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Drugs & Gangs in South Africa

While South Africa’s transition from autocratic to democratic governance is often described as a miracle, this miracle has also created an environment in which the production, distribution, and consumption of illegal drugs flourishes. Moreover, as both a function of history and contemporary problems, the South African state has failed to create a more equitable and productive society, the result of which is that members of many communities continue to be economically isolated, political disenfranchised, and socially excluded. Into this void, the lure and draw of gangsterism has become very powerful, especially in the Western Cape region.

Taken together, the gangs provide angry young people an identity while the financial accruements of the trade in the many illegal drugs gives them the ability to express that identity. Problematically, the laws that the South African state relies on in order to police and prevent the illegal production, distribution, and use of drugs, and those that target gangsterism, are symptomatic and frequently inadequate. For instance, the primary piece of legislation used in the targeting of illegal drugs, the ‘Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act No. 140 of 1992’ empowers the police to search any premises, object, or person on ‘reasonable grounds’ of suspicion. At no point does the Act declare what constitutes ‘reasonable grounds’. While the South African government has released a new National Drug Master Plan 2013/2017, which advocates community-orientated and harm-reduction approaches in an attempt to reduce illegal drugs in the country, the prescriptions of the plan and punitive approach of the Act have yet to be reconciled.

This has led, in part, to a simple yet sobering fact – the production, distribution, and use of methamphetamine (or ‘tik’ as it is known colloquially) has never decreased since it first came to public attention in 1998. Clearly, new understandings, procedures, and policies are desperately needed. Such undertakings cannot however occur in isolation from the broader structural problems facing the country.

It is at these intersections, between law and society, between people and institutions, and between drugs and identities, that research pertaining to drugs and gangsterism is conducted at the Centre of Criminology. Moreover, such research is often the product of collaborative efforts between staff at the Centre and other institutions and organisations. For instance, recently the Centre completed a large, multi-site, mixed-methods survey of the illegal drug market in the City of Cape Town, in conjunction with the Medical Research Council (MRC).

The study, using a methodological framework that itself serves as a model for initiating more effective regulatory strategies, interviewed many hundreds of habitual drug users, police officers, social workers, and many others in the pursuit of providing both a quantitative, evidence-based record of the contemporary street-level prices of the most widely used drugs in the City. In the process, it was discovered that there may in actual fact be five different types of methamphetamine in circulation, the production methods of which may be employed so as to bypass the regulations aimed at controlling the use of precursor chemicals.

The study has also collated an impressive collection of qualitative responses and records from drug users themselves, and which now form the basis into research topics focussed on the policing not only of substances, but users themselves. 




Shaw, M. (forthcoming) “A Tale of Two Cities: Mafia Control, the Night Time Entertainment Economy and Drug Retail Markets in Johannesburg and Cape Town, 1985-2015Police Practice and Research – Special Edition on Policing Drug Markets

Berg, J. and S. Howell (2015) “Running the Gauntlet: Police Strategies and Responses to Strike Action.” In Hepple, B., Le Roux, R. and S. Sciarra (eds) Laws Against Strikes: The South African Experience in an International and Comparative Perspective. FrancoAngelli: Rome, pp. 185-204.

Howell, S. (2015). ‘“We have to start showing who is boss now’: Constructions of methamphetamine use and users in the South African media.Crime, Media, Culture, 11(2): 137-156.

Howell, S. and Marks, M. (2015). “Discounting the disparaged: Insights on the policing of the use and users of illegal substances in South Africa.” In G. Monaghan (ed) Blue Serge and Red Ribbons: Police Services and Harm Reduction – Law, Polices, and Practices from 14 English Speaking Countries. Forthcoming.

Howell, S. and Couzyn, K. (2015). “The South African National Drug Master Plan, 2013-2017: A critical review.South African Journal of Criminal Justice, 28(1): 1-24.

Marks, M. and Howell, S. (2015). “Cops, drugs and interloping academics: An ethnographic justification for harm reduction-based programmes in South Africa.” Forthcoming, Police Practice and Research.