Illegal Narcotics Trafficking in Southern Africa

-Glen Oosthuysen


The traffic of illegal narcotics has long been an issue which has held the public's imagination in the developed world, but is increasingly becoming a pertinent issue in developing countries. Simplistically, if somewhat incorrectly, the problem has been seen as one of suppliers in South African and South Asian countries supplying harmful and addictive narcotic substances to either the rich and famous or ghetto communities of the United States and Europe; in their defence, these supplier regions have laid the blame on the developed countries for generating the demand. For the most part, Southern African countries were excluded from the influence of this trade due to the civil wars, Cold War proxy wars and the apartheid era security operations which hampered the operations of the trafficking organisations. The challenge for Southern Africa is to play a constructive role in acting against the drug trade, not only in the interests of the dominant international powers but in the longer term interests of its own state institutions and the well-being of its people.

In the light of the relative peace and stability which has since come to the region along with the opening up of international trade and regional cross-border activities, so too has the infiltration and operation of organised crime networks expanded. The dismantling of apartheid, the consolidation of peace in Mozambique and the tentative peace process in Angola, have enabled Southern Africa to fully participate in the global community. Yet the socio-economic conditions prevailing in the region, such as high levels of unemployment, poor educational standards and high rates of illiteracy, rural poverty (rural people comprise two-thirds of the region's 130 million people), high income disparities, high rates of population growth and limited natural resources (such as water), continue. These factors combined with the weak policing, judicial and political institutions of the region have ensured that conditions are ripe for the infiltration and expansion of organised crime networks.

In the face of the global clampdown on the drug trade, traffickers have sought new countries to trans-ship drugs to their traditional markets in the United States and Europe as well as to expand their trade by creating new markets in these transit countries. In Southern Africa, South Africa, has become the centre of this expansion drive with its neighbouring states being used primarily as secondary points for further trans-shipment on to South Africa. The country's geographical location ensures that apart from being well-positioned to receive drugs from South Asia and South America (the regions of primary production of drugs such as heroin and cocaine) it is, importantly, well placed to re-export these drugs to its primary trading partners and the drug trade's primary consumer markets in Europe and the US. Further, South Africa's sophisticated banking infrastructure and financial institutions are attractive instruments for the laundering of drug-money. The country's long, porous borders comprising some 96 points of entry (which include 36 airports designated to receive international aircraft), the increased number of shipping vessels, international flights and cross-border road traffic entering the country have ensured that traffickers have a vast number of options available to smuggle their drugs both into and out of the country.

Trafficking Routes

The trafficking of drugs into Southern Africa is largely regulated by the networks which control these operations, predominantly Nigerian traffickers who are said to control most of the heroin and cocaine entering South Africa. Nigeria's involvement in drug trafficking can be traced back to the early 1980s when a group of Nigerian naval officers was sent to India to undergo further training. Instead they organised a trafficking network to smuggle South-East Asian heroin to Europe and later the United States and thus laid the foundation for Africa's involvement in the international drug trade. Today, Nigerian syndicates are one of the three largest drug trafficking organisations in the world--it is not surprising then that more than 700 Nigerian traffickers have been imprisoned in Thailand alone. Some 30 per cent of heroin seized at US ports of entry has been traced back to Nigerian syndicates. In South Africa, more than 50,000 Nigerian nationals are said to be in the country illegally, many of whom are involved in facilitating the further transportation and distribution of drugs from South Africa.

Nigerians play a critical role in the trafficking of cocaine and heroin from South America into South Africa. Other Southern African countries, such as Angola, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe have been used as stopover points for cocaine traffickers partly in an effort to alter trafficking routes and thus escape detection. The limited capacity of these countries' authorities have also made them attractive destinations for couriers seeking to enter South Africa from the source countries. Traffickers also make use of the direct air links between South Africa and Brazil to smuggle drugs into the country. Apart from changing flight paths and methods of smuggling drugs, traffickers have become adept at changing the profiles of the couriers who are used to smuggle drugs. When it became apparent that Nigerians were intricately involved in the traffic of drugs, the networks came to rely increasingly on non-Nigerian nationals to move their goods into the region.

In the case of heroin and Mandrax from South Asia, Indian traffickers have utilised the large expatriate Indian communities which can be found in South Africa and to a lesser extent in Zambia, to smuggle these drugs into the region. South Asian heroin smuggled to Southern Africa is mostly destined for further trans-shipment to European markets, except in the case of Mauritius where a strong local market for heroin has developed. Zambia is an important transit point for Indian-produced Mandrax which is supplied to South Africa's large Mandrax consumer market. Mozambique is also used as a transit point for heroin, hashish and Mandrax destined for South Africa. It has been claimed that the drug trade in Mozambique is closely linked to regional arms smuggling and vehicle theft syndicates. In fact, it is becoming apparent that in Southern Africa, drugs are increasingly becoming a form of currency linking the growing criminal activities and networks involved in vehicle thefts, gun-running, ivory, diamond and gold smuggling--all of which share a variety of trafficking routes throughout the region.

Increasingly drugs are themselves forming the basis of exchange for other drugs particularly as Southern Africa has a well-developed and longstanding tradition of cannabis production. Cannabis which was first introduced to the region some 500 years ago by Arab traders, is widely regarded as a traditional crop. Its hardy nature ensures that in many areas it is the only viable crop which can be grown. As a result, so-called "cannabis syndicates" have taken to recruiting rural peasant farmers to grow cannabis as a cash crop. South Africa has the dubious distinction of having one of the largest, if not the largest cultivation areas in the world--some 83,000 hectares yielding an estimated 176 million kg of cannabis. Cannabis produced in South Africa, Lesotho, Malawi, Botswana and Zimbabwe is traded within the region and exported to European countries, particularly the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Often this trade is conducted in exchange for designer drugs such as LSD, Ecstasy and other amphetamines.

From Trans-shipment to Consumption

As has happened elsewhere in the world, Southern Africa's role as a trans-shipment point for the drug trade has given rise to an increase in local consumption. However, this is based largely on anecdotal evidence since the extent to which trans-shipment has given rise to local consumer markets is difficult to measure given the poor information and data gathering capacity throughout the region. One means of detecting changes in the pattern of drug use is through the monitoring of treatment centres; however, amongst the Southern African Development Community (SADC) states only South Africa and Mauritius have specialised treatment facilities for drug abusers. The other countries only have treatment programmes based in psychiatric hospitals, which are not ideal for the purposes of voluntary reporting or rehabilitation and thus cannot provide adequate information on the changing consumption patterns.

Individuals and networks involved in facilitating the further trans-shipment of drugs from Southern African countries are often paid with the commodity itself. The profit to be realised by these groups thus depends largely on the establishment of a local market for the product. Within the region, South Africa has shown the most noticeable increase in levels of consumption as the street price of the drugs continues to decline. After cannabis use, Mandrax has long been the drug of choice in South Africa, but since 1992, drugs such as cocaine, crack cocaine and designer drugs such as Ecstasy have become far more readily available. In recent years drug seizures recorded by the South African Narcotics Bureau (SANAB) have shown a substantial increase in cocaine and Ecstasy. For example, in 1994, 69 kg of cocaine was seized, but in 1995 some 188 kg were seized. Statistics for 1996 (not yet available) are expected to show a further significant increase. Similarly, in the first six months of 1996, 2,476 Ecstasy tablets were seized in comparison with a combined total of 2,900 tablets for 1994 and 1995. These statistics must be seen in the light of the shift in policing emphasis, from the street level users and dealers to the higher echelons or "kingpins" of the drug syndicates. This should theoretically have resulted in lower quantities of seizures being made, but significantly this has not happened, which suggests that the availability of narcotic drugs has continued to increase. Cocaine use was traditionally confined to the affluent white community, but the arrival of crack cocaine and the establishment of clandestine "laboratories" (often nothing more than kitchens) to manufacture crack rocks has expanded the demand and market simultaneously by making it a more cost-effective alternative. Crack cocaine is the fastest growing drug in South Africa, closely followed by the designer drug, Ecstasy. Designer drugs are found in the "Rave" and dance club sub-cultures and continue to grow in popularity amongst the country's youth. This growth is often encouraged by some sectors of the media which have portrayed Ecstasy as being a relatively harmless stimulant. Mandrax use has declined partly due to a decline in quality and the ready availability of drugs such as cocaine, crack and Ecstasy. However, in recent years, a number of Mandrax manufacturing laboratories have been discovered in Botswana, Zambia and South Africa. The local production of Mandrax and other synthetic drugs led in 1994 to the SANAB establishing a Chemical Monitoring Programme which liaises with chemical companies to detect suspicious transactions. Heroin use has remained relatively stable but this is expected to change as heroin dealers have begun offering free heroin samples and new concoctions such as "speedballing" (a mixture of heroin and cocaine) in a deliberate marketing strategy. At this stage, however, most heroin found in South Africa is intended for further trans-shipment. Generally South African drug consumption is characterised by poly-drug use which relies heavily on locally produced cannabis. (Cannabis is used to smoke crack, or is mixed with Mandrax--called a white pipe). This suggests that drug use in South Africa cannot be separated from the local production of cannabis as is the case in other parts of the world where poly-drug use does not necessarily imply the use of cannabis. The developmental consequences of this link need to be further investigated so as to appropriately break the symbiotic relationship between rural poverty and drug abuse.

Response to the Drug Trade

The international community has responded to the drug trade by urging countries to bring themselves in line with acceptable international practices to reduce the threat posed by what in essence are businessmen engaged in illegal commodity trading practices. The 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances is held up as the rallying point of all international efforts and increasingly the proposals to combat money-laundering as developed by the Financial Action Task Force are assuming mandatory proportions. These policy frameworks in conjunction with strong bilateral pressures imposed by the US (through its decentrification programmes) and the EU countries complicate the response of developing countries to the drug trade. Issues of sovereignty and the political tensions inherent in many countries' relationships with these powers generate obstacles to effective progress being made in the battle against the drug traders.

In Southern Africa, very few states have become party to the 1988 Convention. Angola, Namibia, Mozambique and South Africa have yet to accede to the Convention, while Mauritius has signed the Convention but has yet to ratify it. In the case of many of those countries which have acceded to and ratified the Convention, insufficient domestic legislative measures have been enacted to give effect to the Convention's principles.

SADC States Which are Signatories to the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances

Country Signed (Date) Ratified/Acceded (Date)

Angola -- --

Botswana Acceded August 13, 1996

Lesotho Acceded March 28, 1995

Malawi Acceded October 12, 1995

Mauritus December 20, 1988 --

Mozambique -- --

Namibia -- --

South Africa -- --

Swaziland Acceded October 3, 1995

Tanzania December 20, 1988 April 17, 1996

Zambia February 9, 1989 May 28, 1993

Zimbabwe Acceded July 30, 1993

At a regional level, all the SADC states adopted what has been dubbed the "SADC Protocol on Drugs" (Protocol on Combatting Illicit Drug Trafficking) at the Mmabatho Summit in 1995. Despite this acceptance, the Protocol has not yet been implemented by all the SADC states. In some quarters the need for the SADC Protocol has been questioned since its objectives could be said to be just as readily attainable if all the SADC states implemented and observed the provisions of the 1988 Convention. A further obstacle to effective regional cooperation against drug trafficking is political rivalry and sensitivities which permeate particularly South Africa's relationship with Zambabwe. This is significant since Zimbabwe currently chairs the SADC Public Safety Committee which oversees issues of cross-border crime, including drug trafficking.

On a national level, Southern African states have received training on interdiction, border control, preparation of money-laundering measures and crop eradication programmes. Most of this has been provided by the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the European Union. The United Nations Development and Cooperation Programme (UNDCP) has also been active in providing training and supports various demand reduction projects. Southern African states have responded to the drug trade by focussing on issues of interdiction and law enforcement since these are the areas in which international pressure and support are being brought to bear. However, an acute lack of resources, manpower (Swaziland's anti-drug unit consists of 15 men, Namibia's seven), information and very often initiative have continued to obstruct efforts to reduce the growing demand for drugs in the region. Generally the governments of the region have failed to dedicate sufficient priority and resources to the development of a centralised national drug control policy (as proposed in the UN drug Master Plan programme). As a result, interdepartmental rivalries persist and a lack of effective coordination has resulted in valuable resources being squandered with little measurable return on the investment.

In some ways the efforts which have been made in Southern Africa to counter the drug trade could be said to be outward-looking in response to international pressures and initiatives, yet fall short of addressing the longer term consequences of continued demand for drugs which are facilitated by the region's socio-economic conditions and which the traffickers are successfully building. In all Southern African countries there exist priorities which, often justifiably, continue to receive more attention than drugs. However the problem cannot continue to be displaced by other priorities. It is estimated by the UNDCP that drugs cost a country between 0.5 per cent and 1.3 per cent of their Gross Domestic Product each year. In South Africa that would amount to R2.4 billion to R6.3 billion per year. Southern Africa can ill-afford such losses at a time when it is pursuing much needed development and economic growth for its people. Southern Africa needs to realise that despite the international pressures being brought to bear on countries to prevent the trafficking of drugs to the developed world, the drug trade is of equal danger to its own citizens. It is not enough for Southern African states to simply adopt the internationally determined minimum standards to appease the US and EU countries, but instead they must become more proactive in protecting the integrity of their own state institutions, financial sectors and populations. At the same time, they cannot do this so long as the assistance which is offered to them is focussed primarily on law enforcement and prevention of trans-shipment to the developed countries of the world.

In conclusion, the new priority which has been attached to illegal narcotics trafficking in Southern Africa, offers an opportunity for the region and in fact all developing countries to participate in the emerging international framework and thus secure for themselves those measures which can best provide long-term protection of their societies from the drug trade. Southern Africa would be well advised to resist the temptation to "throw the baby out with the bath water" because of the apparent dictation of drug policies which are often insensitive to the needs of developing societies.