The numbers are stark: there has been a 10.5% increase in drug-related crimes over the past two years; the Hawks close down more than one illicit drug laboratory every week; and drugs worth more than R2-billion have been confiscated at ports of entry over the past five years by the South African Revenue Service (Sars).
The figures come from the International Narcotics Control Strategy (INCS), Sars and the Hawks.
Behind these numbers are the people using the drugs and the people who have to live with them. In Eldorado Park, a southern suburb in Johannesburg, women sit in a park waiting for their sons to leave their homes, afraid of the abuse they will endure if they stay inside.
Dereleen James, an activist against drugs in Eldorado Park, says the country is in the midst of an epidemic.
“Drugs are the silent killer of our communities and they have a huge impact on our economy, investors and local government. Simply look at all the Pikitup bins that are stolen and infrastructure ruined,” she says.
“If you look at the communities that are largely affected, the youth are being given the tools to self-destruct and then everyone keeps quiet. At the speed the drug pandemic is wiping out, I am afraid, in the next five years, you will have your suburbs looking like townships and townships looking like dungeons.”
She points to the park where the women sit to avoid their drug-addicted children. She says they are beaten when these boys don’t get what they want. And there is nothing they feel they can do about it.
James’s belief that the country is under siege, and that the youth have been given the tools to self-destruct, is confirmed by the numbers. The INCS report, released in March to the United States Congress, said that South Africa is the leading regional importer of chemicals used in the production of illicit drugs, particularly synthetic drugs.
“According to statistics released in September 2018, [the] SAPS [South African Police Service] reported a 10.5% increase in drug-related crimes from fiscal years 2016-2017 to 2017-2018. Enforcement teams from Sars also seize illicit drugs and precursor chemicals, including ethanol and toluene,” the report reads.
This included ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which are used in South Africa to synthesise methamphetamine, which largely originates in Nigeria and India.
Though the report notes that drug busts have increased every year, people in areas such as Eldorado Park are reeling from the destruction caused by drugs. A father of two children, aged two and four, says he is at his wits’ end with their mother. The 28-year-old woman spends most of her time in “lolly lounges” where she gets high for days on end. “She has been gone for four days now, smoking drugs. I don’t know when she will be back. These kids don’t even have birth certificates and the mother has just been an addict.”
He does not want to be named, saying he fears the drug dealers will hurt him and his children. “I know where she is,” he says, pointing to a greying building within walking distance of where his two children are drawing lines in the dirt with coat hangers.
“She spends her time at that smokehouse. She gets drugs from some guy, possibly for sex because she doesn’t work,” he says. “I can’t remember the last time she had a job. I take care of these children. But at times I have to go away to work.”
He works in construction and goes where the job takes him. “I have to take my kids away from this situation. This area is not safe, and even taking the children to a crèche is not safe, because just in the passage walking to my place there are pipes everywhere and young kids smoking drugs like heroin and tik.”
According to the INCS report, methamphetamine, the main ingredient in tik, is mostly produced in Nigeria and transits through Benin for markets in Europe, Southeast Asia and South Africa.
Sars spokesperson Sandile Memela confirmed that the service was aware of the report published by the US state department. “With regard to the illicit trade, these chemicals come from various countries across the world.
“No one country can be singled out as a source; this is to protect ongoing investigations. The official statistics suggest that drugs were seized through various modalities, however, prevalent at air [OR Tambo International Airport, King Shaka International Airport and Cape Town International Airport] and land [Beitbridge and Lebombo border posts].”
The INCS report also states that an estimated 40 to 50 clandestine laboratories are dismantled by the Hawks every year. This number has almost doubled over the past five years. According to Hawks spokesperson Hangwani Mulaudzi, in 2014-2015 they shut down 38 laboratories and 60 in 2019 alone. The value of laboratories that have been closed has more than tripled, from nearly R100-million in the 2014-2015 financial year to more than R300-million in the 2018-2019 financial year.
This indicates that the estimated value of each laboratory is increasing and demand for the production of drugs is growing.
James says this paints a depressing picture of the growing problem of drugs flooding the country. “I’ve been an activist out of my own pocket for six years and I have seen the worst cases. One case that won’t leave my mind was when I met an elderly woman whose two sons sold everything in her house for drugs. She used her nightgown as a curtain for her bedroom.
She adds: “I have to serve. Through my son’s addiction I found my passion and purpose in life and that is to serve, garner as much support and highlight the scourge of drug use until it gets the attention it deserves. The task to clean our communities is mammoth.”
As James goes back to work, a white Mercedes-Benz parks and an older couple carrying a baby emerge from the car and ask to speak to her. James patiently listens to another story of how a man has been beaten and doused with paraffin and insect repellent because their 40-year-old son was high.
They tell her: “We don’t sleep at home any more. He is always angry and feels that we owe him something. Now he wants a car and he will beat us if we don’t get it for him.”