About 350,000 people in South Africa use cocaine, says a new report

  • Up to 122 tonnes of cocaine is trafficked to SA annually and about 19 tonnes is consumed locally, mostly as crack, says a new report.
  • The rest goes all over eastern and southern Africa, and SA is also a “significant transit point” for Australia’s cocaine.
  • A R400,000 brick of pure cocaine can be worth up to R5 million once it has been processed into crack, according to drug-using researchers.
  • The information comes from a new report by the Global Initiative on Transnational Organized Crime.
  • For more stories, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

South Africa is the cornerstone of a cocaine network in southern and eastern Africa that has become a critical part of the global supply chain.

Up to 122 tonnes of cocaine is trafficked through SA annually, and as much as 25 tonnes stays in the country where it is snorted, smoked or injected by an estimated 350,000 users.

About three-quarters of local users prefer crack cocaine, and dealers able to buy a kilogram of pure cocaine for about R400,000 can earn R5 million by turning it into crack.

These are some of the findings in a weighty new cocaine report from the Global Initiative on Transnational Organized Crime, written by illicit drug market and policy analyst Jason Eligh, from Canada.

Much of the street-level information in the report comes from more than 1,000 drug users who operated as field researchers, reporting on what cocaine and crack cost in their countries and regions.

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In 2020, when Eligh did his research, “the wholesale price for a kilogram brick of pure cocaine on arrival in Cape Town was between R350,000 and R400,000”.

Drug users told him they paid between R400 and R1,000 for a gram of cocaine, depending on its quality and their relationship with the dealer. Crack cost as little as R50 for a 0.05g stone, and as much as R3,200 for a “moon” weighing 2.4-3.8g.

About 1,700 informants, including more than 400 drug couriers and distributors, 70 high-level drug importers and 40 law-enforcement personnel were among the sources who led Eligh to the conclusion that “trafficking cocaine within and through the region is a vast enterprise”.

The ports of Durban, Ngqura and Cape Town, airports in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and overland border crossings with Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Botswana are important cocaine nodes, he says.

Large consignments of a ton or more arrive from Santos in Brazil in shipping containers, often concealed in a shipment of legal goods or in the housing of the container.

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“The cargoes tend to be transnational, often either stored or recanned for further container-based transit either by sea or overland, and often with smaller volumes carved off the main supply for payment to or to sell to local suppliers,” says Eligh.

He names Durban as a popular port for these operations and says SA is a “significant transit point” for cocaine destined for Australia.

General cargo vessels tend to handle shipments of hundreds of kilograms and typically transfer the drugs to smaller vessels, such as fishing boats, that move them onshore.

“After landing, they are separated and shipped overland by truck or private vehicle to regional markets and exported by micro-traffickers.”

Micro-traffickers keep their consignments to 5kg and use postal or courier services, airline passengers and unaccompanied airline baggage to move the drug.

The “powder storm” of cocaine moving through southern and eastern Africa is much larger than the rate of seizures suggests, says Eligh.

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“In fact, it appears that the absence of frequent high-volume seizures indicates that efforts to reduce the supply of the drug in the region have been relatively ineffective, rather than that significant cocaine supply chains simply do not exist, as some have assumed. ”

Weak law enforcement is further neutralized by “complicit, compromised or corrupted political elites, government bureaucrats, prominent business people and security officials. The trade is fueled by the collusion of corrupt and captured state agencies with drug networks, exacerbated by weak law-enforcement capacity, incompetence, and in some cases indifference.”

Even when police do seize cocaine, it doesn’t necessarily stay seized, Eligh says, mentioning recent South African examples:

  • In 2020, at least 16 police officers assigned to OR Tambo International Airport in Joburg were arrested on charges of systematic theft of cocaine and other drugs confiscated from couriers.

  • In July 2021, three police officers were arrested after they were found transporting nearly 600kg of cocaine from Durban to Joburg in a convoy of government vehicles.

  • In 2021, more than half a ton of seized cocaine was stolen from a secure police locker during a weekend break-in at the Hawks office in Port Shepstone.

South Africa’s most recent large cocaine bust was a 672kg haul in a truck pulled over by the police at Athlone, Cape Town, in August.

It emerged in an unsuccessful appeal against the refusal of bail that police had the 10-ton truck under surveillance for six days, during which it was driven to Johannesburg and back. Branches of McDonald’s in Kenilworth and N1 City were the meeting points where suspects handed the truck over to each other.

A Cape Town man and two from Joburg, all of whom had made regular trips to Namibia and Botswana, offered to post bail of between R150,000 and R200,000. But Cape Town high court judge Patrick Gamble said there was no evidence they could afford those amounts so someone else must be funding them, raising the likelihood they would skip bail.

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