Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Take drugs? Don’t help the piranhas

I’ve never taken drugs. Well, not the illegal kind anyway. I prefer to walk up to the counter at the pharmacy, recite my request and wait mournfully to be told that Discovery isn’t paying. As a kid in primary school, I regularly took overdoses of my asthma pills (Microfillin; active ingredient theophylline) in order to make me sick enough to miss swimming, which I hated. My mother never did work out why I was sick on Tuesdays with such remarkable regularity.

But I digress.

I’ve never even seen others ingesting illegal drugs, despite the fact that I’ve worked in advertising for 14 years. Oh, there were the Fridays on the patio when I’d nurse a Smirnoff Spin while the creatives passed around a spliff, but does dagga really count?

Despite years of lectures and scare stories about drugs at school – “Just say no!” – I’ve never really had any moral issues with drugs. I just don’t like the idea of psychoactive substances interacting with the medication I’m already on, and so I’ve stayed away. (Interviewing a family of four sons, three of whom developed schizophrenia after drug use, put me off for life.)

So a book about the drug trade is somewhat theoretical for me. Still, I’d like to give a copy of Dead Cows for Piranhas by Hazel Friedman to anyone who enjoys recreational illegal drug use, particularly cocaine, because it might offer a different perspective on an apparently victimless crime.

dead cows for piranhas

You might know Friedman from her Special Assignment exposés; she has won awards for her investigation of the links between South Africans and drug smuggling in Thailand.

The title refers to Friedman’s discovery that some drug mules are “dead cows” – deliberately offered as sacrifices to appease the authorities and the public and distract from the other smugglers on the same flight. If you read about a drug bust at an airport, you’re not reading about all the other drug mules who did get through – with much larger quantities of drugs.

The dead cows end up in jails in foreign countries, denied their rights as South African citizens, victims of human trafficking. Friedman covers the specifics of her interviews with young women like Thando Pendu, arrested in Thailand and currently serving time there, as well as her attempts to track down the people who recruited her. It’s less a problem of drug smuggling than human trafficking: unwitting victims are coerced into breaking the law, and the police are waiting for them the moment they arrive on foreign soil.

Being a drug mule, in case you were wondering, requires desperation, naïveté and a weak gag reflex. Drugs are typically smuggled in condoms that are swallowed, slowly and painstakingly; wannabe smugglers are trained on baby carrots. Friedman sticks to the facts, but occasionally allows a dry sense of humour to slip through. I couldn’t read this sentence without flinching even as I smiled:

“Stella was extremely intelligent, with an expansive vocabulary, courtesy of the many books she had read during her numerous global peregrinations to take her mind off the gurgling cargo in her distended gut.”

The tale is filled with ruined lives, indifferent government officials, passionate activists and, yes, a lot of Nigerians. Chapters 13 and 14 are excellent introductions to the history of organised crime in South Africa, detailing the intricate connections between drug lords, politicians and law enforcement, which extends way back into the murky depths of apartheid. I was both fascinated and depressed. We are knee deep in slime, and that’s only the stuff we think we know about. The war on drugs has succeeded spectacularly in only one regard: it has set up the framework within which criminal gangs can flourish.

In the midst of all this craven grasping for money and power, it is the desperate and ignorant who suffer. Friedman teases out the link between the former and the latter, often at great risk to herself. She is brave, or crazy, and possibly both.

This is what struck me about Dead Cows for Piranhas. Over the years, I’ve had conversations with people who regard drugs – I’m talking particularly here about cocaine, which are produced far from where it is consumed and must be smuggled across borders – as recreational amusement, a personal choice that harms no one else. An act of rebellion against nanny statism, if you will. But you’re also contributing in your own small way to human misery, and not just your own. You’re aiding and abetting the trafficking of innocent people. You are a link in a long chain of human rights abuses.

Convicted drug mules like Shani Krebs and Vanessa Goosen have been freed, but many South Africans continue to languish in terrible conditions in overseas jails. Dead Cows for Piranhas is absorbing and eye-opening, and feels like it needs a sequel, because the end of this story has yet to be told. Friedman is in Thailand at the moment, taking the mother of a jailed South African to visit a daughter she has not seen in years.

The illegal drugs discussion is huge, far too complex to tackle here. I’m fully in favour of decriminalising them, along with other sacred policing cows like prostitution – but that isn’t going to happen any time soon, and before then, innocent citizens will be sacrificed.

Think next time you indulge. Who suffered for your high?

Dead Cows for Piranhas by Hazel Friedman, published by Jonathan Ball Publishers and available from Exclusive Books. You can also buy it online here and here.

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