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Police widen probe into illicit ARVs trade

Staff Reporter

Police have widened investigations into the sale of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs on the black market with a view to establish the source as well as the buyers believed to be supporting the illicit trade.

Free State provincial police spokesperson Brigadier Sam Makhele told The Free Stater by telephone that investigations by local police have been escalated to the national office as it has been found that the problem is not only limited to the province.

He said this on Monday following the arrest of seven people found in possession of a large quantity of the life-saving drugs over the weekend in Kroonstad which they could not account for.

Free State police launched an investigation into the alleged trade at the beginning of the year after several arrests of people found with large quantities of ARVs in Bloemfontein and the gold-rich Welkom area.

At that time, it was believed there was a syndicate channelling drugs from the public health system and selling them on the black market which included some private health practitioners, wealthy individuals who did not want to visit public health facilities as well as illegal gold miners also known as zama-zamas in Welkom and the surrounding areas.

“The matter has been escalated to the national office for a wider investigation,” said Makhele.

“It was realised that it’s not just a Free State problem because some of the ARVs were coming from clinics in other parts of the country,” he added.

Makhele said until the national investigation is finalised, it was difficult for him to say with certainty who the suppliers of the drugs were as well as their target market.

“It’s difficult to say if the drugs found at the weekend were destined for the zama-zamas or not. The matter is still being investigated nationally,” he explained.

Provincial police said they had on Saturday received information that some people with large quantities of ARVs were travelling from Gauteng Province to Kroonstad, northern Free State, with the aim of selling them to a potential buyer from Welkom.

They immediately launched an operation in conjunction with the Illicit Mining Task Team which led to the arrest of the seven suspects in Kroonstad.

They were found in possession of 1 272 containers of ARV tablets with an estimated value of R1 908 000. 

The tablets and a Chevrolet Cruz vehicle were confiscated.

Four of the suspects are from Sebokeng in Vereeniging while one is a Lesotho citizen staying in Welkom.

The other two are from Phuthaditjhaba and Theunissen in the Free State.

The five men and two women aged between 31 and 39 will be charged with the Contravention of the Medicines Act and will appear at the Kroonstad Magistrates Court soon.

The ARVs trade is believed to be worth millions of rands on the black market.

It is believed the cash-rich zama-zamas who spend long periods of time underground could be part of that illicit market.

Private health practitioners have also been fingered as they are believed to sell the drugs to their patients.

Other reports have also said some people who do not want to use the public health system, where the drugs are issued for free, also rely on the stolen ARVs.

The illegal miners, known for their big spending and a liking for women, are said to engage in risky sexual behaviour.

Their unhealthy living conditions make them prone to diseases but most are reluctant to seek medical treatment as they may either be undocumented immigrants or are wanted by the police for a host of crimes.

This forces them to resort to stolen medication such as ARVs and other drugs.

The zamazamas are active in the Goldfields area around Welkom as well as in Gauteng and the Northern Cape where they eke out a living from mostly disused mines.  

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