While South Africa’s national crime statistics make it evident why the country is seen as one of the worst places in the world for violent crime, the latest Global Organized Crime Index shows that country also carries the dishonour of being a hotspot for things like drug and arms trafficking and environmental crimes.
The index, compiled by the Global Initiative against Transactional Organized Crime (GI-TOC), looks at the influence of criminal actors and criminal markets in a country, using reported data from authorities and engaging with hundreds of experts with insights into these fields.
Criminal actors include Mafia-style groups and gangs, criminal networks, state-embedded criminals and foreign actors who perpetrate crimes through local networks. The illicit markets the index looks at are broadly split into people, trade, environmental and drug offences.
Counter to criminality, the index also tracks resilience structures in each country, looking at the political, regulatory and social systems to combat criminal activity. This ranges from governance and law enforcement to international cooperation and regional integrity.
The types of criminal markets assessed in the index are activities of global concern, such as human trafficking and smuggling, the illegal arms trade, cross-border drug trade, and environmental crimes such as poaching and illicit trade of natural resources.
Globally, the Democratic Republic of Congo has the highest rate of criminality, with low resilience structures present to prevent such activity. This is followed by Colombia, Myanmar, Mexico and Nigeria.
The countries with the lowest criminality have low population figures and include Monaco, Luxembourg, Kiribati, Marshall Islands and Vanuatu.
Finland has the highest resilience to criminal activity, followed by Liechtenstein, New Zealand, Denmark, and Iceland. Countries with the lowest resilience to criminal activity are Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Venezuela.
South Africa ranks 19th out of 193 countries in the index for criminality, making it one of the worst in the world for these types of crimes.
While acts of human trafficking are less prevalent overall, environmental crimes and the trade of synthetic drugs is flagged as some of the worst. Despite the relatively low scoring in people crimes, the index authors stressed that human trafficking is still prevalent.
South Africa’s resilience score is ranked 42nd globally, with GI-TOC noting that the strongest actors in crime prevention come from non-state organisations – particularly in community support for drug abuse.
The government’s interventions, while good on paper – with strong laws and regulations against criminal activity – are undercut by corruption within state structures often facilitating the illegal activities or the various projects aimed at crime prevention being underfunded or lacking skill and capacity to execute them.
“South Africa is a destination country for human trafficking, and the prevalence of trafficking internally is just as pervasive, if not more, than transnational trafficking,” they said.
“Traffickers are known to recruit people from the poorer, rural areas to urban centres, where they are then forced into domestic servitude, sex trafficking and other forms of forced labour. There is also evidence of Mozambican, Zimbabwean, Basotho and Malawian migrants in forced labour arrangements.”
Labour exploitation is becoming recognised as a more significant threat than sex trafficking, they said. However, this is not criminally organised and mostly linked to the farming sector.
The index also highlighted corruption associated with the movement of foreign nationals – predominantly related to paperwork and the process of crossing borders with a bribe instead of a valid passport – as a huge problem.
“Highly organised professional criminal networks and transactional cash-based networks run the human smuggling industry in South Africa. However, these groups are not violent, and the criminal market still has significantly less reach than in other countries on the continent,” they said.
“The smuggling of undocumented foreign nationals into South Africa often takes place on buses or trucks crossing the border, a practice in which South African police and immigration authorities are often complicit.”
A significant flow of arms exists within South Africa – which the authors said are overwhelmingly used by criminals to kill, injure, and intimidate.
“There are a variety of sources that have fuelled the pool of illegal firearms, including the flow of arms from outside South Africa and within the country. Additionally, the long history of the apartheid regime led to the heavy arming of civilians.
“Weapons have also historically been smuggled across the borders from neighbouring countries. While recent figures suggest there has been a decrease in this cross-border trade, it’s still taking place, albeit to a lesser degree.”
While things like illegal logging aren’t as pervasive in South Africa as in its neighbouring countries – although South Africa still imports these illegal goods – environmental crimes like poaching are a considerable problem, the report shows.
There is a growing range of wildlife trafficking markets, including lion bones, ivory, abalone, and pangolins. Abalone poaching, meanwhile, provokes violence via the gang activity surrounding the trade and has precipitated turf wars.
“Moreover, there is a close trafficking relationship between South Africa and Asia, predominantly pertaining to the illicit trade of lion, hippo and rhino products,” the report’s authors said.
Non-renewable resource crimes in South Africa are mostly perpetrated through the illicit trade of gold and, to some extent, diamonds.
“The illegal gold mining industry has expanded significantly, with a clear differentiation emerging between gangs of miners who work in dangerous conditions and are subject to exploitation, and criminal networks purchasing and trafficking the products.”
South Africa has become a hotspot for drugs – it is both a destination and transhipment point for Afghan heroin arriving directly via sea and air routes, and indirectly via overland routes originating in East Africa, GI-TOC said.
“South Africa stands out as a major transit country because it is easier for traffickers to move containers to Europe from South Africa than from other countries in the region. There is strong evidence that the heroin market is growing and becoming increasingly fatal for users.”
Domestic cannabis production and cultivation are high. It is the most commonly consumed drug in the country; however, the low value to weight ratio makes cannabis unattractive for illicit traders next to commodities like cocaine, amphetamine, or Mandrax.
Historically, Mandrax was the dominant synthetic drug in South Africa. Since the 2000s, other drugs have undercut its dominance, yet it is still prevalent in many poorer communities across the country.
Since 2003, the consumption of crystal methamphetamine, commonly referred to as ‘tik’, began in Cape Town and quickly took hold of drug markets in many poor communities.