Keypads, batteries, touch-screens, circuit boards, SIM cards, camera lenses, plastic clips. Lance the cellphone repairman is scratching through an overstuffed backpack for a missing part. A disembowelled Nokia lies on the coffee table beside him, next to an ashtray, an empty cigarette box and a day-old copy of Die Son. It has just stopped raining; the room is dark. Lance is sweating.
“Speak to that guy,” says David, the owner of the flat, pointing at his guest. “He’s one of the tik-koppe. He’s one of the aliens.”
Lance looks up, cocks his head, and in a theatrically camp Anglo accent says, “Fuck you, David,” before diving back into his bag. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”
“He smokes every day,” says David, still wearing his EFF beret two days after the national elections. “All the time,” adds Lance in his normal voice, pitched in the same upper register as his gay white-boy persona but distinctly Kaapse Afrikaans, and tougher. “I’ve been tikking for 14 years.”
“He’s fucked up,” says David. “Look at him.”
I do. Lance, who is 32, has a seeping wound above one eye and straight, greasy hair. He starts fiddling with a screwdriver and acts like he doesn’t hear. Using tik in a community that widely refers to its addicts as “aliens” has hardened him to throwaway insults – and besides, he needs money for his next fix.
“Write what you like about me,” he mutters, prizing open another phone. “I don’t care. People must know what’s going on.”
Two days later Lance takes me with him to score drugs.
We enter Hangberg’s informal settlement, passing a wooden bungalow with a dark entrance. Lance greets the shadows inside. Five boys are huddled at the next doorway. Lance hands one of them R30 and the boy leads us further along the path to a makeshift vegetable stand, where our guide instructs us to wait.
The path is busy – there are middle-aged women talking outside a nearby home and young girls chasing one another in circles, laughing – but the deal takes place in the open. Someone passes Lance a small packet of white crystals, which he slides into his pocket. The boys amble away. Lance winks. “Now we go smoke,” he says, and we leave.
After nearly two years of visiting Hangberg for research, my encounter with Lance was the first time I’d seen the drug, although I witnessed its effects early on.
It was a weeknight in August 2012. I was loitering in the harbour, waiting for poachers to launch their boats. I didn’t have any contacts in Hangberg yet and I was trying to get started with a dissertation investigating the settlement’s criminalised abalone trade. An old night watchman saw me standing on the pier, so I walked over and explained what I was doing.
“Nobody will talk to you,” he said. “It’s too sensitive.”
His name was James. He had faded prison tattoos on his cheeks. We sat in the shipping container he was living out of and drank coffee. Later I gave him a lift into Hangberg to buy mandrax. On our way back down we passed a young woman standing on the side of the road, and James waved at her to follow us.
Before we left he’d been telling me talking about prostitutes who wandered the streets at night, selling their bodies for tik. “Beautiful girls,” he said, shaking his head, “as young as 15. They don’t go to school anymore. They stay out all night. They spend the money on drugs.”
The woman was in her twenties and had red scarf tied around her waist. She walked into the container and sat next to James. I watched him crush half a white pill over a mound of marijuana and stuff the mixture into a glass bottleneck, which he lit with a burning strip of paper. He exhaled a lungful of smoke and passed her the pipe. She coughed after her first hit.
“Mandrax makes you sleepy,” said James, leaning back on the mattress. His eyes were milky. The woman began unwinding her scarf. She hadn’t told me her name. Her belt unbuckled. She smiled.
“Look after yourself,” I said before stepping outside.
“Thanks,” she answered. “You too.”
Crystal methamphetamine – known locally as tik for the popping sound the crystals make when smoked – has had a massive impact in the Western Cape since the early 2000s, when it first became widely available on the streets. Researchers have linked its arrival to the activities of Chinese organised criminal groups, who began bartering its ingredients with local gangs in exchange for poached abalone, a delicacy in the Far East. Within a few years the drug had eclipsed mandrax and marijuana as the low-cost drug of choice on the Cape Flats and beyond, manifesting in exploding addiction rates across the province.
According to research by the South African Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use, which monitors addiction trends among patients receiving treatment at specialist centres, the drug has become the most frequently reported substance of abuse in the Western Cape, with nearly 28% of users at 32 clinics listing it as their primary addictive substance in 2013. This represents a precipitous increase from fewer than 3% of patients just 10 years earlier, indicating the remarkably sudden onset of a new drug epidemic.
A cheap and highly addictive stimulant, tik has become particularly rife among the province’s coloured population, contributing to what the South African Medical Research Council (MRC) considers to be one of the highest methamphetamine addiction rates in the world. Its main short-term effects are increased energy, confidence and libido, accompanied by elevated blood pressure, body temperature and heart rate. Addiction can set in quickly, leading to cravings and increased physiological tolerance. Other effects are weight loss and, after prolonged periods of use, psychosis.
In Hout Bay’s impoverished Hangberg fishing community, tik has destroyed families, trapped children in addiction cycles and fuelled waves of criminal activity by cash-strapped users chasing their next fix. Yet it has also become the fulcrum of a powerful, illicit economy that employs hundreds of people and operates in parallel to a hostile formal job market and exacerbating drug use trends by offering dealers a meaningful form of income.
Joseph, a former merchant, told me he sold drugs in Hangberg for seven years, but quit when his conscience got the better of him.
“It’s an easy industry to get into,” he explained, sitting on a broken armchair in his home. “And it’s a good way to make money. When I started dealing I didn’t see at it as damaging my community, like I do now. It was just a job opportunity, and the kids had to eat.”
Before selling drugs, Joseph worked for a satellite dish company in Hout Bay, installing receivers in customers’ homes. But he claims that racial abuse, coupled with low wages, drove him away from the job.
“White people were the only ones who could afford satellite TV then,” he said, “and I had a couple of bad incidents.” The final straw was when a young boy insisted on being referred to as kleinbaas (little boss) while watching Joseph work. “He was the same age as my own child,” he told me. “I was furious. The money was shit anyway. I started dealing drugs soon after that.”
At first Joseph sold marijuana, mandrax, crack cocaine and heroin, only stocking tik after his customers started requesting it. “The market changed quickly,” he said. “Tik became the popular thing. I don’t know why it happened – it was like a trend, you know? All the kids began using it instead of mandrax, which is what my generation smoked growing up.”
By 2006 he was buying the drug wholesale from suppliers on the Cape Flats, adding a mark-up of nearly R100 a gram. “That sounds like good money,” I commented. We were standing in his doorway while he smoked a joint.
“Ja, it does,” he said, exhaling. “But remember: a dealer never eats alone. Take me for example; pretend I’m a merchant again, right? From that R100 I must pay my driver. I must pay the guy at the safe house for storing my stuff. And then there are the boys who sit outside all day, actually selling the drugs. I must pay them too.”
In all, Joseph said he directly employed four people through his illicit business, as well as a further six downstream. Today he estimates that the 15 merchants operating in Hangberg collectively employ at least 150 people – a big number for a small, tightknit community that has increasingly turned to illegal crayfish and abalone poaching for income in the absence of viable jobs in the commercial fishing industry.
It is impossible to understand Hangberg’s tik problems – or those in similarly afflicted communities – without taking some broader structural factors into account. The settlement, which was classified as a coloured area during apartheid, has been actively marginalised since the dawn of the industrial fishing era in the early 1900s, when the state began restricting traditional fishing activities to protect white capitalist interests. Generations of children have grown up poor, with few opportunities – other than fishing – to access the mainstream economy.
For more than 50 years Hangberg functioned as a reservoir of low-cost labour for the fishing companies operating out of Hout Bay harbour. Since the end of apartheid even these jobs have become scarce, with the local industry shrinking in response to declining catches and African migrants competing more strongly for work. Meanwhile, transformation efforts aimed at broadening access to marine resources have not yet brought about meaningful change for most local fishers, many of whom have turned to illegal crayfish and abalone poaching for income.
Besides these deep-rooted economic failures, Hangberg is also culturally and politically isolated from mainstream society, a consequence of decades of race-based social engineering and a testament to Cape Town’s particularly acute inheritance of structural apartheid. The Hout Bay tourists visit and where wealthy families build lavish mountainside homes in is quite literally another world: moneyed, privileged and almost exclusively white. (Imizamo Yethu, the predominantly black settlement on the far side of the valley, is another story.)
Crossing between these spaces is an alienating and uncomfortable experience, something I have personally encountered during my research and which the majority of Hangberg’s residents face, to a far greater degree, on a regular basis. For many of them, stepping out of Hangberg entails being exposed to a hostile system of values and cultural norms, to widespread racial stereotyping and prejudice, and to internalised negative self-judgements of what it means to be coloured and poor. Unsurprisingly, a large number choose not to leave, instead spending their lives in the tightly circumscribed yet more sympathetic confines of home.
In this context, the drug trade, like crayfish and abalone poaching, offers people both a better-paid and less disorientating alternative to finding work in the formal economy. Crucially, however, its negative impact has made many of Hangberg’s problems worse.
“It’s a cycle,” explained Juan Julies, headmaster of Hout Bay High School. “Most kids here grow up in poverty. From a very early age they are exposed to alcohol and drugs, and they learn that drinking and smoking is okay. They see adults getting high all the time. It’s considered normal.”
Sitting at his cluttered desk, Julies explained how drugs had come to represent a quick and accessible way to make money.
“The merchants drive nice cars and wear fancy clothes. Kids these days are very materialistic. They know their chances of getting a well-paid job after school are small, because they live amid such widespread unemployment. They want the shoes, the bling, the lifestyle. And the merchants make it easy for them to join the trade.”
A short distance from the school, the Hout Bay Community Awareness Rehabilitation Education Services (Cares) centre offers some addicts hope. Housed in the local clinic – a utilitarian face brick and plaster building where people queue patiently to see doctors, dentists and social workers – Cares represents a partnership between nonprofit organisation Faces and Voices of Recovery (Favor) and the Western Cape departments of health and social development. Since opening its doors in 2011, the centre has treated more than 500 patients, the majority of whom have been addicted to tik.
“In the past the department of health would refer drug users to the department of social development, which would just send them back,” explained Jurgens Smit, CEO of Favor South Africa. “It wasn’t completely clear who was responsible for dealing with the problem. Users often fell through the cracks.”
Patients at Cares enter an intensive four-week programme on an outpatient basis, focusing mainly on lifestyle changes, education about dependencies and triggers, and training to avoid relapses. “It’s about giving users practical tools to get their lives back,” Smit said. “And it works. Our experience is that recovery is real.”
Sitting in a bright blue room with laminated motivational posters stuck to the walls – “Expect a miracle”, “Recovery is beautiful”, “Staying clean is a choice” – Josephine, a matronly mother of four wearing hoop earrings and a loose patterned shirt, told me about her own journey of recovery.
“I was among the first tik users in Hout Bay,” she said, “and I quickly became one of the worst. People wouldn’t let their kids anywhere near me. I spent my days with gangsters and merchants, getting high.”
After being arrested for shoplifting and losing custody of her two eldest children, she began trying to quit, but fell back to her old habits each time. Nearly 15 years after starting to use drugs – mandrax and marijuana, in addition to tik – she joined Cares in 2012 after a friend convinced her she needed help.
“I came here knowing that I’d had enough,” she said. “I didn’t want to use drugs anymore. But I didn’t think that anyone would be able to help me.”
Now two years sober, she works full-time for Cares as a trained facilitator, assisting incoming patients with treatment. By the end of this year she hopes to have qualified as a fully fledged therapist.
“It’s been amazing,” she said. “I’ve turned my life around. I want to be a mother for my children and I want to help other users come clean. I’ve robbed the community for so long. Now it’s time to give back.”
Tino, another recovering addict, shared a similar story of redemption.
“I’d stopped caring,” he told me, leaning against the wall to take pressure off his prosthetic leg, a consequence of falling from a third-storey window in his youth. “I didn’t respect myself. When you’re on tik nothing can stop you from getting your next fix.”
Kicked out of his family home for using drugs, Tino spent “years” living hand-to-mouth, spending whatever money he could find on his habit. “I used to go home when I was hungry,” he told me. “I’d ask my brother, ‘Is mammie inside?’ and if he said no I’d go and make myself something to eat. Sometimes she would catch me and tell me to leave, but other times she’d let me stay. I could see how difficult it was for her. She was furious, but she wanted to help.”
Tino joined Cares in 2013 after a series of failed attempts to quit, and has now been clean for nearly 10 months. “I feel so much better,” he said. “I’ve discovered a lot of respect and love. People didn’t used to trust me in this community, but now they see me as a role model. Nobody thought I’d ever come right.”
For each inspiring narrative of recovery, however, how many tik users remain yoked to the cycle of addiction? I asked Professor Bronwyn Myers, chief specialist scientist at the Medical Research Council’s Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Research Unit, how adequate treatment facilities were for coping with the province’s tik epidemic.
“There are a number of options in marginalised communities,” she explained over the telephone, “but not nearly enough. A few NGOs run treatment programmes, the City of Cape Town has a network of outpatient centres, and there are three inpatient clinics run by the provincial government, although it’s difficult to get into these as they have extremely long waiting lists.”
The “treatment gap” was worse for some groups than for others, she continued, emphasising the importance of taking a nuanced approach to tackling the problem. “Women often struggle to access treatment as they have children to look after. Young people are another particularly vulnerable group.”
But it was pointless investing in extra treatment capacity without addressing the root causes of substance abuse, she said. “Treatment is important, but so is dealing with structural factors like poverty and unemployment. Many patients leave rehab only to find that their lives are the same, and it’s very easy for them to start using again. I don’t think it’s a question of throwing more money at treatment. We need to focus on the full picture.”
“In here,” Lance says, ducking through a dark doorway. There are broken concrete slabs on the floor and an ancient photograph of a pin-up girl on one wall. Lance sits on a crate and unzips his jacket pocket.
“This is the lolly,” he says in his white-boy accent, removing his pipe and showing it to me, “and this is the tik.”
He bites a hole in the corner of the packet and sprinkles the powder into the bulb-shaped end of the pipe. He places the stem between his lips, strikes a flame and holds it directly beneath the glass. The crystals make a soft crackling noise as they melt. He breathes out and his face vanishes in white mist.
“I feel high; I feel lekker now,” he tells me, drumming on his thighs. “I feel like I can do anything. I’m going to fix some cellphones. You know, I never knew how to fix anything before – I learned from smoking tik. Your brain tells you that you can do something and then you just do it, like that.” He snaps his fingers. His pupils are black discs. “But now I need to go find more money.”
“What will you do afterwards?” I ask. He laughs.
“Buy more tik.”
This article was originally published in a shorter form by the Mail & Guardian
Pic Credits: All Photos by David Harrison