🔒 How world sees SA: Criminal gangs add booze, cigarettes to drugs inventory

When Covid-19 containment brought South Africa to a standstill at the end of March, a story emerged on US television that hardened gangsters were using their networks to distribute food parcels to the needy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these Robin Hoods of the underworld couldn’t help themselves when they also saw the opportunity to share wine, whisky and cigarettes on a black market as the government imposed a strict ban on the sales of alcohol and cigarettes from regular retail outlets. The Guardian, a respected UK-based media organisation with a global audience, has picked up on this story to underscore that gangs which specialise in drug distribution, rape and murder are enjoying a financial boom, thanks to the ANC ministers who voted for the prohibitions. – Jackie Cameron

By Thulasizwe Sithole

Prohibition of beer and spirit sales has cut rates of murder and violence but the resulting illicit trade will now be hard to stop, reports the Guardian newspaper. What’s more, gangs that have specialised in drugs have added alcoholic drinks and cigarettes to their inventory.

In a feature that focuses on the prohibition on buying or transporting alcoholic drinks and the gradual easing to Covid-19 containment level three, the publication outlines the stark reality that the government ban on booze has facilitated a lucrative black market.

The lockdown is now almost over, says the Guardian, as South Africa on Monday moved to“level three” of five, allowing many more businesses and some public transport to function under strict conditions.


“Covid-19 has spread relatively slowly across Africa, where there are only 130,000 cases. But South Africa is the worst hit country, with more than 27,000 of these, and scientists predict a surge over the coming months.”

Zweli Mkhize, the health minister, said last week that the drastic restrictions had been effective at halting a rapidly spreading outbreak, but acknowledged the very high costs in a country where more than 50% of people live in poverty. “We can’t hold the lockdown for ever… There has to be relief of hunger and social distress,” Mkhize is quoted as saying.

Critics, says the Guardian, describe the prohibition on alcohol imposed by Ramaphosa on 27 March as puritanical and arbitrary. From June 1, alcohol sales are allowed on four days a week. No alcohol can be bought on Fridays and over the weekend, and it must be consumed only at home, with bars remaining closed.

“South Africa has some of the highest levels of violent crime in the world, and more than half of murder victims have elevated levels of alcohol in their blood, experts say. Half of all murders take place on a Friday or Saturday night,” the Guardian tells its global audience.

It quotes Gareth Newham, head of the governance, crime and justice division at the Institute for Security Studies, saying that murders have come down by 63% during the lockdown and that suggests that other violent crimes have gone down too.

Traffic accidents – another major cause of deaths in South Africa – have also reduced in number significantly, it points out.

“Overall, mortality rates have dropped since the first cases of Covid were detected in the country at the beginning of March, while hospitals have seen only a third of the usual number of severe wounds and injuries.

“Cigarette sales were also initially banned, on the basis that smoking weakens the respiratory system and that in poorer areas people share cigarettes, possibly increasing the risk of spreading the virus,” it says of the health reasons for banning cigarettes.

But the prohibitions created a booming illicit trade, providing huge opportunities for organised criminals. Police have described an increase in smuggling of contraband into South Africa from its neighbours and a spate of burglaries of stores stocking alcohol.

South Africa has long had a problem of criminal gangs illegally selling cigarettes. Networks which already sold narcotics have now added alcohol to the illegal goods they offer their customers.

“This has given a massive boost to organised crime. Demand has remained the same, but the supply side has simply shifted into the control of the illicit industry. It is going to be very difficult to roll back,” said Newham.

While criminals have thrived, South Africa’s thousands of bars and restaurants have sustained massive losses, threatening huge numbers of jobs in a country already suffering high unemployment and a flagging economy. “It’s really sad to be feeling the pain … it’s been very, very, very hard,” Tobogo Phiri, who shut his popular venue in Soweto when the lockdown was imposed, tells the Guardian.

South African pubs and bars will remain closed until further notice, it adds.