These findings were revealed in a policy report that was released by ENACT, an organisation that monitors and develops responses to transnational organised crime on the continent on Thursday.
What this report shows is the rapid emergence of a drug industry that is now worth billions of rand and feeds the addictions of more than 100000 users in South Africa.
This number of users has increased significantly over the past four years, and with it has come a strong demographic shift.
Once those who injected were primarily white, but now black users, who were predominantly smokers of heroin, are switching to needles.
All of this is in part due to a more efficient supply route that begins in the poppy fields of Afghanistan, enters South Africa via Mozambique and then follows the national highways to not only the larger cities, but also smaller towns and rural areas.
This is the so-called southern route which until recently, according to the report, was the “poor relation” of the Balkan and central routes which cut over land to Europe from Afghanistan.
The southern route has become more significant because of an increase in opium production in Afghanistan, lax law enforcement in East Africa, and a clamp down on the other routes.
“Basically, there is more heroin that needs to move somewhere,” says author of the report Simone Haysom.
This heroin crisis is effecting poorer communities the most, the report found, with many being subjected to extreme violence, from local gangs who are competing for control of drug markets.
Researchers also found that the heroin trade has had a corrupting influence on the police. “People have described to us patrol vans arriving at drug-selling points, twice a day for small cash injections,” says Haysom.
In Tshwane, where Tanzanians control the distribution of heroin, interviewees told of how police officials confiscate drugs and sell them to other dealers.
“There is familial bond breakdown,” says Haysom. “Users become isolated from communities. It really has an effect on trust and social bonds.”
ENACT is concerned that South Africa could follow what is happening in East Africa, where it is expected that there will be 20 million hard-drug users by 2040.
“It’s a potential crisis, but there is insufficient policy attention being paid to it,” says ENACT programme head Eric Pelser.
What has hampered the govenment’s response to the drug problem, according to Haysom, has been the ineffectiveness of the police’s crime intelligence in recent years. The report also found that the state was not providing adequate social care and health services.
“The government’s reaction has been an ostrich approach, burying it’s head in the sand,” says drug researcher Simon Howell, who didn’t take part in the research.
Fellow drug researcher Shaun Shelly, believes that to deal with South Africa’s growing heroin crisis the police need to change their approach.
“The police need to stop using quotas,” he says, referring to arrest quotas for drug-related offences.
Shelly said that on average over a quarter-of-a-million South Africans were arrested each year on drug-related charges. Of this, few led to convictions.
“Police need to refocus their policing schedules, stop focusing on people who use drugs, stop focusing on even the low-down dealers,” says Shelly, who adds that drug use should be decriminalised. “Then focus on real crimes, like gun crime.”
ENACT believes that there needs to be an effort to address corruption, and that the government has to adopt a holistic approach to tackle the crisis.
This includes a public health response and social programmes that deal with the problems associated with substance abuse. In other countries the provision of less harmful substitutes to heroin and needle-exchange programmes have proven successful. But currently Tshwane is the only city where these programmes are being run.
“The government should end its fixation with a drug-free South Africa. “It’s not achievable,” says Shelly.