Drug trade seeks entry to S. Africa

August 27, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

PRETORIA, South Africa -- There is a downside to the opening of post-apartheid South Africa to the rest of the world, which has brought in trade and investment, concert tours and international sports. It has also brought drug trafficking.

That was the message Lee Brown brought here during a four-day tour this week. Dr. Brown, director of the White House Office of National Drug Policy, better known as the country's drug czar, said that South Africa has the potential to become a major transit point in the world's narcotics traffic.

"I have been encouraged by the meetings I have had with community leaders and government officials," Dr. Brown told a news conference at the U.S. Embassy.

"They are very much aware of the fact that drug traffickers are taking advantage of South Africa's new openness. [South Africa] has an opportunity to address this problem early. Unfortunately, we in the United States neglected the problem far too long before we realized the impact it was having on our society."

Trying to warn about the potential of drug abuse in the new South Africa has been a pet project of U.S. Ambassador Princeton Lyman. Dr. Brown's visit is an important part of that campaign. There is also the possibility that an office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration may be opened here.

Dr. Brown said that his agency regularly surveys the drug trade ** to identify the countries involved.

"It was a few months ago that South Africa came up on the radar screen," he said.

He said that though the amounts are still fairly low, cocaine is moving from Latin America through South Africa to Europe and heroin is coming from Asia through South Africa to the United States.

"Just as legitimate business is taking advantage of the changes in South Africa, the drug syndicates are doing so as well," he said.

Though South Africans are alarmed at the growth of their country's illegal drug use, it remains relatively minor compared to the United States.

The two illegal drugs most often seen are marijuana, known locally as dagga, which is grown here and marketed abroad, and mandrax, the pills known as Quaaludes in the United States.

But, as if to emphasize the changing drug environment Dr. Brown was surveying, yesterday's newspapers headlined the biggest cocaine bust in Johannesburg history.

While the amount, just under 30 pounds with a street value here estimated by police at $1.4 million, is not large by U.S. standards, the growing number of seizures of that drug is ominous.

The prospect of the country's black townships adding crack cocaine addiction to their current levels of poverty, unemployment and gang activity scares all involved in the new ** government's efforts to alleviate the current problems.

And, as Dr. Brown pointed out, wherever international drug traffickers go, they try to develop a local market for their wares.

Also disturbing is the fact that along with seizing the cocaine yesterday, South African police arrested four Nigerians, and are searching for a fifth who escaped.

Nigeria, the next stop on Dr. Brown's itinerary, has long been associated with drug trafficking and there is evidence that the syndicates based there are moving into South Africa.

Dr. Brown said that the United States can provide technical assistance to South Africa and, in his meetings, suggested changes in the laws to deal with laundering of drug money through legitimate accounts.

"We also urged laws to make conspiracy illegal since as we know the kingpins never actually touch the drugs," he said.

Still, Dr. Brown sounded optimistic yesterday, emphasizing that South African officials on all levels appeared to recognize the dangers of the nascent drug trade and were prepared to take the steps necessary to counter it.

"Just as in the United States, drug law enforcement can't be done in isolation," he said. "It has to happen in conjunction with programs designed to attack the cause of drug abuse, poverty, unemployment and such."

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