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IRIN Focus on the narcotics trade

In the decade since the end of apartheid, narcotic use in South Africa has soared with the opening of the country’s borders and the loosening of state controls, experts told IRIN this week.

“The scale of the drug problem in South Africa’s inner-cities is extremely serious,” Antoinette Louw of the Institute for Security Studies’(ISS) crime and policing programme told IRIN.
It is linked to a more general crime wave, urban decay, police corruption and the spread of HIV/AIDS. It effects not only the users and suppliers, but victimises ordinary people in the community, she added.

A UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNODCCP) report on the drug trade in Africa released in March this year noted: “The size of the South African market, combined with the relatively high buying power of its citizens, ensures that a wider variety of drugs are available on its streets than probably anywhere else in Africa.”

Gary Lewis, a spokesman for UNODCCP in Pretoria, added that there is also an international dimension. South Africa’s location on major trafficking routes, “its excellent transportation infrastructure, telecommunications, its developed banking services as well as its porous borders make the place an ideal transit country for illicit drug trafficking wanting to disguise its origins,” he told IRIN.

Booming business

According to the UNODCCP report, drug profits in the Western Cape area alone in 1995 were estimated at between US $170-340 million. In 1996, one of the main gangs, ‘The Firm’, was believed to have a daily turnover of US $380,000 from narcotics sales. The Cape is one of South Africa’s most deprived regions, and the UNODCCP report draws a link between drug abuse and poverty, and the social and economic strains related to the country’s apartheid past.

According to Ted Leggett at the University of Natal, who is preparing a study for the UNODCCP on the South African narcotics market, the high rates of crime associated with the booming drug business is “the development issue for South Africa”, scaring away much-needed foreign investment and tourist dollars.

He, however, makes a distinction between marijuana - grown in the country for the past 500 years - and the addictive “hard drugs” such as crack/cocaine, and more recently heroin, whose use has reportedly rocketed among young people.

Marijuana abuse

Marijuana, or “dagga” as it’s known locally, is “everywhere” and to an extent is regarded as socially acceptable, he said. Based on the estimate that the police seize 10 percent of the marijuana grown in KwaZulu-Natal - according to Leggett a “ridiculously optimistic figure” - dagga production would still be three-times larger than the province’s main official cash crop, sugar.

A 1995 police report based on aerial surveys suggested that total marijuana production from South Africa and neighbouring Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, would have an annual street value of US $15 billion. According to the UN Drug Control Programme, South Africa ranks with the United States as among the countries “with the largest annual seizure quantities of herbal cannabis.”

For rural families dagga, usually interspersed among food crops, provides a little extra income that can make the difference in parents being able to afford to send their children to school. Leggett admits some sympathy for the producers. They are an “easy target” for the narcotics bureau’s crop spraying planes, an anti-drug strategy he believes does not effect supply and is ultimately a waste of resources in a country where dagga-smoking is widespread.

The new threat

Instead, “by far the biggest threat is crack and heroin because it’s addictive,” Leggett said. A report on drug addiction in Cape Town found that the number of patients visiting the city’s counselling centre addicted to crack - a processed form of cocaine - rose from zero percent in 1995, to 35 percent in 1998. Two-thirds of all addicts seeking treatment at the centre were under 30, and 70 percent began using drugs in their teens.

According to the Cape Town study, addicts spend between US $4,300 to US $6,000 a year on narcotics - roughly equivalent to the annual salary of a semi-skilled worker. The need to pay for repeated “fixes” inevitably results in an increase in crime.
There is also a strong association between drugs and the sex industry which is “accelerating HIV rates”, Leggett noted.

A “rock” of crack sells for just under the equivalent of US $10. For crack-addicted sex workers, that becomes the going rate for sex, forcing them to take more clients to make ends meet. They are also more likely to practice unsafe sex.

“We are worried about the possibility of a connection between drug use and HIV/AIDS,” Lewis said. “We have seen elsewhere in the world - in the US for example - that crack users display the HIV sero-positivity levels rivalling those of injecting drug users.

“Many addicts are driven into prostitution in order to feed their craving for crack. We therefore need to know whether drug-using sex workers (and their clients) are an important bridging group for transmission of HIV into the general population,” Lewis noted.

Louw at the ISS dates the boom in crack to the early 1990s and the “opening up of South Africa’s borders” under the country’s democratisation process. More specifically, Leggett argues, the critical factor in the growth of the trade has been the arrival of Nigerians with the international connections and business acumen to push the drug: “They’re the ones with the impetus and savvy to do it.”

The Nigerian connection

According to the UNODCCP report, between 1994 and 1996 the “key trend of significance” was a shift in the bulk of drug seizures from Nigeria to South Africa, “probably due to the law enforcement intensification in Nigeria and the integration of South Africa into major trading and travel networks.” South Africa has 96 points of entry as well as 36 designated international airports. But there are only 1,500 customs officials assigned to 19 border posts and 10 airports.

From South Africa being largely a transit point for narcotics to Europe and North America, the dealers have succeeded in creating local demand and saturating the domestic market. The entrepreneurial talent of Nigerians, and there role in the global drug trade, is well known, Leggett said. In South Africa he estimates they represent 80-90 percent of drug wholesalers - the people who control supply - and 50 percent of the retailers on South Africa’s streets.

Most Nigerians in South Africa are legitimate professionals who are quick to condemn the criminal element that has tarnished their country’s name. Police officials acknowledge the problem stems from Nigerian criminals masquerading as asylum seekers. “The long process of verifying asylum applications - up to a year - apparently makes South Africa a choice destination in this regard,” the UNODCCP report points out.

The environment in which the pushers operate is one of sleazy hotels and prostitution, slum lords and, according to Leggett and Louw, a corrupt police service and narcotics bureau. The drug trade “is linked to the problem of city governance,” Louw said. “It makes it easy for the drug dealers to take hold. Local government has got to play a role, but at the moment drugs are not high on anybody’s agenda.”

With the exception of marijuana, the South African drug market is racially segmented, Leggett noted. Crack is seen as largely a black drug. Heroin, although initially a white narcotic, is now being introduced to black users - resistant to injecting drugs - as a smokeable high. Its abuse is growing as crack addicts increasingly use it to “come down” after a crack binge.

The range of designer drugs, from ecstasy to LSD, remains a mainly white scene. At the bottom end of the market is the depressant mandrax (methaqualone), which has historically been a mixed race or so-called “coloured” narcotic centred on the Cape.

The war on drugs

The UNODCCP in South Africa is focussing its anti-narcotics campaign on law enforcement to reduce supply, combined with drug treatment and advocacy to cut demand. But the agency’s report acknowledges there is a problem with the tendency to centralise drug law enforcement within one agency, as “corruption by collusion” could be facilitated. Leggett is more forthright. He claims the monopoly held by the South African narcotics bureau in the drug war is a mistake, and the organisation “has got to be cleaned up.”

Some government ministers have also questioned the rationale of prosecuting consumers of marijuana, and there has been discussion over its decriminalisation. Leggett believes a re-think is necessary over the prioritisation of drug policy.

Marijuana “should be left alone”, he said. Despite crop spraying and regular arrests of users and suppliers, “it has never effected supply, the price has never dropped, and there has never been a shortage of varieties.” He also suggested a more intelligent approach over so-called “club drugs” on the rave scene that stresses the health risks rather than moral indictments.

But for crack and heroin, the university researcher believes a US-style “war on drugs” approach could be effective.

However, more controversially, he advocates a crackdown specifically on Nigerian traders as part of a bilateral initiative between the South African and Nigerian governments that would involve the removal of asylum status. In the current climate of xenophobia in South Africa, he accepts targeting Nigerians could be a dangerous step. He also acknowledges other dealers could move in to fill the gap. But Leggett believes the drug networks Nigerians operate are too sophisticated to be quickly taken over by rivals.

However, Lewis stressed that there are “no magic solutions. Everyone has to become aware and become involved.” He added: “But equally - if not more - important is the need to get into the hearts and minds of the youth of this country - those most at risk - the message that messing around with drugs is dangerous. For success, we need to change attitudes ... This is the major drug challenge for the new South Africa.”

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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