South Africa is the regional hub for drug trafficking, and the largest transit zone for illicit drugs in Southern Africa, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said on Thursday.
The country also earned the dubious honour of being upgraded by British officials as the most significant source of cannabis smuggled into the United Kingdom. Interpol listed it as one of the world's top four source countries for the illegal herb, according to the first UNODC country profile on drug and crime in South Africa, launched in Pretoria, on Thursday.
While cannabis was the most widely used drug in South Africa, followed by methaqualone (known as Mandrax) and cocaine, the study noted an increase in heroin use, particularly among white school children. Arrests for heroin use increased eight-fold since the mid 1990s and, worryingly, 51 percent of the people treated for heroin addiction in one study said they had injected the drug, a method not previously used in South Africa. This had serious implications for the spread of HIV/AIDS in the country.
There had also been an increase in the manufacture of drugs, mainly Mandrax, reflected in the discovery of vast quantities of raw chemicals seized in police raids.
Drug trafficking and organised crime had grown in South Africa since the mid 1990s, and had drawn on factors like the country's porous borders, the increase in immigrants, and international trade links. An example was the exchange of hijacked cars across South Africa's land borders in return for illicit drugs.
Drug trafficking was an "extremely profitable enterprise" for the over 200 organised crime syndicates in South Africa. There were links between the drug trafficking activities of organised crime groups and other criminal acts, ranging from car hijackings and robberies to the smuggling of firearms, stolen cars, endangered species and precious metals, the report said.
While Nigerian syndicates were heavily involved in cocaine and heroin trafficking the report noted that most Nigerian immigrants in South Africa were law abiding. However, there was also prominent involvement in the trade by nationals from Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya and Ethiopia, often under the misnomer "West African nationals".
Crime was still the most pressing and visible social problem in the country, the report said. Violent crimes, such as attempted murder, aggravated robbery and violence against women and children, had shown a general increase since 1994 with a slight downturn in 2001 and 2002.
"Reported rates of rape are at the most serious levels in the world, and there is much concern about the increase in violence against women and in particular against children," the study found.
A contributor to the study, Ugljesa Zvekic said: "The effects of apartheid on crime are still enormous. South Africa has the second highest income disparity in the world and from research there is a direct linear association between income disparity and income levels.
"That is something that apartheid has left democratic South Africa to deal with," he told delegates at the launch of the report.