The Heroin Capsules Sparking Deadly Turf Wars in South Africa

Heroin addiction is surging since mass-produced capsules have triggered gun wars on South Africa’s east coast.

A new method of supplying heroin in mass-produced capsules has sparked rising addiction and deadly turf wars in South Africa. 

Drug gangs in Durban, a city on the country’s east coast, have moved to selling cheap heroin packed into capsules using underground drug labs where automated pharmaceutical capping machines can spit out up to 25,000 pills an hour. 

The pharmaceutical-style capsules, known on the street as “caps” are sold for around 35p each, cheaper than a loaf of bread in Durban. One drug user told VICE World News: “People are attracted to heroin caps because of the price, where it's so cheap. It's easy to get heroin caps in Wentworth [a suburb of Durban] because it's on most street corners.”

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Heroin is removed from capsules and smoked. ​Photo: Kierran Allen

Heroin capsules are far easier, cheaper and quicker to produce than the plastic straws containing heroin manufactured before. This new streamlined production process means the amount of heroin supplied, the profits from selling it, and competition to corner Durban’s street drug markets, have all increased since the capsule machines came into force. 

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Machines can make up to 25,000 heroin capsules an hour. Photo: Kierran Allen

One former drug gangster in Durban, the only city in South Africa where caps dominate the market, said: “It's all to do with money and power and one organisation trying to take over the whole show.”

Rates of addiction and murder have surged in some the city’s poorest neighbourhoods – such as Wentworth – which are becoming increasingly hit by rising unemployment rates and drug addiction. Drug users open up the capsules and smoke or inject the heroin, commonly using between five to 15 caps daily. 

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Heroin addiction is soaring in Durban due to capsule supply. Photo: Kierran Allen.

In the last six months of 2021, police in Durban seized 1 million capsules. Police estimate there are around five to eight gangs in the city competing for the capsule trade. Each uses different colour branded pills to mark out their product from the opposition, often claiming a higher purity hit or selling caps at a slightly cheaper rate than anyone else.  

How South Africa Erupted

A VICE World News team spent a week on the streets in Wentworth, witnessing the devastating impact of heroin caps in the community and the challenges faced by local police on a drug bust. It became clear that life is cheap and justice is seemingly hard to find. 

Gun battles are common in Wentworth, with innocent bystanders often becoming collateral damage. Tracey Williams, who runs a community food bank in the city, said: “Our community is riddled with fear. Our people sometimes put their beds up against the windows because there's a drive-by shooting every second to third day within the community.”

The police claim they are doing what they can to get a grip on the illicit trade and spiralling violence, yet allegations of police corruption are rife. People appear to have little faith in law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Kingpins roam free and low-level drug runners are arrested only to be released – so, the cycle of drug fuelled violence continues unabated.