Merchant of death

2011-05-11 00:00

WHEN I joined The Witness in 1999, my first job was that of a feature writer. My brief included writing about many of the social ills that affect society. I met reformed drug addicts, as well as many who tried to overcome their addiction, but never could. Most painful of all was seeing families left shattered and bewildered by their loved one's addiction.

I have never been able to forget a poor gogo who was being constantly beaten up and robbed of her pension by her drug-addicted grandson. She loved him and struggled with the advice from a social worker that she had to report him to the police.

There were the families who could not come to terms with what went wrong with children who at one time were kind or gentle or had a great sense of humour and had showed such promise, but who had become strangers. There were the stories of financial ruin, families ripped apart and always the bafflement­ and shame.

This is why for me the trial of convicted drug trafficker Sheryl Cwele is about so much more than a statement about her fashion sense or legal technicalities. It is one of betrayal. Here is a woman who, as director of Health and Community Services on Hibiscus Coast, should have known better. Her job, by its very nature, is one of watching out for the health of a community. And drug addiction is a serious community health issue.

There is her marriage to intelligence minister Siyabonga Cwele and her friendship with fellow trafficker Frank Nabolisa, who, after facing drug-related charges in Johannesburg, left the country in March 2009. He reappeared eight months later. In his bail hearing it was said that the movement control system did not show how he re-entered the country. Somebody like Nabolisa should have been on the intelligence ministry's radar screen, whose specific job it is to monitor drug trafficking and criminal syndicates. How did he manage to get so close to the intelligence minister's wife?

Overlooked in the hype of the trial are many basic facts that, when unpacked, send a chilling message. Cwele's drug mule, Tessa­ Beetge, was caught with just over 10 kilograms of cocaine in her luggage. Currently, the street value of cocaine is R350 a gram. This adds up to R350 000 per kilogram. Beetge's deadly cargo­ was worth R3,5 million.

There is the plight of drug mules like Beetge. According to reports the modus operandi is that a mule is often used as a decoy. The drug smuggler gives the person a small amount of drugs to carry and then arranges that the person gets arrested at the airport. In this way the attention is diverted from the main courier who is on the same flight. Mules are often arrested in countries where a drug smuggler can be sentenced to death, or when they do successfully deliver their illicit packages they are not paid. Mules can sit in countries for weeks or sometimes get stranded altogether because a transaction fell through.

All of this is against a backdrop of frightening statistics that show that drug consumption in South Africa is twice the world norm and that the use of cocaine has increased by more than 20% in the past two years. According to Dr David Bayever of the Central Drugs Authority (CDA), 15% of South Africa's population has a drug problem and the country urgently needs to change its approach to dealing with the scourge.

Statistics also show that drug abuse is costing the country R20 billion a year and could pose a bigger threat to the country's future­ than the Aids pandemic. South African­ Police Force figures indicate­ that 60% of crimes nationally­ are related to substance abuse.

Writing in the journal Africa Recovery­, Ronald Neal describes drug traffickers as "merchants of death". Neal says that Africa is facing a crisis with an increase in illicit drug cultivation, processing, trafficking, money laundering and abuse.

A consequence has been a rise in violent crime, corruption­, bank fraud and social decay, and African governments are grappling with how best to face this new threat.

According to Neal, South Africa, with its established financial markets­ and advanced computer networks, stands out as an ideal site for money laundering.

He says that as the wealthiest country on the continent, South Africa offers a huge market for drugs. As a regional hub, it attracts numerous traffickers for trans-shipment of drugs.

Cwele's conviction as a drug trafficker, a merchant of death, cuts deep. A betrayal that cuts deeper still is that it took until yesterday for her to be suspended. She should have been suspended immediately, without pay, by her bosses at the Hibiscus Coast Municipality­.

At the very least, her husband, even though they are estranged, could have been moved from the very sensitive post of head of intelligence­ to a position not connected in any way to the oversight of the illicit drug trade.

What message is all of this sending­ out to the South African public? What message to thousands of suffering families?

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