Johannesburg - When South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma recently visited Eldorado, south of Johannesburg, in response to a petition by mothers for him to address the simmering drug problem there, the symbolism could not have been bigger.
South Africa, better known for the famous “rand” discovery of precious minerals that has made the country the biggest economy in Africa, has stumbled upon another find – an Eldorado of drugs.
And while there is a general misconception that the narcotics issue is a “middle class problem” in Africa, the emerging facts indicate that the poor are the heaviest users of hard drugs.
Black South Africans in the townships are at the centre of drug and substance abuse and children as young as seven-year-olds are hooked on intoxicants. More ominously, even anti-retroviral drugs that fight HIV are now being used to make potent intoxicants that are getting abusers sloshed and prone to crime and disease.
A new report by the South African National Council on Drugs and Alcohol (SANCA) contains some shocking statistics.
SANCA says 5.7 million South Africans (11 percent of the country’s total population) are prone to drug and alcohol abuse and that black people are most affected by the scourge.
Another report by the South African Community Epidemology Network on Drug Use shows that five percent of people admitted for treatment in Western Cape Province and 16 percent in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal used cocaine as a drug of primary or secondary abuse.
The Eighth SANCA Report states that the number of blacks treated for drug and alcohol addiction increased by six percent from 52 percent in 2012 to 58 percent in 2013 – a figure of 6 354 people.
Coloureds are the second-largest group at 21 percent, undergoing treatment countrywide while whites and Asians represent 17 and three percent respectively.
However, heroin abuse is on the decline in most provinces except for Western Cape, where addiction across all races increased sharply.
Experts have said that many addicts do not get treatment while SANCA’s report does not cover those people seeking treatment and rehabilitation at private institutions.
This means the number of people abusing illicit drugs in South Africa is likely to be much higher.
The report dovetails into other unflattering statistics which show that drug consumption in South Africa is twice the world norm. Further, figures from the South African Police Service indicate that 60 percent of crimes nationally are related to substance abuse.
Another report says because of drug abuse, “violent, confrontational crime is a major concern” in South Africa.
Such crimes include home invasions, robberies, burglaries, carjackings, street muggings, smash-and-grabs, organised attacks on commercial and retail centres, bombings of ATMs, as well as attacks on cash-in-transit vehicles/personnel. This is according to the South Africa 2013 Crime and Safety Report by the US Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Safety.
The South Africa 2013 Crime and Safety Report says South Africa is both a big importer and exporter of drugs.
“It is the origin, transit point, and/or destination of many drug trafficking routes. International drug trafficking organisations are found in South Africa.
“Factors that attract legitimate businesses, such as a relatively stable regime and first-world infrastructure, also appeal to organised crime.
“There are pockets of corruption within the government, but as a policy, law enforcement frequently collaborates with U.S. counterparts to target drug trafficking,” says the report.
The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recently reported that South Africa was the world's third-leading country for cannabis seizures.
While much of the cannabis is cultivated domestically, significant quantities are also grown in neighbouring countries, particularly Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
The crime and safety report noted that large seizures of compressed marijuana are frequently made at OR Tambo International Airport and are generally destined for the United Kingdom.
In addition, cocaine frequently originating from Brazil and other parts of South America is regularly seized at the OR Tambo International Airport, says the report.
“Cocaine trafficking is mostly controlled by Nigerian syndicates that have recruiters placed in South Africa and facilitators throughout South America.
“Recent trends indicate that drug trafficking organisations (DTOs) from China and the Balkans have developed a significant presence in South Africa.
“In addition to importing narcotics directly into South Africa, DTOs ship drugs into Maputo, Mozambique, and then truck them into South Africa.”
The report says heroin is mostly coming into South Africa from Pakistan and some of it then goes on to the US.
There has been a reported increase in the number of clandestine drug manufacturing laboratories in the country.
These labs produce synthetic drugs largely for the domestic market.
Knight in Shining
The situation has become a depressing affair, and the South African people are looking for someone to save them from the vice.
Cordelia Bailey is a mother to a son who had gone through drug rehabilitation twice and would become “wild and hysterical” when the family refused to give him money to fund his addiction.
She wrote a letter to President Zuma requesting that he intervenes personally to save the community’s children from the clutches of drug lords who operate dens in Eldorado Park and sold drugs to children.
Drug lords operated “lolly lounges” and “white houses” in which young girls would also be hired to keep druggies “entertained”.
On May 14, President Zuma responded to the letter and visited Eldorado Park to much national acclaim.
"I read the letter and I was shocked. The degree of the problem and the description is unheard of … this is a crisis, an abnormality," he told the community.
President Zuma said he would now take personal charge, saying that legislation would be toughened so criminals could not hide behind technicalities.
It is often the accusation that drug lords work in cahoots with police.
"We cannot allow these drug lords to rule our communities and hide behind technicalities in the law," said President Zuma, promising that "Action is coming”.
And action did come.
Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane saw to it that four children, including an eight-year-old, Wereeen are removed from "lolly lounges" in Eldorado Park within a week of President Zuma’s visit and 20 people were arrested in connection with operating the dens of vice.
A committee was set up to dig up Eldorado filth, which comprised, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, Gauteng Provincial Police Commissioner Mzwandile Petros, and representatives of the departments of Social Development, Correctional Services, Trade and Industry, and Economic Development.
Plans are afoot to start a seven-day intensive detoxification programme at nearby Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, as well as other programmes for rehabilitation and aftercare. Vacant buildings belonging to the City of Johannesburg that were being used for drug activities are being cleared of vice with some being demolished.
Further, state authorities would meet with school governing bodies so that school gates are locked during the day, fences are repaired, and vendors around schools are scrutinised. There will be "patrollers" within school premises.
By-laws will be enforced and a committee will be established to examine the possibility of introducing World Cup-style specialist courts to deal swiftly with drug-related crime in the area.
Since President Zuma’s historic visit to Eldorado, various communities have petitioned him to come to their areas as well so as to spur similar action against drug-related crime.
The national fight will be a big one.
The Central Drug Authority has drafted a new national master plan for the period 2012-2017 that takes an inter-agency approach to co-ordinating drug abuse prevention, treatment and intervention at the provincial and national levels. It includes a nationwide database to track drug crimes.
The Authority will work with the police on a comprehensive anti-drug strategy.