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Of bogus hunters, queenpins and mules: the varied roles of women in transnational organized crime in Southern Africa


Organized crime scholars have paid scant attention to gender and stereotyped roles of women in the commission of organized crime activities. Traditionally, organized crime is seen as a form of criminality perpetrated by men only. Women are usually portrayed as victims of organized crime or as “mean girls”, girlfriends, wives, lovers of brides of notorious gangsters and mobsters. In the southern African context, little historical or comparative data is available on the role of women in organized crime. Existing data is basic and proceeds on the assumption of gender-neutrality or the implied male composition of organized crime groups. The link of women to organized crime is one of suffering and exploitation. However, in reality women fulfill varied roles and functions within transnational organized crime networks in the region. In some instances, they are the foot soldiers of drug and human trafficking syndicates. Sometimes they are the intermediaries or powerful matriarchs at the apex of transnational organized crime networks. Reliant on empirical findings undertaken for a regional 3-year project on organized crime trends in southern Africa, this paper will examine the dynamism of the role of women in organized crime in the region and argues that women play a multifaceted role with implications for themselves, their families, society and organized crime. Gender mainstreaming within scholarly literature and policy research is in nascent stages, this paper pleads for a more gender-sensitive approach to organized crime analysis.

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  1. 1.

    Fieldwork was undertaken in the following Southern African countries: Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) collaborated with the sub-regional policing body, the Southern African Regional Police Chiefs Cooperation Organization (SARPCCO). At the time of the project inception, Madagascar and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were not SARPCCO members and were hence not included during data collection.

  2. 2.

    Wannenberg and Irish-Qhobosheane found evidence that some South African organized crime groups were already active in the 1950s and possibly earlier (Wannenberg and Irish-Qhobosheane 2007: 181).

  3. 3.

    Because it opened for signature to state parties in Palermo in 2000, the convention is also known as the Palermo Convention. The shortened version will be used in the remainder of the paper.

  4. 4.

    The five-country project examined trends, the profile of victims and perpetrators and the role of organized crime networks in human trafficking in Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

  5. 5.

    Four field researchers and several research assistants worked on the project.

  6. 6.

    The Institute for Security Studies is currently engaged in a 3-year project that examines criminal governance in Sub-Saharan urban centers. The project seeks to answer, amongst other research questions, how women propagate, benefit from and/or become disempowered by criminal networks.

  7. 7.

    The research project on human trafficking trends in southern Africa included three case studies, which described recruitment aided and abetted by family members.

  8. 8.

    Interview with the trafficked women in Windhoek, Namibia (2007).

  9. 9.

    Interview with guardians, law enforcement and the International Organization for Migration, Harare, Zimbabwe (2007-2008).

  10. 10.

    Focus group with sex workers in Walvis Bay, Namibia (2009).

  11. 11.

    Unpublished research data collected for the regional project on organized crime trends.

  12. 12.

    Interviews with law enforcement, border and customs officials, victims of trafficking and NGOs in Angola, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe (2007–2011).

  13. 13.

    Interviews with trafficking victims, law enforcement officials and NGOs in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia (2007–2011).

  14. 14.

    KwaZulu Natal is a province of South Africa.

  15. 15.

    Interview with law enforcement official in Durban, South Africa (2012)

  16. 16.

    See in the City Press (accessed 6 April 2013) or (accessed 6 April 2013).

  17. 17.

    Based on research report submitted by Salomão Mungoi (2010).

  18. 18.

    Interview with law enforcement officials and health practitioners in Pretoria, South Africa (2011).

  19. 19.

    The factory closed down in 2008.

  20. 20.

    Based on interviews with labour experts in Windhoek, Namibia (2007–2008) and research reports submitted by John Grobler.

  21. 21.

    Based on intelligence reports and interviews conducted with law enforcement officials, drug dealers, academics and the UNODC across southern Africa (2006–2013).

  22. 22.

    Figures are derived from interviews with drug mules, family and friends of drug mules, law enforcement officials and intelligence reports (2011).

  23. 23.

    The section is based on interviews with drug mules, parents and family of drug mules, law enforcement officials and airport security staff in Kempton Park, Pretoria, George and Johannesburg, South Africa (2008–2011).

  24. 24.

    Interviews with airport staff at Oliver Thambo International Airport in Kempton Park, South Africa (2009).

  25. 25.

    An excellent profile of an old grandmother who grows “Swazi gold” (cannabis from Swaziland) near Piggs Peak in Swaziland was published in the New York Times by Lydia Polygreen (2012).

  26. 26.

    Based on unpublished research reports detailing cannabis smuggling in Lesotho, Swaziland and South Africa submitted by Jackson Madzima and the author’s own interviews with cannabis smugglers and law enforcement officials in southern Africa (2008–2011).

  27. 27.

    Interview with law enforcement official in the drug unit at the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigations, Pretoria, South Africa (2011).

  28. 28.

    Interviews with drug dealers and law enforcement officials across the region and observations at ‘hotspots’ (2008–2011)

  29. 29.

    Charmaine Moss, the other recruit, became suspicious and pulled out after an initial meeting with Cwele’s business partner. Cwele had offered to send her on an overseas assignment for 2 weeks, all expenses paid and a paycheck of US $ 2,900. Her assignment was to travel to Turkey and return to South Africa delivering a package to the business partner (Underhill 2012).

  30. 30.

    Siyabonga Cwele was in charge of the state intelligence apparatus in South Africa at the time and has remained in that position since the conviction of his ex-wife.

  31. 31.

    Interviews with law enforcement officials and family members of Beetge (2009–2010).

  32. 32.

    It should be noted that poaching should not be confused with hunting for food. Sustainable hunting of wildlife forms parts of survival strategies of many African communities, while unsustainable poaching of endangered wildlife is the exception.

  33. 33.

    The powerful anesthetic is used to immobilize large mammals.

  34. 34.

    Interview with wildlife veterinarian in Pretoria, South Africa (2013).

  35. 35.

    Interviews with investigators, wildlife veterinarians and suppliers of M–99 in South Africa (2013).

  36. 36.

    Province of South Africa.

  37. 37.

    The case against one of his accomplices, the game farmer Marnus Steyl, was re-opened in December 2012. Steyl allegedly supplied rhinos to the Vietnamese syndicate. He has been charged with 29 counts of fraud relating to the acquisition of hunting permits for alleged pseudo–hunts (Rademeyer 2013).


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Correspondence to Annette Hübschle.

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Contribution to the Special Issue of Trends in Organized Crime: Women and Transnational Crime

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Hübschle, A. Of bogus hunters, queenpins and mules: the varied roles of women in transnational organized crime in Southern Africa. Trends Organ Crim 17, 31–51 (2014).

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  • Women and transnational organized crime
  • Organized crime
  • Illegal markets
  • Human trafficking
  • Drug markets
  • Rhino poaching