> Southern Africa: Counting the Costs
of Archaic Drug Policies and Strategies in Southern Africa
27 September 2011
In June 2011, fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention
on Narcotic Drugs and forty years after former US President Nixon launched
the US government's 'War on Drugs', the Global Commission on Drug Policy
released an explosive report on the failings of the war on drugs and its
devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.
The purpose of the Global Commission on Drug Policy is to bring to the
international level an informed, science-based discussion about humane and
effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies.
It consists of former world leaders, writers and business leaders including
Kofi Annan, Carlos Fuentes, Ernesto Zedillo, Richard Branson and others.
Traditionally, policy makers around the world premise drug strategies upon
the belief that harsh law enforcement action against those involved in drug
production, distribution and use would lead to a diminished market in
controlled drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis. As a matter of fact,
the global scale of the illicit drug markets largely controlled by organised
crime networks has grown dramatically over the past fifty years.
The international experience is replicated in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has
seen the proliferation of organised crime networks involved in the
international drug trade in the past decade. Cannabis is grown, smuggled and
traded across the subcontinent, of which the majority is destined for the
lucrative markets of Northern America and Europe. Hydroponic cannabis
plantations have been found across South Africa. Authorities in South Africa
have had some success in dismantling drug laboratories in urban centres, but
acknowledge that synthetic drug producers have diversified and house their
operations in mobile laboratories or have moved to neighbouring countries.
While West Africa remains the major African transhipment region for cocaine
consignments from South America to European markets, the potential for
displacement of routes to Southern Africa has been a major concern to
regional law enforcement bodies. East Africa, on the other hand, has become
a port of entry and transhipment for the opiate trade from the Golden
Since the northern markets are largely oversupplied and saturated, drug
networks have been expanding their illicit operations to new markets in the
developing world. This has led to an upsurge of the levels of 'hard drug'
consumption including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and amphetamines in
Sub-Saharan Africa. There has been a steady increase of consumption levels
of cannabis and other natural stimulants such as the herbal drug Khat across
the continent. Massive and potentially lucrative illicit markets that can be
exploited by transnational organised crime networks are being created and at
the same time, the incidence and scale of drug related violence is likely to
ISS research into organised crime shows that transnational drug trafficking
networks are firmly entrenched at both the local and inter-regional levels.
Local crime networks run domestic distribution of cannabis and some harder
drugs, while foreign nationals ensure the smooth distribution and
transhipment of both soft and hard drugs to regional and international
markets. Corruption of police, airport security, customs officials and some
politicians ensures that the majority of consignments pass undetected across
borders. Networks employ dealers to distribute the drugs effectively. Drug
related violence has been growing steadily in recent years. Several targeted
assassinations against gangland leaders occurred in South Africa and turf
wars between competing dealers have been documented, such as those among
urban gangs in Cape Town, South Africa and drug dealers and consumers in the
Colombias in Maputo. Additionally, Chibolya township in Lusaka and Kariakoo
and Kinondoni townships in Dar es Salaam have encountered violent
confrontations with the police.
Law enforcement authorities have prioritised the fight against drug
trafficking across the subcontinent. Specialised police units have been set
up. Interception efforts, drug seizures and interdiction at national borders
have shown limited or low success rates. Ultimately vigorous action in one
area leads to shifts in the pattern or modus operandi, or to the movement of
the illegal activity to another area. Our research shows that the focus of
law enforcement authorities has been on the low-level dealers, consumers and
couriers, who are easily replaced with new recruits. Hundreds of drug
couriers have been caught and are serving lengthy prison sentences across
the region and elsewhere in the world. Small town dealers and drug consumers
are sitting off long prison sentences in overcrowded prisons, whereas the
kingpins carry on with their business unperturbed. A notable exception is
the recent conviction of Sheryl Cwele, the wife of the South African
Minister of State Security, and her associate Frank Nabolisa who were
convicted of recruiting two women to deliver cocaine consignments.
Cannabis eradication campaigns in Lesotho, Swaziland and South Africa have
been highly controversial and unsuccessful. The Agent Orange-type chemicals
employed by the South African Police Service have led to the toxification of
arable land and ground water. Subsistence farmers have moved their
plantations to inaccessible land in the mountains. A divergence of legal and
social morality is clearly discernible where local communities regard the
cultivation of cannabis as necessary to survival thereby depriving the
police of legitimacy and support from civil, political and social
Most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have signed and ratified the United
Nations' Vienna Convention (1988) limiting the production, distribution and
use of listed narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances as well as the UN
Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (also known as the Palermo
Convention of 2000). However, most of these countries have no drug strategy
and, in most instances, archaic and draconian anti-drug laws have been
instituted which tally with the dominant drug control paradigm.
The global objective of the drug control paradigm has been twofold: on the
one hand, the suppression of supply through action in source countries and
strong enforcement against distribution and retail markets; on the other,
the suppression of demand through hard hitting education and prevention and
the identification and punishment of users. The prohibitionist paradigm
underpins the law enforcement approach to drug control on the subcontinent.
Moreover, authorities in East and Southern Africa see the drug problem as a
law enforcement issue and not a health or social problem. This has led to
very little resources being made available for treatment and harm reduction
initiatives in both regions.
Internationally, there has been a move away from the repressive
zero-tolerance model towards a more evidence-based humane drug policy
paradigm. Examples from abroad provide lessons learned about less punitive
approaches and their impact on levels of drug use and drug related harm to
the individual and society. For instance, legislation lessening
criminalization combined with shifting resources from law enforcement and
incarceration to prevention, treatment and harm reduction is more effective
in reducing drug-related problems. The so-called harm reduction approach has
resulted in a greater diversity of treatment options, less stigmatization of
drug users, prevention of diseases and overdoses, and reduction of crime.
Moreover, this approach has been applied to deal with social harms such as
the reduction of drug-related violence in Latin America. It is high time for
Southern African law and policy makers to consider its utility in dealing
with the drug problem.
Annette Hübschle is ISS senior researcher for Organised Crime and Money
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Received on Tue Sep 27 2011 - 13:15:18 EDT