In May this year I was tasked with heading up a writing and theatre-making workshop with community theatre participants from in and around KwaZulu-Natal. To generate material for the plays we were creating together, I asked the students to come up with a list of current social concerns that young writers should be confronting in their work. The drug whoonga was unanimously voted in first place.
It wasn’t the first time I had come across the concern or the word: Swahili onomatopoeia that allegedly refers to the sound the user hears when the combination of B-grade heroin and rat poison rushes into the system.
Whoonga certainly has a ring to it – say it a few times and it’s likely you won’t forget it. Whoonga. See? It leaves the lips (just as it enters the system) with an elongated ‘whoosh’.
For years, friends of mine had been complaining about the cadaverous looking whoonga boys (dealers) who hassled them at taxi ranks, while the media had devoted front pages to stories of junkies either robbing clinics or contracting HIV in order to obtain the antiretrovirals that were said – but not proven – to form part of the insidious heroin cocktail.
When I asked the group of community theatre writers to take to the rehearsal room floor and share a personal story related to our chosen topic, 22-year-old Phumzile Ndlovu was the first to accept my challenge.
She stood before the group and launched into the story of her cousin, Jabulo, and his five-year struggle with whoonga.
“My cousin was 21 when he moved from Johannesburg to my aunt’s house in Umlazi D section,” she told us.
“When he first arrived, we were excited to see him. He was very handsome and charming, but shortly after he came to Durban people in the community began to complain that things were going missing from their homes. It was learnt that Njabulo was not only stealing from us all, but using my aunt’s house to smoke and deal whoonga. When the neighbours found out there was big trouble. They threatened my aunt, telling her they would burn down the house unless action was taken. As time passed and the problem got worse, my family were left with no other choice but to evict Njabulo from the house.”
When I asked what became of him, Ndlovu told us he had joined the burgeoning ranks of whoonga refugees in Albert Park: a leafy inner-city refuge for addicts just a stone’s throw away from the Durban harbour.
“It was tragic to see what became of him,” she said, recalling how on trips to Durban she would occasionally pass the park and catch glimpses of him through the fence.
“I’d see him sitting there like a hobo, no longer a handsome young man but aged and filthy.”
It was around the same time that Nomusa Shembe – a senior manager for Safer Cities, community crime-prevention initiative – was assigned to look into the Albert Park situation.
There had been rumblings in the media about a nasty new drug on the scene and a brewing confrontation between fed up taxi owners and addicts – most of whom were thought to be foreign nationals.
Through Safer Cities, Shembe and her team set up a project to profile the park’s inhabitants. Of the 254 people they interviewed, 90% turned out to be South African nationals, and the majority of them admitted to frequenting the park because it provided easy access to whoonga.
As media and public attention intensified, city officials began floundering over what measures to take. Sure, Durban has faced a range of social catastrophes in the past, but a substance abuse problem of this scale and complexity, it seemed, was largely unprecedented.
Shembe and her team initiated the Qalakabusha programme for Albert Park: a pilot intervention whereby a tent was erected in the park and a series of ill-fated outreach and rehab programmes activated.
The Safer Cities team might have had more success evaluating the strategies and lessons acquired by the neighbouring Indian community of Chatsworth, for whom whoonga is really just an old problem marauding under the guise of an exotic new name.
For Sam Pillay – the head of the Chatsworth Anti-Drug Forum – the drug’s implosion in the city centre is something he claims to have warned city officials about years ago.
Pillay was one of the first locals to address the problem of the “sugars” (also known as whoonga, nyaope and tie white), which exploded in his community back in 2005. After a public meeting was held at the Chatsworth Youth Centre and more than 1 000 irate community members packed into the hall, Pillay and a team of volunteers decided to establish the Chatsworth Anti-Drug forum (FDR).
When I asked how the forum initially set out to tackle the crisis, Pillay chuckled at their gung-ho naivety.
“In the beginning we thought it would be simple,” he recalls. “We would hand over the dealers’ home addresses to the police and that would be that, but we quickly learnt that the police knew exactly where these guys lived. As the FDR delved deeper we discovered that this was hardly a drug concocted by a few opportunists with a chemistry degree, but rather something similar to a massive corporation: with a CEO at the top, upper and middle management beneath, and the many distributors and dealers operating at the bottom.”
The local police force, Pillay told me, were only ever scoring minor victories at the bottom of the pyramid rather than gunning for the honchos at the top. The reason Pillay gave covered a range of familiar narratives, including corruption, bungled evidence, underqualified cops and numerous cases where specialised police units had been dispatched and drug busts heralded, but few convictions ever made.
“We soon learnt,” Pillay said, “that the only real success we could have in this struggle is in devoting all our energy into getting rid of the need for the dealer and treating addicts on a social level.”
“Why” I asked, “are the users themselves are not facing the brunt of the law? Surely the substance is illegal?”
The situation seems absurd: several hundred people permitted to smoke heroin joints in public parks when one can get thrown in prison (and given a criminal record) for being caught toking on something as innocuous as a spliff.
The answer, offered by Safer Cities’ Shembe, is that the problem has reached such an extent that local police simply aren’t equipped with facilities to deal with it.
But Pillay sees the discrepancies as a result of major gaps in policies and processes when it comes to making arrests.
“If you just catch a guy with either whoonga or sugars, it’s not like you’re catching them with dagga, because dagga is illegal. With whoonga you have to send them for a toxicology test and then wait for a toxicology report to come back, and, well, when there are several hundred of them at one time, where do you begin?”
Where and how the heroin is entering the province seems to be another area of dispute, with Pillay insisting most of it is coming from Chatsworth, while Shembe claims whoonga is produced and sold exclusively by Tanzanian cartels.
Dr Lochan Naidoo – a Durban-based addiction consultant and president of the international narcotics control board – tells me South Africa and the southern route from Afghanistan and Pakistan has recently been identified as a major new route for the illegal Afghan heroin trade.
“South Africa,” Naidoo says, “was supposed to be the transit point via the Durban and Eastern Cape ports for heroin to travel onwards to Europe, but now what we are seeing is that every transit point is becoming a user point. Durban is a clear example of this.”
At a meeting held at the beginning of July by the Dikonia and Urban Futures Centre at the Durban University of Technology, Naidoo did little to calm city and public anxieties when he warned that the worst is still to come.
“White heroin, ladies and gentleman, has now also arrived in the city of Durban.”
“The difference” Naidoo went on to explain to the room full of scribbling journos and slack-jawed suburbanites, “between brown and white heroin is that brown heroin is smoked while white heroin injected. As tolerance increases for brown heroin, users are forced to start injecting the drug instead.”
“So what are the SAPS and Metro police forces doing about this?” I asked Shembe, who paused for a short while to consider her answer. I got the sense that criticising any of the departments with which her organisation is currently trying to co-operate might endanger an already precarious process.
“The police tend to shrug this off as a social problem,” she said diplomatically, “and we keep saying to them, ‘But what about the dealers?’ They respond by telling us they are on it, that there are intelligence units working on the ground, but I’m saying we need to start seeing the results, because until the root causes are tackled we will forever be going around in circles treating the symptoms.”
She has a point. Too often the cause is attributed to the addicts themselves, folks whom up-in-arms suburbanites and news-hungry media tend to demonise without really understanding that these are simply the harrowed faces fronting the crisis. As I embarked on three months’ of research into whoonga, I discovered that this was a social problem whose subterranean tentacles extended far wider and deeper into the strata of our fractured society than most would ever care to imagine.
Durban motorists would often refer to their fleeting glimpses of the whoonga hordes in Albert Park as something resembling a scene from a postapocalyptic zombie film. This was in early 2013 when the problem was largely relegated to the leafy and concealed confines of an inner-city park.
Back then, motorists could take an alternate route home and pretend the problem didn’t exist. But then the police, tired of being called lazy and apathetic, finally got around to evicting the vagrants and sealing off the park with a barbed wire fence.
Where exactly the whoonga colony would go after the eviction didn’t seem of much concern. What mattered was that something had been done and that the notorious “Whoonga Park” was no more.
Of course, it wasn’t long before the dazed addicts regrouped, first decamping to a nearby Metro railway line before finally re-establishing themselves in Botha Park (which is more traffic island than park) on the corner of Leo Boyd and Anton Lembede streets, which is also on the periphery of the Glenwood suburbs.
Now the wretched mass was no longer a sight one saw in passing or heard mentioned (with a shudder) at dinner parties. When you stopped at the Glenwood traffic lights, you were forced to scrutinize the full extent of the squalor, to stare the addiction in its vacant, sallow eyes.
With this relocation came new waves of crime and hysteria.
There were smash-and-grabs at robots, a series of violent house robberies; a woman was raped in a suburban park while another was found murdered and mutilated in a Florida Road gutter. An underground network of tunnels linking the suburbs to the city was discovered by the police, which caused further anxiety.
The tunnels, built in the 1930s, were reported to extend for 6km and enable the drug-addled underworld to pop into affluent neighbourhoods (through manholes) whenever their cravings necessitated it – which, for whoonga addicts, is said to be between four and six times a day.
Outraged letters were penned to newspapers; petitions the length of telephone books barricaded politicians’ office doors. A mass of Glenwood residents united under the unfortunate – but rather apt – acronym of SOB (Save Our Berea) and spent weekends waving placards outside Durban City Hall.
Suburban parks became no-go zones and unsuspecting locals using them for recreational purposes soon became suspects. A group of teenagers playing soccer was accosted by police after an online forum suspected they were smoking whoonga. “WHOONGA!” wailed Facebook forums in caps lock. The drug sent subscriptions to private security firms rocketing – until it was discovered that many of the security guards employed by these firms were addicted to whoonga themselves.
It was the whoonga gevaar and no one was safe. Hell, even white kids had begun dabbling.
From the rooftop of Durban resident Raul Quintas’s office building, situated opposite the Botha Park whoonga colony, I scanned the contested site from a distance. Polystyrene food containers circled the bare feet of a few hundred people who warmed themselves around fire drums. In one corner of the island, a gazebo flapped dismally in the wind – this, I was told, was the city’s idea of a rehabilitation centre.
Quintas sat at the head of his boardroom table, surrounded by his employees..
Without much prompting, the office ladies launched into a series of stories about the decline of the area, explaining that the rot set in after the whoonga addicts were relocated.
I was told of a lady from the neighbouring funeral parlour who had her earrings torn from her ears. Female students were being assaulted on their way to the University of Technology’s city campus. The chorus of disapproval rose with each new declaration.
“We can’t run our business in this area any more.”
“It’s unhealthy what they’re doing!”
“It seems the city is providing them with toilets and feeding them from the park. It’s almost as if they want them to feel more at home here.”
“I see them every morning just squatting there, doing their business in broad daylight.”
“Even the street cleaners arrive wearing gas masks to clean the area! Tell me of another city in the world where this happens? “
When I asked what Quintas and co intended to do about the situation, his secretary unveiled a wad of paper containing several hundred signatures from fellow gatvol business owners in the area. The petition urged city officials to take immediate action against the “invasion” or face legal action.
When I mentioned whoonga, the boardroom exchanged a few anxious glances, as though it was the first time they had encountered the word.
“That’s not our business,” growled Quintas, thumbing through his reams of signatures as proof. “All we know is that we have a right to be protected. We have a constitutional right!”
Quintas and his staff are not the only irate citizens who have been seeking action from city officials and politicians – but apart from popping down to Whoonga Park for the occasional front page publicity opportunity, the authorities are yet to release any sort of tangible plan of action.
Perhaps they are still reeling from one of their Whoonga Park safaris, when one pin-striped honcho was accosted by an addict who turned out to be the estranged son of ANC national spokesperson Jackson Mthembu. If anything, one would think such an incident would have driven government to prioritise the issue.
Instead the responsibility of coming up with a plan has been left to Safer Cities’ Shembe, who is scrambling against time, bureaucracy and limited resources to implement an ambitious seven-pillar strategy that will focus on aspects such as rehabilitation, skills development, the placement of the homeless population in shelters and the reintegration of addicts back into their communities.
But the Chatsworth Anti-Drug Forum’s Pillay is not convinced, dismissing Shembe’s proposal as an attractive option on paper but destined to fail in practice.
“You can’t go integrating people back into their communities if you haven’t had success with the rehabilitation component, which they still don’t,” he huffed. “I’ve tried to help them in this regard but they are governed by the department of health, which means they can only do what is written down. What I’m telling them from my 10 years of experience is not yet written down.”
So while authorities and experts deliberate over policy and implementation, SOB, Quinta’s business and countless other organisations sit anxiously awaiting a response.
In an open letter to Durban Mayor James Nxumalo (published in the Daily News on June 3), SOB cautioned that that unless urgent action was taken, the city would find itself teetering on the edge of a precipice.
But a week later there still had not been a peep from the mayor’s office. Now the city, it seemed, was no longer teetering but rather tumbling headlong into the forewarned abyss.
A week after I spoke to Quintas, a violent clash erupted between residents from the nearby Dalton Road hostel in Umbilo and the Botha Park addicts.
Dalton Road hostel dwellers, it turned out, were equally frustrated with the city’s inability to take action. They were tired of falling prey to criminals, tired of taking flak from police for crimes they hadn’t committed, tired of being marginalised and ignored. A group of 30 or so irate hostel dwellers descended on Whoonga Park with sticks, knobkerries, whips and bricks to mete out vigilante justice.
Mahala editor and journalist Samora Chapman – armed with his skateboard and camera – was one of the first reporters on the scene, and wrote in his article, titled ‘Whoonga attack’: “The mob caught up with the man directly across the road from me. They beat him as he ran and swayed and zigzagged. He took five blows and kept going like a wounded animal until eventually they overwhelmed him and he dropped in the middle of the road. He took several more blows on the ground. Thuds and crunches. Then the cops came screaming down the road. And the mob just kept running, hitting a left down towards Sidney Road. Like wolves.”
Chapman’s article on the Dalton Road attacks went on to rack up thousands of hits across social media platforms.
All Pics by Jason Chung
This is the first of a two-part series. Check back next week for part two.