Warriors won't win drugs war

The real cause of the addiction plague is social collapse.

The War on Drugs is being pursued by the current American administration, just as it was by a number of presidents who came before Obama. But all the indications are that it is a war that cannot be won. “It should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal one,” Obama has said.

In South Africa the problem is essentially the same as in the United States, and is at its most intense on the Cape Flats. “Law enforcement is essential, but addiction is the core problem,” says Major-General Jeremy Vearey, South African Police Service cluster commander for Mitchells Plain, Cape Town, who has been dealing with drug-related crime in the Cape for all of three decades.

Drug usage is found in all communities, but the problem is greatest in poor areas. In Vearey’s view arresting and imprisoning suspects has very little effect. “By locking up the distributors, we are not stemming consumption. The problem with the war on drugs is that when we close one hole, sometimes imprisoning a dealer for many years, immediately another opens. Where poverty is intense there is always someone ready to step into a gap in the drug trade, no matter what the dangers.”

And the dangers are severe. Both gang members and the innocents are killed on the streets of the Cape Flats.

The horrifying murder statistics (see A case of cops vs cops? in this issue) become still more horrifying when you put some names to the numbers. On the night of 19 March 2017 the Shotspotter gunfire detection system recorded 250 shots in a 12-hour period, surprisingly causing only one fatality: Zinadine Peltor, 14 years old and innocent of gang business, was caught in Hanover Park crossfire and shot dead. In another month, 277 shots were recorded in 86 separate incidents. Sixteen-year-old Dillan Cornelius was shot dead two years after he had witnessed a fellow pupil being stabbed to death at school. Allan Boch was shot in the face three times while washing a car.

As Noseweek went to press, Aqeel Davids, 9, was shot dead in his own home in Ocean View.

Most singular of all was the wounding of Chantelle Knight and the fatal shooting of her boyfriend. Her testimony against notorious gangster Rashied Staggie had resulted in his receiving a fifteen-year sentence. The attack took place just ten days before he was released on parole. Knight had been in witness protection, but came home because she could not handle the loneliness. She is back in witness protection now, but this time she is unlikely to return to the Flats.

Vearey was less than delighted with Staggie’s parole and the possibility of renewed gang violence if, in his absence, other crime bosses had taken over his territory. What is clear is that drug-related crime continues to grow and the young are caught up in it, too often seeking careers in that area. According to Thurston Brown, principal of Manenberg High School: “If 250 pupils enrolled in Grade Eight this year, perhaps 60 will make it as far as matric. Of them, maybe 15 will go to FET colleges. Only five or six will go on to tertiary education.”

Many who have been involved with Cape Flats communities agree with Vearey (and Obama in the US) that this is more than a crime problem. Reverend Donovan Meyer of the Anglican church believes that the high levels of gangsterism are caused largely by hunger and unemployment. Meyer feels that even a ceasefire among the gangs would not be enough. “We have to deal with the underlying problems.”

Peter Portal, a young Londoner, who, with his South African wife, owns a home in Sherwood Park adjoining Manenberg, runs the Fusion Community Trust,  assisting young people who are trying to rid themselves of the drug habit. Their methods are prayer, mission and justice. They believe that sobriety alone is not enough. “You cannot tell people to leave this thing, if you have nothing better to offer,” says Portal. “We are working towards creating a redemptive community.” Clearly he feels needed in Manenberg.

“Addiction is a feature of society,” says Vearey. “Dagga had been in use in South Africa for many decades before it became illegal. Only in the 1920s, during the prohibition era, were drugs prohibited in the USA. South Africa was one of the countries that followed.”

The moment drugs were banned, crime syndicates realised that a new opportunity had opened for them. An illegal trading infrastructure developed and, for the first time, ordinary people and their teenage children came into contact with organised crime. The product line grew with new additions flowing into the country across our borders. Cocaine arrived in the late 1970s, Mandrax in the 1980s, crack in the 1990s, and tik and heroin more recently. The popularity of smoking drugs began with tobacco and dagga. Mandrax, crack and tik only grew in popularity when people started smoking them.

Year by year Vearey and his colleagues have found themselves faced by a growing problem: “In the early 1980s, if you caught someone with cocaine, it might be half a kilogram. Now it’s often ten kilograms. We have intercepted shipments of fifty or sixty kilograms of cocaine in a single bust. Consumption today is far greater, addiction is more severe and usage per square kilometre is far higher.”

The war on drugs takes many forms. Bringing the army into trouble spots like the Cape Flats has been suggested by politicians and others. But Vearey feels that the functions of the army and the police should not be confused. “When the army enters an area they assume a hostile presence there. The police, on the other hand, must be part of the community. People assume that a big enough armed and uniformed presence will extinguish crime, but only a police state can watch everyone. Maintaining law and order is vital, but it is only part of the picture.”

• Towards the end of August it was discovered that 33 firearms had disappeared from two police stations, Bellville South and Mitchells Plain.Only a brave person would bet against them being in criminal hands by now.

That taken into account, a police presence in the townships could be contributing more to the problem than they are to a solution.

Wessel Ebersohn is the author of The Classifier and other novels.

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