Drug dealers are making as much as R4,000 a day from South Africa’s growing heroin epidemic

South Africa is facing a growing drug epidemic, new research finds, with heroin quietly taking over both major cities and small towns in the country.

This is according to a new policy brief by the Enact Project, based on research and on-the-ground interviews with drug users and drug dealers across the country.

“The heroin route that crosses South Africa has created a regional heroin economy, with severe social and political repercussions,” the group said.

“To a significant degree, heroin is a key commodity underpinning the criminal economy in South Africa and has facilitated the expansion of the criminal economy by pulling in new players as traffickers, dealers and users.”

During the latter months of 2018, Enact conducted interviews with drug dealers, drug users, health professionals, outreach workers, law enforcement and gang members, to better understand the growing heroin epidemic in the country.

The group found that the heroin trade in South Africa was far larger and more lucrative than previously thought – with the situation receiving “surprisingly little attention as a national issue”.

Enact noted the following profile of heroin in South Africa:

  • Heroin is called by many different names in the country: nyaope, unga, sugars, etc;
  • Trade handlers maintain a low profile, and are largely non-violent so as not to draw attention;
  • Cape Town, Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg and Tshwane largely control heroin trade;
  • It is sold widely (large metros, small towns, townships), from taxi ranks, train stations, and other fixed drug dealing spots;
  • It outsells many other drugs, and rivals tik (crystal meth);
  • Users pay between R20 and R30 for a hit, with most reporting they need at least three hits a day, every day. Some users report spending as much as R200 a day on heroin;
  • A mid-level dealer (in a large gang controlling a fixed dealing point) can make up to 200 sales a day from about 50 customers. With ‘good quality’ heroin, they can make between R3,000 and R4,000 a day.

According to Enact, research into heroin use in South Africa has been lacking, so it is difficult to pin down any exact numbers of use in the country.

A 2015 report identified approximately 75,000 people injecting heroin and 110,000 smoking the drug – but this number is likely to have grown significantly over the last four years, it said.

Even based on these underestimated (and unreliable) numbers, the heroin economy could be generating as much as R3.6 billion a year – mostly extracted from the poorest communities.

“These calculations should not be repeated as fact – the assumptions about the size of the heroin-using population and the average number of ‘hits’ per day are too unreliable,” Enact said.

The effects on South Africa

Heroin creates high dependency, with a reliable income stream from repeat customers, which subsequently keeps funding the networks.

For people who use heroin, the risks of overdosing are extremely high; injecting carries higher risks than smoking (with needle sharing introducing risks of HIV and hepatitis C), but any use of the drug is likely to isolate the user and make them socially marginalised.

Users become fixated on their addiction and cannot hold down jobs, leading to economic marginalisation, Enact said. They in turn resort to hustling or petty crime to fund their addiction.

This feeds onto the wider community which suffer the consequences of these crimes and behaviours. With little support or ways to get treatment, social and economic marginalisation reinforces a cycle of destabilisation in affected communities.

In gang-controlled areas, violence is also common as groups battle each other for control of the drug economy.


Because the heroin trade is cash-based and criminalised, it has “severe corrupting effects” on the police force, Enact said.

“In Cape Town, dealers in gang-controlled neighbourhoods say that patrol vans treat their selling points as ATMs – a place to visit for small injections of cash.

“They claim there is no set price for bribes paid to police, but R50 to R100 was an average bribe payment for a low-level police officer in a patrol van. Police officers are said to visit a few times a week,” the group said.

In other areas, interviews found that police were tolerant of drug users who were not committing crimes, or were predatory (planting drugs, taking bribes) – though this was not uniformly so.

“These allegations require further investigation,” Enact said.

What needs to be done

Enact said that South Africa needs a comprehensive policy response to the heroin economy.

“Not just law enforcement and public health responses but also broader measures, including political approaches to dealing with the corruption that accompanies drug trafficking and more creative development interventions to address the drivers of community vulnerability,” it said.

The group said that more understanding and research is needed to address the underlying causes of growing heroin use.

“There are compelling arguments that opioid drug use is a rational response to living in economically depressed and socially fractured neighbourhoods where anxiety, depression and physical pain are features of daily life.”

To this end, Enact suggest a harm-reduction approach, rather than simply trying to cut off supply. This includes providing health services, including access to regulated substances for users.

The group said that South Africa needs to:

  • Invest more into understanding the heroin economy – particularly from the Central Drug Authority, which Enact says lacks political will to properly address the issue. We need as much data as possible from affected communities to develop appropriate strategies.
  • Understand the drug market and the true cost – current data is too unreliable to calculate the heroin economy accurately; but even assumptions put the total in the billions of rands. Profits are unknown, but also untaxed, and the economy feeds other illicit and destructive ends, such as bribes and weapons.
  • Undermine demand for harmful substances – instead of trying to cut off supply and criminalise use, people need to be educated about harmful substances and directed to regulated alternatives. Social programmes need to be developed to help those who turn to substance abuse to resolve their problems.

Read: What it costs to buy booze, drugs and cigarettes in South Africa vs the world

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Drug dealers are making as much as R4,000 a day from South Africa’s growing heroin epidemic