that he smokes cigars “because women love them. A loser doesn’t smoke cigars. There’s just something about them that says, ‘I’ve arrived.' ”
Wesley maintains cigar smokers are “usually slightly confident people. They’re not embarrassed to be seen smoking a cigar.” In fact, he adds, “They may be a bit embarrassed at times that they don’t know really what they’re smoking or why they’re smoking it!”
More female South Africans also getting in on the act
Wesley also sees growing numbers of South African women smoking small cigars called cigarillos. “They’ll be smoking those at a party or at a function, and they’ll want something a little bit exciting, so they’ll smoke that,” he says.
Mulder agrees that his female customers prefer small, flavored cigarillos and says it’s “rare” to see women smoking “proper” big cigars inside his club…. But he adds that “it does happen – usually because they’ve had too much to drink!”
In that case, says the manager, the women smokers “pout their lips” around a cigar and cover it in lipstick. “They think (smoking a cigar is) quite sexy!” he exclaims, laughing.
“Fun” and “sexy” status symbols they may well be, but according to the US National Cancer Institute, regularly smoking cigars poses serious health risks, including cancer of the mouth, esophagus and throat. Experts say lung disease is lower among cigar smokers than among cigarette users, because cigar smokers typically don’t inhale the smoke but rather “taste” it in their mouths. But they warn that cigar smoking can cause mouth and throat cancer.
As in the case of cigarette smoking, regular cigar users can become addicted to nicotine.
But Nkosi says the dangers associated with using cigars are unlikely to deter members of South Africa’s black elite from pursuing what he says has become the “latest trend” to enhance their status as “Africa’s rising economic force.”
“All pleasure comes at a cost,” says Nkosi, smiling as he sucks at another of his beloved Montecristo cigars and takes another sip of golden cognac.