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Drug-Related Crime in Cape Town
7 October 2010

Mongi Henda, Intern Organised Crime and Money Laundering, ISS Cape Town

The release of South Africa’s crime statistics in September 2010 has, once again, drawn attention to the country’s drug-related crime problem. The numbers show that, while there has been a general increase in drug-related crime across the country, the Western Cape Province continues to be the most affected. Provincial crime statistics show that the Western Cape recorded 60,409 drug-related crimes between April 2009 and March 2010. To put this figure into perspective, the province has experienced a 12% increase in such crimes compared to the previous period of April 2008-March 2009. This more than trebled the figures recorded for period April 2003-March 2004. When comparing the Western Cape’s current figures with the rest of the country, we see that nearly half of the country’s drug-related crimes were recorded in the province.

It is important to remember that there is often more to statistics.  A report released together with the 2010 crime statistics, with the title  “The Crime Situation in South Africa” helps us to better understand the context. In the report, drug-related crimes are categorised together with illegal firearm possession and driving under the influence of alcohol as “Crimes detected as a result of Police Action”. In other words, they are not frequently reported but are rather detected as a result of police initiatives such as road blocs, searches and intelligence collection. An increase in the detection of these crimes may be considered a positive development as it demonstrates increased police action against crime. Indeed various role players have welcomed the escalating numbers of drug-related crimes in the Western Cape as indicative of the police success in clamping down on the illicit drug trade.

At grass-roots level some Community Policing Forums (CPF) have also expressed optimism. Areas such as Mitchells Plain, Elsies River, Bishop Lavis and Manenburg are considered to be among the worst of the province’s drug hotspots, having all witnessed a surge in the number of reported drug-related crimes. Michael Jacobs of the Michells Plain CPF explains how Mitchells Plain sector patrol vehicles are expected to make a minimum of 20 stop-and-search operations per day. Police are also required to do foot patrols in an effort to build better relations with communities. The Cape Town Metro police’s “Operation Choke” additionally seeks to stem the flow of drugs in the province by repeatedly raiding drug dens. The operation has been hailed as successful by many as it has led to the arrest of a high number of drug peddlers and the closure of many drug dens.

The level of optimism in relation to the statistics should be tempered somewhat, for, as the Crime Situation report notes, “at least part of the increase might be linked to a higher volume of drugs in the market”.  According to the Medical Research Council (MRC), Cape Town’s drug scene has grown tremendously since the arrival of Crystal methamphetamine (tik). It is therefore likely that the increase of drug-related crimes is also connected to the influx of cheap drugs such as tik onto the Cape Town drug market. Tik has been spreading across the Cape uncontrollably since the late 1990’s. Fierce gang wars have erupted in parts of Cape Town where rival groups try to control the booming tik market. The increase in police activity could therefore be more of a reactive response to a drug problem that has spiralled out of control than a proactive step to decrease the number of drugs available in the market.

One of the most notable characteristics of today’s illicit drug trade is that it is an increasingly transnational affair. Narcotics syndicates traverse national borders with relative ease. The Western Cape remains primarily a market or destination for illicit drugs that are trafficked into the province from across the globe. There still seems to be little information regarding current sources of the drugs or the routes by which they are trafficked into the province. The result is to limit police efforts to dealing with drugs when they enter the province. Policing activities such as “Operation Choke” are focused on arresting drug peddlers and closing drug dens in the Western Cape despite the fact that it is now almost common knowledge that these dens easily relocate in order to evade police detection. As long as there is minimal focus on the external links of the province’s drug market, drug dens will simply relocate to evade detection. Likewise police action will have minimal impact on the flow of drugs into the province.  

The most perverse of all shortcomings regarding the Western Cape’s efforts against drugs is persistent police corruption. Corruption destroys the trust between police and community members and blunts initiatives to mitigate the drug trade. Despite the evident seriousness with which Cape Town police have approached the drug trade in recent years, perceptions of police corruption and complicity within the drug trade remain high. In Mitchells Plain several former drug addicts and community workers have claimed that certain members of the police are paid off by drug dealers to ignore their activities. In some instances police are said to have given favoured drug merchants tip offs about possible raids. Powerful drug cartels across Cape Town are said to know and even fraternise with members of the police in an effort to secure the continuation of their activities and to gain leverage on competing drug dealers.  On the 14th of September 2010, two policemen were arrested over their links to drug lords in the Woodstock area of Cape Town. The policemen who both worked at the Woodstock police station were allegedly paid to transport drugs for drug traffickers in the area. This recent story, reported on the News24 website on 15 September Cops in court for drugs") brought to light the difficulties that police are facing within the province regarding the fight against drugs and police corruption.

It is hoped in future that whatever strategies employed by the provincial government to combat drug-related crimes will take into consideration some of the supply side factors such as the fact that many suppliers are outside the Western Cape. Therefore tackling these intricate networks would require increased knowledge and communication with law enforcement agencies outside the province. The practice of merely arresting drug peddlers and busting drug houses is insufficient when dealing with the more complex and widespread international drug networks. Incidences of police corruption put an almost irreparable dent on the image of the police and negate their efforts to play a leading role in the fight against drugs.

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