As a Tanzanian, you can’t help but notice the amount of Ki-swahili that is spoken in the Jo’burg inner city. In Rissik and Bree streets, in particular, Tanzanians are a common sight. Some work as hairdressers or street vendors; others have joined the city’s criminal underworld.
A large number are jobless, addicted to drugs and desperate to go home – if they could just afford to do so. Many of them keep body and soul together by working as drug mules, transporting cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine (tik) and methaqualone (mandrax) from Tanzania to South Africa. Tik and small amounts of cocaine also travel the other way.
Edom Mwaikambo, the head of the Tanzanian community in Durban, estimated that barely a quarter of his compatriots in South Africa had legal jobs and that many were drug dealers.
In recent years, many Tanzanians have settled in South Africa claiming that they are looking for a better life. Some are musicians who say they want to perform for the Tanzanian community in Johannesburg. They take advantage of a 90-day visa exemption, which enables them to travel freely between the countries.
A 2012 report by the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime names Tanzania as a major transit point for the trafficking of drugs in Africa. It says that East Africa, including Kenya, is Africa’s main point of entry for Afghan heroin, mandrax from India and China, and cocaine from Latin America. West Africa is an important point of exit.
The scale of the trade is suggested by recent drug seizures. The UN office’s 2013 World Drug Report reveals that, in June last year, the South African authorities seized 860 000 mandrax tablets – about 350kg – en route from Tanzania, via Botswana, to the Western Cape.
In July this year, two Tanzanian citizens, Agnes Masogange and Melissa Edward, were arrested at OR Tambo International airport with six bags of tik worth more than seven billion Tanzanian shillings (R42.6-million).
According to the South African Revenue Service, this was the largest seizure ever at a South African border. A source said that one of the two had been seen before the arrest in central Johannesburg, shopping for expensive articles. The women are awaiting trial.
A spokesperson from the Tanzanian High Commission in Pretoria, Habib Awesi, said that the foreign affairs ministry had recently informed the commission that two other Tanzanians, Montana Silvery Kahindi and Amadi Omary Emedi, had been arrested for drug-related offences. Awesi also said that the murder of three Tanzanian men in Belgravia, Cape Town, on August 13 was also allegedly related to drugs.
Over the past month, amaBhungane has investigated the role of Johannesburg’s Tanzanians in the trafficking of narcotics. Members of the community were interviewed and a shared house in Jeppestown was visited, where more than five addicts share a single room.
Ali (not his real name) came to South Africa five years ago and now works in the Johannesburg CBD. He confirmed that many local Tanzanians were addicts and that they made a living by transporting drugs between the two countries.
He named three Tanzanians resident in Johannesburg as kingpins of the trade, one of whom “has been jailed for drugs, but owns a house and is still very rich”. Ali said the individual was himself drug-dependent and continued to consume large quantities of heroin while in prison.
Another small businessman who has been in South Africa for more than 10 years said that it was unusual for traffickers to fly. Most travelled by bus through the Tunduma post on the Tanzanian-Zambian border to Harare in Zimbabwe or Blantyre in Malawi and then through Musina into South Africa.
The UN drug report states that it is becoming common practice to move narcotics between the countries in small consignments by air courier.
Some Tanzanian mules swallow plastic sachets of drugs and retrieve them later. This can have tragic consequences. Last year, two Tanzanians, Hassan Wanyama and Ali Mpili, died, one at the Braeside Lodge in Harare and the other in Johannesburg, after the cocaine sachets they had ingested leaked. Mpili had swallowed 80 sachets.
“They choose road transport because some customs officers at those border posts are part of the network,” said the businessman. “The bribes range from more than 300 000 to 500 000 shillings [R2 000 to R3 500].”
As a result, all Tanzanians are now coming under suspicion. “At the border, they call us by the name ‘drugs’ and we are searched attentively and differently from others,” a Tanzanian woman said.
At the run-down Jeppestown house, Hassan (not his real name) confirmed that he was a heroin addict. He did not admit to trafficking, but he said that he knew most of the Tanzanian drug users in South Africa and appeared to have a good understanding of the trade.
Hassan confirmed that road transport was the preferred way of moving narcotics between Tanzania and South Africa. The illegally imported cocaine is evidently heavily cut with other substances to make it affordable to poor users – a gram goes for between R25 and R100. (In Tanzania, it is even cheaper.)
He said young women were normally used as mules, as they were less likely to be arrested at the border. As a cover, some of the women pretended to work as prostitutes for a time after their arrival.
The head of Tanzania’s Anti-Narcotics Unit, Assistant Police Commissioner Godfrey Nzowa, said that the unit was doing all it could to ensure that drugs from outside Tanzania did not reach local users.
“We are trying to control drugs that enter our country, not only from South Africa, but from around the world,” he said.
Nzowa said the current street value for cocaine and heroin in Tanzania was 45-million Tanzanian shillings (R300 000) a kilogram.
Urging Tanzanians to join the fight against drugs by naming dealers without fear, he claimed that an alleged local drug baron, Aly Khatib, was arrested last year with 211kg of heroin, but had since fled Tanzania. Khatib’s whereabouts are unknown.
South African police spokesperson Lieutenant-General Solomon Makgale said local authorities did not keep records of the nationality of drug offenders. However, he said that the South African police had close working relations with other members of Interpol and the Southern African Regional Police Chiefs Co-operation Organisation in fighting the trafficking of narcotics.
A spokesperson for the Tanzanian Drugs Control Commission, Florence Mlay, said that the commission was not aware of Tanzanian drug dealers and users in South Africa. “But since the media are working on it, we will focus on that situation,” she said.
* Got a tip-off for us about this story? Email [email protected]
The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.