South Africa, World

Of Thai prisons, drug mules and SA’s inability to act

By Rebecca Davis 19 June 2012

Nolubabalo “Babsie” Nobanda was on Monday sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment in a Thai jail, with a R250,000 fine, for trafficking cocaine into the country. Now might be a good time to re-consider the question of why South Africa does not have prisoner transfer agreements in place with other countries. By REBECCA DAVIS

Babsie Nobanda, the 23-year-old from Grahamstown who made international headlines last December when she was discovered carrying 1,5kg of cocaine in her dreadlocks, now knows her fate. Unless she benefits from the sporadic generosity of the Thai king on these matters, she will not be returning to South Africa until she is 38 years old. If her family cannot raise the funds to pay her R250,000 fine, she’ll be 39 or 40 when she returns.

This is actually not a bad outcome for Nobanda. In their statement on the matter, the department of international relations noted that the sentence was initially 30 years and R500,000, but was halved due to Nobanda’s guilty plea and co-operation with the police. The sentence was also lightened because the cargo she was carrying had been mixed with baking powder. Nonetheless, the street value of the cocaine stuffed into her dreadlocks was R1,2 million. Nobanda had been promised R16,000 for its delivery.

Speaking to the Daily Dispatch after the sentencing, Nobanda’s uncle, Ntsiki Sandi, was sanguine: “I cannot say that we are happy with the sentence, no time in prison is good, but it could have been worse – the family had prepared themselves for worse,” he said.

Many people have argued that no sympathy is due people who smuggle drugs across borders. Reading Nobanda’s six-page confession, however, it’s hard not to feel a sense of injustice about what has befallen her – assuming her version of events is accurate. Nobanda claims that another young woman from Grahamstown, Sulezo Rwanqa, approached Nobanda and asked her to accompany Rwanqa to Brazil, where a Nigerian man had offered her a business opportunity through selling Brazilian hair chemicals in South Africa. 

“Sulezo was reluctant to go to Brazil alone as she had never been to that country before,” wrote Nobanda. “She also did not know (the Nigerian man) personally. I very much trusted Sulezo as we grew up together and she was very well-known to my family.”

Nobanda, excited about going overseas and spying a business opportunity for herself, allegedly agreed to accompany Rwanqa to Brazil. The brother of their Nigerian contact in Brazil, who she named as a Port Elizabeth man called Samuel Uchengu, informed the two that they would be bought plane tickets and given pocket money for the trip. Uchengu then told the women that the flight had been fully booked and it would be necessary for Rwanqa to travel a day before Nobanda. “Although I was not happy with this arrangement I still agreed to go as I did not suspect anything,” wrote Nobanda.

Upon arrival in Brazil, the women were taken to a South African called Hilda who said she would take care of their training. “But she first wanted to know if we knew what we were coming to do in Brazil. Sulezo said yes we did. Hilda said she was upset that she had not been told that we were very young people, because the work we were coming to do was very hard and dangerous,” claims Nobanda. 

“I asked Hilda what she meant by dangerous. She said it was about selling and delivering drugs for the Nigerians. I was very shocked and afraid for my life. I realised that I had been lured into a trap. I looked at Sulezo, who did not utter a word.”

Nobanda claims that she then said she refused to be a drug smuggler, but Hilda advised her that it would be far too dangerous to back out. 

“She said it was too late for me to say that. If the Nigerians got to know that I was not going to do the work, they could even kill me… She advised me not to escape but to pretend that I was willing to do the work.” 

The women were then taken to a house where four Nigerians instructed them to swallow drugs wrapped up in condoms. Nobanda said she was unable and unwilling to swallow drugs, so they hit on the idea of hiding the drugs in her hair. 

The next day Nobanda was taken to the airport, where, she thought, she would be delivering the drugs to somewhere within Brazil. She says it was only when she was given her ticket at the airport that she realised she was going to Thailand, where she was told to meet Rwanqa, who had flown out a day or so before. “The Nigerians also told me that Sulezo was not like me because she was ‘bold and strong’,” wrote Nobanda. 

Her account of what happened when she arrived in Thailand is particularly interesting. “When I came to the airport in Thailand, it seemed that the immigration officers already knew that I was coming, because they went straight for me and took me to a separate room. There the television cameras had already been set up.” 

If true, this strongly suggests that Nobanda was used as a decoy, possibly to allow another drug mule carrying a greater amount of drugs to be let through unquestioned. Nobanda believes that the syndicate who supplied her with drugs tipped off the police in order to protect themselves from further investigation. 

“I was sent to Thailand simply to get rid of me and to ensure that I would not go back to South Africa and report Samuel to the police,” her confession concludes.

Nobanda’s friend, Rwanqa, whose first name has been spelled as “Sulezi” in media reports since Nobanda’s arrest, is believed to have returned to South Africa subsequently but is lying low. The New Age reported in January that Rwanqa had “slipped back into South Africa about a week ago”. 

At that time, Rwanqa’s mother told the newspaper: “Yes, she is back in the country but stop asking about her whereabouts because she was not arrested. She is not wanted, she is fine and was not involved in any drug dealing.”

Nobanda probably hopes her confession will spark some investigation into Rwanqa now: she states in it that “I consent that the authorities in South Africa may use my statement to investigating (sic) the activities of human traffickers in that country”.

Nobanda now joins what is estimated as just over 1,000 South Africans serving time in foreign jails, although this number is likely lower than the real figure. The last two years have seen two high-profile releases of South Africans from Thai jails: former beauty queen Vanessa Goosen, who served 16 years of her 35-year sentence, and Alexander “Shani” Krebs, who served 18 years of what was initially a death sentence. 

Goosen has said that since her release from Thai prison she has been seeing a psychologist to try to overcome depression and flashbacks. Commenting on conditions in the jails last December after Nobanda’s arrest, Goosen said: “Nothing is free. If you don’t have money, you starve. I hope Nolubabalo gets cash from her family.”

Patricia Gerber knows first-hand about the strain on a family that comes from having a child incarcerated far away. Her son, Johann, has been in prison in Mauritius for the last four years, after having travelled to the island aged 19 with 920 grams of heroin in his stomach. 

“It is horrific being isolated from your family like that, an unbearable fate,” Gerber told the Daily Maverick. “I know that Thai prisons are overcrowded, they must sleep on cement floors, and the food is not edible. You must pay for everything, including toilet paper sometimes. What if you can’t afford it? “Then you suffer,” she says. 

This is backed up by a BBC report in May last year, which quoted the chairman of the Union for Civil Liberties – a group that campaigns for better conditions in Thai prisons – Danthong Breen: “In the women’s prison it’s particularly bad. You have 200 women in a single cell,” he told the BBC. “If one of them has to get up at night to go to the toilet, they all shift a bit and when she comes back the space is gone and she has to stand up all night. The level of crowding is inhuman and inhumane.”

Patricia Gerber is the director of Locked Up, a South African NGO dedicated to lobbying the South African government to implement an inter-state prisoner transfer agreement, which would allow South African citizens convicted of a crime in a foreign country to be extradited to South Africa to serve their jail time in this country. South Africa currently does not have agreements of this nature with any country, though most other countries do. 

The department of correctional services has, however, been considering the issue for at least eight years. In February 2004, erstwhile correctional services minister Ben Skosana told a parliamentary media briefing: “The department is considering the development of policy guidelines to enable government to enter into prisoner transfer agreements with other countries. This policy advocates for the return of prisoners sentenced in foreign countries to enable them to complete their sentences closer to their families.”

In 2010, Gerber took the government to court in an effort to force it to enter into a prisoner exchange agreement with Mauritius in order to allow her son to serve out his jail time in South Africa. Among Gerber’s arguments was the fact that the Mauritian government had indicated their willingness to enter into such an agreement. 

The correctional services department said in court the government would not enter into agreements of this nature with any country at the time because there were important political considerations to take into account, and also the issue of cost, especially given South Africa’s already overcrowded prisons. 

Gerber rejects this latter argument because a sworn affidavit submitted by the department during the court case stated that there were 7,000 foreigners held in South African prisons – seven times the amount of South Africans incarcerated abroad, and thus representing a substantial financial burden on the state, which could be lifted via a bilateral prisoner transfer agreement. 

Ruling against Gerber in the matter, judge Natvarial Ranchod said the issue should not be subject to court interference. “There are various factors to be considered, and for this reason the government has decided not to enter into a prisoner exchange agreement with Mauritius,” he said. “However, the decision has not been cast in stone. (The government) has left open the possibility that it may do so in future after considering all the factors.”

Since then, however, not a lot of progress seems to have been made, though the issue took on additional urgency after the execution of South Africa’s Janice Linden in December in China after being caught with 3kg of tik. 

In March the department said discussions around the prisoner transfer agreement were “at an advanced stage”, but no further details were forthcoming. The Daily Maverick failed to receive a response to a request to the department for information on the current status of the issue.  DM

Read more:

  • SA’s Prisoner Transfer Agreement at advanced stage, on SABC

Photo: Thai narcotics officials check boxes of confiscated drugs that will be destroyed on Friday, in Bangkok June 23, 2011.  (REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom)


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