South African women as drug mules

South Africa has been bombarded with stories of its citizens being arrested in foreign countries for amongst other crimes, drug trafficking. This seems to be the presiding crime as statistics prove that well over 60% of the South African citizens incarcerated in foreign prisons have committed crimes related to drug trafficking. In an attempt to understand and conceptualise the dynamics and context surrounding the issue of drug trafficking; there is a need to understand the motivation behind using mainly women for this trade. According to CG Roman in Illicit drug policies, trafficking, and use the world over, South Africa is one of the world’s leading marijuana producers. In addition to the marijuana, South Africans also use methaqualone, also known as Mandrax (main psychoactive ingredient in sleeping tablets. The drug was banned in 1977, but continues to be a problem).

Number of South Africans in prisons abroad
In 2010, there were 1 049 South Africans serving time in Brazilian jails alone, and an undetermined number of prisoners were in jails in other countries throughout the world. According to the Department of Relations and Cooperation (Dirco), in 2012, there were 969 South Africans in foreign jails and about 67 percent of them are serving time for drug related crimes. Common prisons are in Brazil, Thailand, and Mauritius; and a few in China; said Deputy Director, Clayson Monyela.
According to Die Burger newspaper, in 2007 alone, there were 865 South Africans in prisons across the world, for drug smuggling. It is said that the mules receive between R20 000 and R50 000 for their troubles, depending on the amount of drugs they smuggle. In 2013, there were 337 South African women, aged between 29 and 62, imprisoned in foreign countries for drug trafficking. Ninety-two of these women were incarcerated in some of the nine female prisons in Brazil and the number continued to rise yearly. This rising number raises concern, mostly due to the fact that young women are now becoming more involved in this industry.
According to Patricia Gerber of Locked Up [Locked Up is a Non-Governmental Organisation whose mission is to educate people, to put as much pressure as it takes on the SA Government to SIGN onto the existing worldwide multi-lateral Prisoner Transfer Agreement and extradite its people. This is according to their website on]; the NGO receives reports of South Africans being arrested abroad on drug trafficking charges on almost a weekly basis. Belinda West, founder of Locked Up said that there were about 12 of South African prisoners in Thailand, about five in China and up to 400 in Brazil, as of March 2013. Most cocaine comes from Brazil and there is a direct flight from Johannesburg to Sao Paulo in Brazil; therefore making it easier to travel and trade.
Reasons for imprisonment – the crime
According to Superintendent Ronnie Naidoo, mostly West Africans – particularly Nigerians – make use of drug mules. This was emphasised by CG Roman, who has stated that Nigerians have set up networks in South Africa for drug trade. South Africa is a hub where even drug lords from Mauritius use it as one of their networks. Criminal groups have set up permanent operational bases in the Southern region of Africa to traffic drugs; thus, South Africa has become part of the network of drug trafficking in the world – including Western Europe, North America, Latin America and Asia.
In March 2013, Blantina Makoti, a teacher, was arrested in India’s Mumbai International Airport, for carrying seven kilograms of drugs. Officials searched her bag after she was deemed as acting suspiciously. Drugs were stashed in 14 school bags that she was carrying. In May 2013, a woman by the name of Suty Lentin, was also arrested in the same airport for being in possession of 26 kilograms of drugs – methamphetamine (tik) and ketamine which is used as an animal tranquiliser.
In August 2012, a 22 year old woman was arrested in Indonesia for being in possession of six kilograms of either crystal meth or tik at Manando International Airport. Nolubabalo Nobanda who was arrested in Bangkok for carrying 600 grams of cocaine in her dreadlocks was sentenced to 15 years. Initially, her sentence was 30 years plus R500 000 fine, but because she “cooperated” with the officials, her sentence was then halved. Cooperation in this instance may also mean admitting to a crime you did not even commit. The sentence was also lightened as the cargo she was carrying was found to have been mixed with baking powder. In her sworn statement, she stated how she was tricked into going to Brazil by her friend as she had no idea that she would be used as a drug mule.
At the airport in Thailand, it seemed the immigration officers were expecting her as she was taken to a room already full of television cameras and reporters. She stated that she may have been used as a decoy, possibly to allow another drug mule carrying a greater amount of drugs, to be let through unquestioned.
A pattern should be noticed here that so often, people who are caught with drugs aren’t carrying great amounts. So often, these people would have been smuggling these drugs for the first time. According to South African Broadcasting Corporation news (SABC), most of the people who are arrested are found with less than 3.5kilograms of an illegal substance. They are often decoys – deliberately set up by the people who send them, as they take the fall while the bigger consignment gets through with the real drug mules. According to one mule who was arrested in Bangkok, escape is impossible as they are under constant surveillance by a syndicate member. She says officials were tipped off and she was arrested. While she was being stripped off, four other South African mules who had been coerced by the same syndicate, slipped through on their flight to China, undetected. She was sentenced to 25 years in prison, with no recourse to appeal or retrial. A sixth of her sentence was lopped off through the King’s pardon.
There are varying reasons why people associate themselves with this kind of trade. The most popular one probably being poverty; there are however other factors that play a major role. In some instances, the drug mule is fully aware of what they are doing, as was the case of Nombali Xundu. However, someone else may report that they had no option but to comply, as in the case of Nolubabalo Nobanda. People may also be vulnerable and desperate for jobs; in that case, the syndicates know who to target.
In 2003, a 20 year old lady – Brigene Young – was arrested in Mauritius for drug trafficking. When she related her story, she conveyed that she was an innocent bystander, unaware that the man who promised her a dream holiday, was actually trapping her. Prison conditions are a different matter on their own and would need to be tackled in a different article.

South African Government’s stance on the matter
South Africa and Ghana are the only two countries in the world who have not signed prisoner-transfer-agreement(s) with any country. “Every other country has, and has taken their citizens to their own country to complete their prison sentences at home, allowing their families to visit them”; says Gerber. Because other countries have inter-state-prisoner transfer agreements; their citizens can be extradited to serve at least part of their sentences back home. South Africa has not signed such agreements with any country. The Department of Correctional services believe that allowing South Africans to serve jail time at home would amount to too great a financial burden. The number of foreign prisoners in South Africa precedes that of South African prisoners in foreign countries.
Department of Correctional Services argued that due to important political considerations taken into account, the government will not be able to sign such an agreement. Gerber believes that the prisoner-transfer agreements could lift the financial burden the Department so speaks of. It can be noted that in some instances, offenders who come from countries with prisoner-transfer-agreements may get lighter sentences. For example, Vanessa Goosen was initially sentenced to death in Thailand for being found with 1.7 kilograms of heroin; whereas an American woman was sentenced to eight years for carrying 15 kilograms of heroin. Although no reasons were given for such a discrepancy; it remains worrying that there would be such a significant difference in the sentencing. Should we not be seeing this as part of human trafficking?

Ntando PZ Mbatha
(Parts of this article first appeared on The New Age newspaper on 16 November 2016)


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