Khat a growing problem in South Africa
CAPETOWN: Its 2pm on Saturday afternoon in Bellville and several people are lining up opposite the bus station to buy a stimulant called khat which is in its leaf form. Although the stimulant is illegal in South Africa, it has been openly sold on the streets of Bellville over the last three years. According to local residents, authorities in the Western Cape seem to have turned a blind eye on those who sell or chew the leafy substance.
“Once in a while the police comes here and arrests those selling khat, but in a matter of minutes they are released and they return to the streets again,” Muktar Hajji, a street vendor in Bellville told Africa witness. He thinks the police could be taking bribes from khat sellers since they are never taken to court. “I know many families that have been destroyed as a result of chewing khat,” he related.
Many residents here told Africa witness they were afraid their teenage children could become hooked on the stimulant because it is freely available on the market. “I wish police authorities could intensify raids on these dealers and lock them up for good,” Abdalla-Aziz Mustafa, a father of three, said. In South Africa, around 10,000 people from East Africa and the Middle East use khat, but most of its consumers are from the Ethiopian and Somali communities. The illegal drug is planted in Limpopo and transported daily to the Western Cape where thousands of addicts eagerly wait for it.
Grant Jardine, director of the Cape Town Drug Counseling Center, explained that the fresh khat leaves are chewed to achieve a state of mild euphoria. He added that khat has a stimulant effect similar to that of amphetamines, adding that the drug – which is known to many as simply an African herb – is highly addictive. “Khat is in a leaf form, but it is sometimes processed into a powder form and sold like any other illegal substance,” Jardine explained. He said the addictive leaf comes from a tree called Catha edulis and when it is chewed the user experiences feelings of increased alertness, confidence and a loss of appetite.
A former khat user who wished to remain anonymous said the drug is normally weighed and sold per kilo. 1kg of “Gizaa” – freshly imported khat from Kenya – costs about R350. Locally grown khat appears to be much cheaper at only R40 a kilo, because it is considered to be of poor quality. “I lost half of my teeth because of chewing khat. But alhamdulillah, I have now stopped the practice,” another former addict confided.
According to Jardine, depression and psychological disorders, like psychosis, are common among regular users of khat. The main psychoactive ingredients in khat are cathine and cathinone, chemicals which are structurally similar to, but less potent than, amphetamine; yet result in similar psychomotor stimulant effects.
Meanwhile, when Africa witness was finally able to reach someone at the Bellville police station, we were told that they were not allowed to comment. Asked about the claim of bribery, Colonel Andre Nieuhaus said: “It is not true that we take bribes. The truth is that that we arrest khat dealers almost every week and we plan to intensify our operation.”
In South Africa khat was originally chewed by foreign nationals, but now local South Africans have also bought into it and are chewing the leaves. Experts warn that these leaves are highly addictive and could be responsible for increased crime in the country. But khat is not just a problem in South Africa. In an industrial estate in Southall, west London, thousands of boxes full of khat are delivered every week. The drug begins its journey from the hills of Kenya and arrives in the UK four times a week. It then makes its way to the depot, where dealers buy the herbal high to supply customers across the UK.
Britain is the only country in the west where the product remains legal. The khat business generates over £400m in revenue for the British economy, and the chancellor of the exchequer also picks up a tidy sum in VAT revenue. Around 90,000 people from the east African and Yemeni communities in the UK use it, especially the Somali community.
But a Home Office report, which will be published on Wednesday, is to recommend regulating the product, and a ban is expected to follow later. Last year, counter-terrorism officers working with their American counterparts arrested seven individuals across the UK. The group – all of them khat traders – were suspected of channeling the proceeds of an alleged smuggling enterprise to al-Qaeda-linked Islamists in Somalia. (This piece was first published by the Voice of the Cape website © reserved)