South Africa: Drug cartels, crime syndicates, and their relationship to politicians

By Carien du Plessis

Posted on Friday, 18 November 2022 13:21
Zuma, leader of South Africa's ruling ANC, chats with Malema, president of ANCYL, at the Pietermaritzburg high court outside Durban
Jacob Zuma (L), leader of South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC), chats with Julius Malema, president of African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), at the Pietermaritzburg high court outside Durban August 4, 2008. Zuma appeared in court on Monday to push for the dismissal of a corruption case that could stop him becoming president next year. Over 1,000 supporters demonstrated outside the high court in Pietermaritzburg to denounce charges they say are politically motivated and to try to stop Zuma from being put on trial later in the year. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko (SOUTH AFRICA)

Two recent books from South Africa detail the links between drug cartels and crime syndicates, which allege a cosy relationship with some powerful politicians, from the late former police chief Jackie Selebi to corruption-accused former president Jacob Zuma, to the opposition leader Julius Malema. Many of these relationships date back to the apartheid era, but some are new.

Clash of the Cartels, a chronicle of international drug syndicate activity in South Africa by Daily Maverick crime journalist Caryn Dolley was officially released on 10 November. The book comes as the Western Cape government, run by the opposition Democratic Alliance, is mulling an inquiry about possible links between the police and gangs as part of its fight against escalating gang activity in the province.

It appears that gangs might be privy to the police’s anti-gang strategy, a judge there recently said.

There is also little trust in the political leadership tasked with stamping out gang activity.

Western Cape Premier Alan Winde has called on police minister Bheki Cele to be fired for not dealing properly with relations between police officers and gangsters.

But Cele’s deputy, Cassel Mathale, earlier this month said the police were taking action “against those who are found to be working with gangsters.”

Apartheid and the drugs trade

The involvement of politicians in the drug trade is historic and ties run deep.

Before South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994, the government itself was involved in manufacturing hundreds of kilograms of Mandrax and ecstasy in an apparent attempt at social engineering.

A 1999 United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention report on drugs and crime in South Africa states the government might have “acquiesced in, if not encouraged, the trafficking in narcotics to some ethnic groups as a means of social and political control”.

There have also been tales of apartheid-era cops-turned-criminals peddling drugs, particularly Mandrax, to get money to run dirty operations.

On the other side of the low-level war, members of the African National Congress – which was banned until 1991 – were said to have accepted money from a notorious Indian drug smuggler, Vicky Goswami.

They also sold drugs for money to buy firearms for their armed struggle against the apartheid regime.

Closer to the first democratic elections in 1994, this money was also allegedly used for election campaigns, or for personal gain.

Digging dilemmas

Much of what is contained in the book is material that was already in the public domain, but Dolley pieced together a picture of how international cartels interact with South African criminals, and even politicians and officials.

“I often used court records and testimony to create a framework for each chapter which I then fleshed out via, and weight up against, previous interviews, other documents, and other sources of information,” Dolley tells The Africa Report.

But she also faced considerable limitations. “Some names and alleged incidents were redacted on legal advice as there were no criminal charges or official evidence linked to these individuals – despite suggestions there should be.”

It’s murky terrain. “When delving into an arena involving spooks, state rogues and crooks, clear evidence can be hard to come by,” she says. “Evidence can be quashed and ‘evidence’ can also be manufactured, planted and peddled.”

This is exactly what might have happened to the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who “was a prime target of apartheid-era schemers” which means that insinuations “that she may have been part of moving narco-parcels around should be digested along with a good dose of skepticism,” Dolley writes in the book.

Evidence can be quashed and ‘evidence’ can also be manufactured, planted and peddled.”

For example, the 1970s Orlando Pirates soccer player Abie “Pankie” Khabela, was suspected of being part of a Mandrax-peddling network in the country’s soccer industry and was also busted with cocaine.

Khabela at some stage was a bodyguard for Madikizela-Mandela and according to a police report also drove a Mercedes-Benz that belonged to her. The opinion is divided to this day about Madikizela-Mandela’s true legacy.

Cosa Nostra

One of the shady figures who allegedly got close to both the National Party and later the ANC government was suspected Sicily-born Cosa Nostra head Vito Palazzolo, also known as Robert von Palace Kolbatschenko. He settled in South Africa in 1986 after absconding from serving a jail sentence in Switzerland being connected with heroin sales.

His stay in South Africa was controversial and police watched him because of his involvement with figures in Cape Town’s nightclub arena, who, in turn, were suspected of working with corrupt cops aligned with the apartheid regime.

He was granted South African citizenship in 1994, with claims reported that he had blackmailed an outgoing apartheid minister. He has been red-flagged when travelling in and out of the country but has denied any criminality.

The police chief and the drug dealer

The late Jackie Selebi, a police chief from 2000 to 2008 and Interpol head from 2004 to 2008, also makes an appearance in the book, but for all the wrong reasons.

“Under Selebi’s watch more narco-links between SA and the UK were exposed,” Dolley writes, “but not in a way that added accolades to his name or buffed South Africa into a shining example of an anti-trafficking state.”

Selebi was associated with a number of dodgy figures, including drug dealer Glen Agliotti, in a relationship that dates back to the early 1990s, when the two met at the ANC’s head office.

When delving into an arena involving spooks, state rogues and crooks, clear evidence can be hard to come by.”

Selebi was in charge of social welfare and development for the then-liberation movement, according to court papers later filed in Selebi’s corruption case.

Agliotti was considering importing and selling second-hand clothing in South Africa and giving a percentage of the profits to helping resettle ANC members returning to South Africa.

It didn’t work out, but just over a decade ago they were in close contact again when Selebi allegedly showed Agliotti an official UK document that implicated him in cocaine trafficking.

Selebi was found guilty of corruption in 2010 for taking bribes from Agliotti.

Friends of the Zuma family

Selebi was a close ally of former president Thabo Mbeki, but the cosy association between politicians and gangs didn’t stop with Mbeki’s ousting in 2008.

Dolley also writes that the infamous Gupta brothers – close associates of former president Jacob Zuma who are alleged to have masterminded state capture in South Africa – were linked to Muhammad Asif Hafeez according to a 2019 report.

This global heavyweight drug trafficker is known as “The Sultan” and is originally from Pakistan, but has settled in both the United States and the United Kingdom, where he was ultimately arrested.

“Strong rumours in policing circles suggested that if some ANC-associated figures were involved in drug trafficking, it would not be a massive surprise,” Dolley writes, “because under apartheid they had allegedly milked Mandrax for all it was worth to get tools to fight the regime. If some had inclined towards criminality and got a taste of addictive drug proceeds, there was a high chance they simply continued sating their greed.”

Zuma has reportedly met with several top suspected gang bosses in the Western Cape, a province known to be rife with gangsterism, allegedly to garner support for the upcoming local government elections.

Despite denials later that it took place, several police sources maintained that it did.

A convicted drug dealer originally from the Czech Republic and a name well-known in South Africa, Radovan Krejcír, also claimed to be associated with Zuma.

Dolley writes that whether these claims are true or not, “what is certain is that gangs have seeped into government and private businesses, combining gritty street-level violence with the so-called ‘white collar crime’ carried out in offices around the country, and contributing to State capture – the gutting of state entities for personal gain while trampling the public and thrashing democracy.”

Zuma was ousted in 2018 and has since been placed at the centre of a number of state capture allegations.

Julius Malema and the cigarette man

It is also not just the ANC that is implicated. Our Poisoned Land by author Jacques Pauw has outlined the allegedly close relationship between opposition EFF leader Julius Malema – who was expelled from the ANC in 2012 – and self-confessed tobacco smuggler Adriano Mazzotti.

Pauw wrote that it involved cash payments, secretive meetings, and lavish parties involving French champagne, condoms and suspicious white powder.

In reaction, Malema rubbished the book. He’s reported as saying the allegations were “not worth the paper they’re printed on” and “lack substance”.

EFF spokesperson Sinawo Tambo referred The Africa Report to the lawyer’s letter to the publishers, NB Publishers, and to news sites that reported on the book, disputing at least 10 claims, including these mentioned.

“These allegations are untrue, and, collectively, are both defamatory and constitute the unlawful publication of private facts related to our clients,” the letter from Ian Levitt Attorneys stated.

Malema and fellow party leaders have demanded a retraction of the book. The letter threatened court action should their demands not be met.

“The allegations do not benefit the public interest because, firstly, they are untrue; and secondly, because certain of the allegations are made in respect of private elements of our client’s life, which have no bearing on our client’s role in the public space,” the letter read.

Dolley says she is unsure of when the close association between some South African politicians and the cartel bosses would come to an end. Even if South Africa doesn’t have the political will to act against international syndicate leaders in the country, the push by the US in “arresting drug kingpins and former heads of other states it accuses of narcotrafficking” is encouraging, she says.

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