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African Union establishes the Southern Africa Network of Traditional Leaders Drug Demand Reduction Network

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In a ground breaking move, the African Union has established its first a sub-regional network of traditional leaders to be trained in scientific evidence-based methodologies for prevention, treatment and care of drug dependency to widen the reach of community interventions amid a growing challenge of substance use disorders on the continent especially among youth, women and children.

The Southern Africa Network of Traditional Leaders in Drug Demand Reduction (SANTLDDR) was formed at a continental consultation for traditional leaders from countries of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) held from 08-11 April 2024 in Johannesburg, South Africa. African countries are experiencing an upsurge in public health problems as a result of the increased availability and use of psychoactive substances trafficked into the continent and also produced locally.

Cannabis and khat have traditionally been grown and widely consumed in Africa for centuries. These have been complemented by opiates such as heroin and stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine, which are increasingly trafficked into the continent with ease. There has also been a new threat posed by the meteoric rise in new synthetic drugs while pharmaceutical opioids such as tramadol and cough syrups containing codeine are invariably diverted for illicit misuse. Drug use and related mental health disorders have become an albatross around the necks of many African Union member states, threatening fragile health care systems struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking during the opening of the Consultation, African Union Commissioner for Health, Humanitarian Affairs and Social Development, HE. Amb. Minata Samate Cessouma said the challenge of Substance Use and Related Mental Health Disorders required multi- sectorial solutions.

“As we confront the challenge before us, we must explore indigenous and inclusive ways to strengthen safety nets. Mental health support, resilience-building, and community engagement are essential components of our strategy,” said the Commissioner in a speech read on her behalf by Ms. Angela Martins, Ag. Director, Health, Humanitarian Affairs and Social Development.

Also speaking during the Consultation, South Africa’s Minister of Social Development, Hon. Ms. Lindiwe Zulu said the demand for, and consumption of drugs in traditional communities represented the dark side of integrated global and regional communication and transportation networks through which harmful substances found their way into communities.

“While promoting economic activities, collective prosperity, freedom, human dignity and non-sexism, the SADC sub-region’s traditional leadership must be among the governance structures that assume leading roles in preventing and eliminating harmful elements, in particular substance abuse, that are threatening to destroy our shared social fabric,” said Ms Zulu.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) welcomed the inter-regional structure for Traditional Leadership in Drug Demand Reduction and pledged its support.

UNODC Regional Office for Southern Africa, Dr Jane Marie Ong’olo, Regional Representative, said “The first point of contact is indeed traditional authority in all rural communities. Evidence-based treatment for SUDs is needed, not punishment and stigmatization and it is for us to change the trajectory towards a health approach.”

The traditional leaders brainstormed a sub-regional action plan which will be validated at a meeting scheduled for Arusha, Tanzania in September. All Member States in SADC were tasked with establishing and operationalizing national networks of traditional leaders in drug demand reduction.

The establishment of the SANTLDDR follows the establishment last year of the South Africa Traditional and Khoisan Leadership National Network of Traditional Leaders in Drug Demand Reduction as a pilot initiative.

The extensive and ubiquitous network of traditional leaders, with considerable influence over many communities on the continent, could be leveraged to provide a unique platform and the opportunity for people to access drug use prevention, drug use disorders treatment, rehabilitation and re-integration services. Engagements at a recent African Union Conference on drug demand reduction highlighted the potential contribution of Traditional Leaders in drug demand reduction in particular psychoeducation, prevention, early identification, and basic counselling and referral for assessment and treatment. However, this requires supportive tools, training and capacity building.

Cultural heritage could be pivotal to achievement of objectives of the African Union’s Agenda 2063, which is the continent’s shared strategic framework for socio-economic transformation towards an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa – ‘The Africa We want’.

The role of traditional leaders in this commitment is very significant. “Traditional leaders have been identified as key role players in the fight against drugs, given the huge following they command, and the negative impact of drug and substance abuse in traditional communities.” His Majesty Kgosi Thabo Seatlholo, Interim Chairperson of SANTLDDR underlined.

Strengthening this, Honorable Prince Zolile Burns-Ncamashe, the Deputy Minister for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, said “we are not lacking in terms of legislative and policy direction. All that is needed, is the active involvement and impactful response from the traditional leadership in the region.”

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of African Union (AU).

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