Drug mule Nolubabalo 'Druglocks' Nobanda makes onscreen appeal

Former Makhanda pupil hopes to raise awareness on drug trafficking victims incarcerated on foreign soil

Nolubabalo ‘Druglocks’ Nobanda appears in a video screened by the NMU chapter of Amnesty International at the university
Nolubabalo ‘Druglocks’ Nobanda appears in a video screened by the NMU chapter of Amnesty International at the university
Image: Zamandulo Malonde

Convicted Makhanda drug mule Nolubabalo “Druglocks” Nobanda made her first public appearance virtually at Nelson Mandela University on Friday.

In an exclusive video prerecorded in Thailand, where Nobanda, 31, is serving the remainder of her 15-year sentence at Bangkok’s Klong Prem Prison, she broke her silence in an attempt to raise awareness about victims of human trafficking who become drug smugglers and often end up imprisoned in foreign countries.

The former Victoria Girls’ High School pupil said the hundreds of South Africans held in prisons abroad could not be attributed to one cause as each had different motives to travel abroad.

However, a voice needed to be lent to the usually silenced victims of human trafficking cornered in the drug-trafficking business, she said.

“Many of you wonder why someone would get into this.

“There are many reasons . . . [one] that people don’t talk much about is that these are people who genuinely want to support their families and see their children get educated and graduate, but unfortunately they never reach their goal because they are sentenced in foreign countries,” she said.

“This is such a personal experience for me and I want to join hands with those that want to solve this drug problem in our society because this is not a problem that can be solved by one individual . . . it needs us to hold hands, for friendships to be formed and for the drug mules themselves to tell of their own experiences.

“Some of these things we cannot just read from textbooks and think we understand,” she said.

Nobanda was nabbed by Bangkok police at the Suvarnabhumi Airport carrying 1.5kg of cocaine mixed with baking powder in her dreadlocks in December 2011.

She was meant to be sentenced to 30 years in prison but had her sentence reduced to 15 years due to her admission of guilt and co-operation.

Recently, her sentence was reduced further by 2½ years in terms of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s general amnesty and is therefore to be released in 2024.

The video was played at the Amnesty International Nelson Mandela chapter’s commemoration of world day against trafficking, in the presence of Nobanda’s emotional family.

They declined to speak on how it felt to watch the video.

Also speaking on her experience of a foreign prison was Nontando Pendu, who recently returned to SA after spending a decade in prison for drug trafficking.

Pendu, who has now become close friends with Nobanda, was arrested at the same Thai airport with heroin tucked in her shoes and around her breast area.

Pendu said she had been lured to the country by a family friend who promised her a job. She warned against taking suspicious-sounding jobs out of desperation.

“If you leave your home to get into [drug trafficking] because you are struggling, you will find that ending up sleeping on the floor in a foreign prison is even worse.

“Stay away from people who come with job offers and call you sweet names because they want to use you and when they are done, you’re useless to them,” she said.

Pendu, a former Port Elizabeth retail store assistant, shared a cell with Nobanda, and their mothers travelled together to visit them in Thailand.

“[Nobanda] has become like family to me and I was very sad to leave her when I was released.

“But it comforts me to know that she is a strong woman and will be coming home soon too.”

Nobanda and Pendu were two of 10 South African prisoners in the same cell.

“Whenever there is a South African inmate coming to join us, the authorities would alert us and we would welcome them,” Pendu said.

Special Assignment senior producer and author of Dead Cows for Piranhas: A Perilous Journey Inside the Drug Trade, Hazel Friedman, said Nobanda and Pendu’s stories resonated with many other young South African women and men who travelled across borders as victims of human trafficking for drug trading and prostitution.

“It is a mistake to assume that every person who smuggles drugs from one country to another, particularly when they are arrested, is a drug mule [who] voluntarily participated for financial gain.

“In fact, the [actual] mules usually don’t get caught . . . border officials and law enforcement are usually bribed to look the other way.

“Not so with the ‘dead cows’ who are recruited and coerced purely to be set up as decoys,” Friedman said.

For her book, Friedman interviewed sources within the drug trade industry, including Pendu and Nobanda, while she assisted in connecting them with their families through the help of Henk Vanstaen, a Thailand resident who assists South Africans incarcerated in the kingdom.

“Customs are usually tipped off by the syndicates before they attempt to board their flights and so are the media, and this is exactly what happened with Nobanda.

“The media were told that officials had detected flakes of cocaine on her scalp and that’s how they discovered the cocaine in her dreadlocks . . . absolute rubbish!

“They had been alerted that she was going to be landing when she did and had a media circus there to make the most of it,” Friedman said.

According to the department of international relations and co-operation, Nobanda was one of 796 South African prisoners abroad as of June 30, with the highest number, 111, being in Brazil.


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