11 Apr 2019

Drug trafficking / Heroin expands rapidly into South Africa

The thriving illicit trade is made worse by poor drug policy and neglect of marginalised communities.

Pretoria, South Africa – A widespread and lucrative local heroin market has expanded across South Africa, facilitated by gangs, organised crime and incompetent or corrupt police.

The rapid emergence of the thriving industry has gone largely undetected by police and government despite more than 100 000 users. Its estimated annual turnover may be worth billions of rands. The problem is made worse by poor drug policy and neglect of marginalised communities.

‘South Africa’s heroin crisis is extremely serious and is taking a heavy toll on communities,’ says Simone Haysom, a senior analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, which is part of the Enhancing Africa’s response to transnational organised crime (ENACT) project.

Haysom is the author of a new report on South Africa’s heroin problem, released at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) today (11 April). ENACT is an EU-supported project that monitors and develops responses to transnational organised crime in Africa.

ENACT researchers found widespread and problematic heroin use in South Africa’s small towns, big cities and rural areas. The impact falls on local authorities who are under-prepared to provide effective responses.

The European Union's Deputy Head of Delegation to South Africa, Raul de Luzenberger, commended ENACT for its field research on the threat to the social, economic and political fabric of South African society. ‘In particular I am pleased to note the collaboration with people working on drug policy, harm reduction, healthcare and criminal justice. The report Hiding in plain sight: Heroin’s stealthy takeover of South Africa highlights the weaknesses and gaps in policy, with a number of important recommendations.'

Combatting SA's booming heroin trade
©ENACT/Institute for Security Studies

The cash-based and criminalised heroin economy has had a severe corrupting effect on police, who have interdependent relationships with gangs, drug dealers and users. In Cape Town, dealers in gang-controlled neighbourhoods say patrol vans visit their selling points for small cash bribes. Interviewees in Tshwane spoke of corrupt junior police confiscating drugs and selling them to other dealers. 

South Africa is at risk of contributing significantly to the surge in drug use in sub-Saharan Africa, which is expected to have 20 million users of hard drugs by 2040, says ENACT programme head at the ISS, Eric Pelser. ‘It’s a potential crisis, but there is insufficient policy attention being paid to it. The problem is exacerbated by poor policing, absence of crime intelligence, and the failure of the state to provide adequate social care or education and health services.

South Africa’s heroin economy is a spinoff from the growing international drug smuggling route down the East Coast of Africa for shipment to international markets. Tanzanian criminal networks have been developing the South African heroin market and supplying gangs who sell the drug to users. ‘Heroin is today a key commodity underpinning the criminal economy in South Africa,’ Haysom says.

The country’s poor drug policy has severe social, economic and political implications. Drug users are criminalised and have limited access to services, so become socially marginalised. Many end up living on the street, where they face assault and extortion by police.

Despite commitments to harm reduction in government’s drugs master plan, government strategy is not based on evidence or international best practice. Opiate substitution therapy, provision of less harmful heroin substitutes like methadone, and needle and syringe exchange programmes, are successful internationally, but only Tshwane currently has both these programmes.

ENACT says a regional political response is needed to address corruption that facilitates the heroin transit route through neighbouring countries. Police and other government agencies should develop an evidence-based analysis of the heroin economy and its impact on users, communities and crime. Police investigations should focus on facilitators of the trade, and traffickers that reap the profits.

Government’s response to South Africa’s heroin crisis should include public health initiatives, and address the causes of community vulnerability to drugs and gangs. ‘Heroin use is increasing and we are not prepared for it,’ says Shaun Shelly, founder of SA Drug Policy Week.


ENACT is funded by the European Union. The project builds knowledge and skills to enhance Africa’s response to transnational organised crime. It analyses how organised crime affects stability, governance, the rule of law and development in Africa, and works to mitigate its impact. ENACT is implemented by the Institute for Security Studies and INTERPOL, in affiliation with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. 

The contents of this press release can in no way be taken to reflect the views or position of the European Union.

Further information and interviews, contact:

Proof Communication Africa:

anzet@proofafrica.co.za - 083 557 2322

gabi@proofafrica.co.za - 079 458 0888

lihle@proofafrica.co.za - 063 493 4520



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ENACT is funded by the European Union
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ENACT is implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with
INTERPOL and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.