Connecting the dots between corrupt police leadership and drug abuse

A deal goes down in Umbilo – 2013

On 17 January, Police Minister Fikile Mbalula and the new National Police Commissioner, Lieutenant General Khehla Sithole announced crime intelligence boss, Richard Mdluli, had finally been relieved of his duties. Since his suspension seven years ago, he has reportedly earned around R8-million and persistently meddled in affairs of the state. He will retire with full benefits and apparent impunity for his role in pillaging a Crime Intelligence secret slush fund. Mdluli has been widely blamed for the downfall of, amongst others, the former Hawks head Anwar Dramat, former NPA prosecutor Glynnis Breytenbach, and Gauteng corruption-buster, former Major General Shadrack Sibiya. But he has thousands of lesser-known victims – collateral damage along the road to ‘a better life’ for some.

Umbilo, Durban, South Africa

History records that around the middle of the last century, increasingly deprived of their freedom and dignity, discriminated against, despised and marginalised to the brink of cultural destruction, our First People – South Africa’s original artists and doctors – would use this phrase to describe disaster that had befallen their collective soul: “The time of the hyena is upon us.”

Richard Mdluli has been widely accredited with facilitating the rise of Jacob Zuma and the sinister shadow state – a parallel economy and system of governance based on criminal syndicates, political thuggery, patronage, greed and the perversion of democratic order.

On the way to Mangaung, spy wars, dirty tricks and dubious ‘intelligence reports’ became synonymous with the political factionalism and wholesale plunder that were to dominate South Africa’s political landscape and undermine the credibility of every government institution, none more so than our persistently untransformed, poorly assimilated, post-94 criminal justice system. We all know how this has turned out, but what has the impact of this venality been on ordinary citizens – especially our young people – the future of our nation?

Roshni* had two boys aged 13 and 15. Their abusive, alcoholic, truck driver father had introduced them to dagga around the tender age of 10. Unemployed and unemployable, Roshni struggled to support her sons during her husband’s long absences and the boys were often left to their own devices. Some said, as a last resort, Roshni would turn to prostitution to put food on the table.

When she discovered her youngest had become involved with ‘the wrong crowd’ and was more often seen smoking whoonga than focusing on his studies, Roshni moved her family to Umbilo where she hoped the change would sever her son’s habit. What Roshni did not know was that Umbilo was rapidly developing into one of Durban’s primary – albeit lesser-known – narcotic neighbourhoods.

This was back in in 2008/9, and, notwithstanding the high profile Selebi/Agliotti and Radovan Krejcir scandals, mostly before broader public awareness of the extent of the blurring of the thin blue line separating law enforcement from the criminal underworld.

However, in poorer communities, embedded drug dealers increasingly became known as ‘ATMs.’ An afternoon’s observation at Dalton Hostel, saw Umbilo SAPS patrol vans visiting a supplier from nearby Whoonga Park on average every 15 minutes to collect ‘lunch money.’

As the trade mushroomed, so did the socioeconomic fallout and attendant corruption. Perhaps its proximity to Durban harbour saw Umbilo quickly develop into something of a transit point where cocaine, heroin and all kinds of other narcotics were brought from other centres before being repackaged and redistributed. Local law enforcement seemed impervious to the community’s outrage and the invisible hand of political interference – in some cases, outright involvement in the trade – became increasingly obvious.

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By this time Roshni’s kids were almost impossible to control. Both had dropped out of school and had become marauders of nearby Glenwood, stealing anything they could lay their hands on to pay the (then) R30 needed for each whoonga hit. The youngest admitted he needed to score at least seven times a day to ‘stop the pains.’

One of the side-effects of withdrawal and reason for whoonga-users’ high relapse rate during rehabilitation, is the unbearable pain and muscle cramps that wracks users’ bodies as concentrations of the deadly heroin-based cocktail subside in the system. It becomes a matter of life and death for the user to get the next fix, by whatever means, as soon as possible.

In desperation Roshni took to locking her boys in their rooms at night. But they broke windows or escaped through the ceiling, bringing threats of eviction from a landlord whose patience was worn thin by his tenant’s vandalism.

Spells in state rehab facilities revealed the hopeless inadequacies of government’s approach to the whoonga epidemic and left both boys deeply traumatised and convinced they would never conquer their addiction.

The youngest had confided, “I feel bad, I’m pissing blood all the time.” Sooner or later, whoonga turns the bodies’ organs to mush; the kidneys are often first to fail.

By 2011, a counter intelligence agent had begun looking into local police involvement in Umbilo’s burgeoning drug trade. From the start, his superiors seemed to have little appetite for the success of his proposed project. In fact, at each turn he appeared confounded either by a lack of resources, or a sudden enthusiasm for the finer points of legalistic rectitude. While crime intelligence engaged in wholesale (and unlawful) electronic surveillance of political targets, the agent failed to win judicial approval to monitor the phone of even one local officer believed to be involved in Umbilo’s drug trade. Months spent studying suspects’ movements, finding suitable locations for concealed cameras (that never materialized apparently because of a ‘lack of funds’) and nurturing over 100 well-placed informers revealed a network of highly placed SAPS members and increasingly suggested links with the political apex of our country – a perfect and highly lucrative nexus of crime, political ambition and greed.

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By early 2012, the looting of the R200-million Secret Service slush fund – of which Mdluli was said to be central – had exploded in the media, the NPA was terminally fractured and all the president’s men and women had thrown a ring of steel around their principal. No one would touch Number One, members of his family or their associates, which included some of Durban’s most notorious drug lords who had been linked to Umbilo’s narcotics trade.

The effect on the ground was instantaneous. With all intelligence operations suspended, the counter intelligence agent was left high and dry without a vehicle, his salary frozen and forced to use his personal phone to stay in touch with critical informers. The embryonic Umbilo investigation became just one of the countless casualties of a state security apparatus since paralysed by intra-ANC factional warfare, and Roshni’s kids just part of the collateral damage inflicted on society by an increasingly degenerate, morally moribund ruling elite.

I saw Roshni’s boys for the last time a year ago. Whoonga had so undermined their senses they no longer recognized me. With the glazed, uncomprehending stare of the terminally addicted, they lurched towards Dalton beerhall’s ubiquitous dealers, their movements jerky and uncoordinated. I was told they were now living with other substance abusers in a filthy gutter behind the beerhall. Roshni had evidently given up her unequal battle against the drug for custody of her children.

Hostel residents had laughed and pointed. The youngest boy, fumbling eagerly to light the hand-rolled whoonga cigarette, was unaware he had pissed in his pants.

When announcing the end of Mdluli’s tenure, Minister Mbalula said: “It is in the interest of the Republic of South Africa that we’ve got a crime intelligence body that has got leadership, that can function.”

Although Mdluli has fallen and his principal will likely soon follow, their toxic legacy has transformed our criminal justice system into a rotting corpse; it is mirrored in the dead eyes of our wasted youth and buried in the ashes of their aspirations.

As South Africa endures this seemingly unending ‘time of the hyena,’ Mbalula’s pronouncement was too little, too late for Roshni’s boys and millions who had hoped that one day justice and the rule of law would prevail.

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