/ 5 July 2002

High on the white pipe

When you hear talk of a “slow boat” in Cape Town, it has little to do with a trip to China. It is street lingo for getting high — and for most people getting high means smoking a cocktail of Mandrax and dagga.

And for many, this drug of first choice — the “white pipe” — is likely to cost more after this week’s huge Mandrax busts in Gauteng.

A police swoop on a warehouse in Stormmill, near Roodepoort, on Tuesday uncovered drugs with a street value of R2,7-billion. It followed a raid on a house in Douglasdale, northern Johannesburg, on Sunday and another in Kew, which netted 17000 Mandrax tablets.

The world’s largest bust was in the United Arab Emirates about four years ago. All the chemicals uncovered were destined for Southern Africa.

More than 85% of Mandrax (methaqualone) used in South Africa is consumed in the Western Cape, where the drug is closely associated with Cape Flats gangs that use the white pipe for rituals and as a source of income. And South Africa is the leading consumer of Mandrax worldwide, with between 70% and 80% of the drug ending up in this country.

“The impact [of the Gauteng seizures] will be felt in Cape Town, which would have been the destination,” says Captain Johan Smit of the South African Narcotics Bureau in the Cape peninsula. The price — currently R30 to R45 a tablet — is certain to increase. However, Smit points out that Mandrax is closely associated with crime syndicates that may have stockpiles of the drug.

Although Mandrax is consumed predominately in the Western Cape — and specifically Cape Town, which has been dubbed the “Mandrax capital of the world” — most of the recent large drug busts have occurred in Gauteng, in the ports of Durban and Port Elizabeth and in neighbouring countries. One reason may be Gauteng’s proximity to chemical-producing industries, says Smit.

Most tablets and their chemical components arrive in the country via Kenya, Tanzania or Mozambique. When authorities stepped up security in Durban and Port Elizabeth, they made several large busts. In January last year a million Mandrax tablets hidden in teddy bears were seized in Durban.

Known as pille on the Cape Flats and “buttons” elsewhere in Cape Town, Mandrax is a downer. Smoking it with dagga in a bottleneck is a unique South African habit. Traditionally the tablet is white with markings on one side — similar to headache pills — but in recent years it has increased in size and also is produced with a yellow or greyish colour.

Legally manufactured in the Indian subcontinent as a sleeping tablet, it was banned in South Africa in the 1970s when its severe dependence-forming side-effects were discovered. Because of close links — often through family connections — between the Western Cape and the Indian subcontinent, the trade in Mandrax continues.

According to a United States State Department narcotics control report last year, Mandrax is also closely associated with car theft syndicates. The report notes that in 1997 the South African Police Service identified 92 criminal syndicates as being involved in Mandrax smuggling.

Smit says: “Vehicles and drugs go together. Stolen vehicles are paid for in tablets.”

The link between drug trafficking and criminal syndicates is also highlighted by the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, which earlier this month released its report on global illicit drug trends.

“In South Africa, perhaps to a greater degree than in many other countries, the drug trafficking activities of organised crime groups are linked to a multitude of other criminal acts, ranging from car hijackings and robberies to the smuggling of firearms, stolen cars, endangered species and precious metals,” says Gary Lewis, programme manager of the UN agency.

Among the leading players is the Cape Town-based drug cartel The Firm. One of its senior members, Colin Stanfield, was recently jailed for six years for tax evasion. But local police believe his lieutenants are still running the drug syndicate.

During the initial court proceedings against Stanfield in 1996, it emerged that The Firm manipulated the price of Mandrax by creating artificial scarcity.

The connection between Mandrax and gangs also became clear in the late 1990s during the regular clashes between gangs and anti-drug vigilantes People against Gangsterism and Drugs. At the height of that conflict the Mandrax supply was so badly disrupted that a single tablet could cost up to R80.

Mandrax and its links to Cape Flats gangs also came under scrutiny at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in mid-1998, with allegations that the apartheid state had flooded the Cape Flats with the drug. The head of South Africa’s chemical and biological warfare programme, Wouter Basson, was questioned on the whereabouts of millions of Mandrax tablets and hundreds of kilogrammes of ecstasy found under his control. During this hearing a more unorthodox use of Mandrax emerged: it was a component of tear gas for crowd control.

Research into the patterns of drug abuse shows that Mandrax is the drug of first choice in coloured communities and the Indian working class in and around Durban.

According to the latest Medical Research Council’s South African Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use, the majority of patients checking into drug rehabilitation centres in Cape Town are treated for addiction to the Mandrax/dagga combination.

In the second half of last year 37% of admissions were for addiction to the “white pipe” in Cape Town, compared with 29% in Gauteng and 18% in Mpumalanga. In Cape Town patients were predominately coloured, with an average age of 26.

But the report notes an increase of “white pipe” addiction among African youths under the age of 20 — thought to be linked to more aggressive marketing and trafficking practices.