Today The Con brings you part two in Neil Coppen’s six-month investigation of Durban’s Whoonga epidemic. The Con published part one last week.
I met Mahala editor Samora Chapman a few weeks prior to the Dalton Hostel / Botha Park incident. I was hoping to learn a little more about his experiences following the Durban whoonga scene for the past few years.
Whereas most journos have approached the story with trepidation, skirting the fringes of notorious hangout’s like Albert Parkand Botha Park, Chapman has braved the front lines, befriending addicts and dealers in the process. While his pop-culture approach (Harry Potter and the Ninja Turtles all make appearances) has irked more sober-minded readers, he has managed to grow a substantial and eager following on the Mahala website.
During our meeting, Chapman bemoaned how he had become the go-to guy for journalists and researchers looking for an angle on the issue.
“Look man, journalism is my livelihood,” he said, doodling on his arm with a ballpoint pen. “I can’t really tell you anything that you wouldn’t already find by reading my articles on the site.”
I returned home to read the entries in the Mahala archives, some of which begin with declarations like: “If you want to live to see tomorrow, don’t go to Whoonga Park. It’s the scariest place on planet earth.”
Chapman’s woolly descriptions often send him veering into problematic realms of sensationalism and even science fiction, but he does seem to empathise with the folks he has dubbed “whoonga heads”.
In most of his expeditions, whoonga users are depicted as otherworldly and alien, a sort of subhuman species, while the writer casts himself as an “interloper from the mainland” setting out to explore and record the remnants of this “lost world”.
In one episode Chapman notices hieroglyphic graffiti scrawled across the walls of an inner-city drug den and ponders: “Could this be a clue – a pure, unfiltered form of expression from the people of Whoonga Park?”
Chapman’s adventures seem to abide by a standard action-adventure formula, with most of his accounts culminating with him narrowly escaping death. Readers, it seems, can’t get enough of this Tin-Tin in Whoonga Land sort of reportage. Needless to say, the comments section on the site is full of zealots offering up suggestions along the lines of: “Why not issue free bags of whoonga laced with arsenic to solve the problem?”
For the most part, the “whoonga heads” in Chapman’s posts come across as seething, vomiting, delirious, bewildered, buzzing herds, ghouls or mobs (his choice of metaphor veers between animals and supernatural creatures). He even signs off one article with “Just another day in the jungle” – as though he is about to retire home from a day’s hunting trip to sip on a G&T.
In one of his most incriminating flights of fancy, Chapman enters one of the city’s “forbidden zones” and describes the ensuing assault as: “A naked lunatic burst out of a plastic tent, wailing like a werewolf and wielding a six-foot sjambok. He came running at us with intent to kill and we fled into the night. But he wouldn’t give up chasing, hunting us through back alleys and whipping the air like demon sent straight from hell to drink our young white-boy blood and drag our bodies back to his den.”
It would seem such descriptions might not be out of place in the pages of the latest Walking Dead screenplay. One wonders what the constant zombification or pop-culture packaging of this crisis is doing to further the plight of the misunderstood user, the addict who, beneath the incessant denigration, is a really just a human being in the grips of a terrible affliction.
For Durban activist and journalist Vanessa Burger, the knee-jerk condemnation throughout the Durban press and social networks is doing nothing to aid the cause, but rather further contributing to what she calls “Durban’s latest and greatest humanitarian disaster”.
In her damning and insightful article – ‘Whoonga Park: The bigger picture’, written in the wake of the Dalton Road attacks – Burger cautions how thoughtless comments, deep-rooted prejudice and the promotion of personal agendas is contributing considerably to an already volatile situation.
“It is not helpful and it’s extremely irresponsible,” she goes on to caution, “for members of the largely middle- to upper-class community to sensationalise and condemn out of hand the violent reaction to a humanitarian crisis that has been growing on their doorstep for years but which they were mostly too self-absorbed, too ignorant or too careless to bother about.”
A few blocks up the road from Botha Park, on the second floor of a breezy block of flats in Glenwood, I chatted to Prudence Dlamini , who works here twice a week as a domestic worker. Prudence sat among heaps of freshly ironed laundry, her eyes darting about anxiously as she recalled her son Damon’s year-long struggle with whoonga.
Damon, she told me, was staying at the Newlands rehabilitation centre for three months – part of Nomusa Shembe’s Seven Pillar Programme. Until recently the programme had a dismal success rate.
“How is he doing?” I asked.
“For the first week he was in terrible agony and unable to sleep,” she told me, “but we pray the worst is over now.”
Dlamini told me she was fully aware that the most daunting part of her son’s rehabilitation still lay ahead. She acknowledged that it was a malaise of boredom and disenchantment that led him to experiment with the drug in the first place, and that unless she could secure him employment before he is discharged from the centre, it was highly likely he would fall into the same cycle.
When I asked what had been the hardest part of the process, she cited the drug’s effects on her son’s personality as particularly distressing.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t recognise him any more,” she said. “The child I raised would never try to get money out of me like that. The child I loved would never use force on me like that.”
The aggression shown by Damon, I was told, arises from the addict’s need to alleviate the debilitating stomach pains whoonga causes. The pains are related to the use of Rattex, or strychnine, which is mixed into the heroin to prevent the user’s blood from clotting. Strychnine helps to keep the blood flowing, preventing embolisms and ensuring the user lives on to purchase their next hit. As the body builds an immunity to the substance, the blood begins to form small clots in the veins, which often causes whoonga users to scratch compulsively.
With mounting pain and rising tolerance levels come further cost implications: what starts as a daily expense of R25 soon rises to R125; as the cramps intensify so too does the need for the next toke, and it’s at this point that many resort to violence to obtain it.
“Their whole personality just changes,” Pillay told me. “They just become different people and the greatest tragedy of this situation is that they have absolutely no control over it.”
Pillay recalled the stories of a young man he knew who, in a fit of desperation, and pain brutally murdered his grandmother, and another teenager whose exasperated parents chained him to his bed for a month of involuntary cold turkey.
For Shembe, the failure of Durban rehab centres (out of the first 25 patients referred to Newlands Centre, only five were able to complete the programme; of the second group, only two made it through) can be attributed to a variety of factors, but many problems come from youngsters being taken off the street and placed directly into the rehab programmes without the correct mediation. In these structured environments, many of the patients prove violent and disruptive.
Community theatre participant Phumzile Ndlovu’s cousin Njabulo was one such patient. After he had returned to her family home from Albert Park stricken with HIV, his aunt had forced him into a hospital programme. But Njabulo didn’t last longer than 24 hours after it was discovered that friends had smuggled whoonga into the ward.
A few tokes of the drug had revived him to the point where he was able to rob nurses and patients in the ward. He was discharged the following morning.
For many patients, it seems the withdrawal symptoms are too intense to tolerate, and Shembe admits that the Newlands facility does still not offer the correct drug aid to assist weaning users off whoonga. It’s a problem she claims needs to be passed at a national level, and it is an agenda she is trying to get the department of health to take more seriously.
Pillay, however, is not convinced by the city’s proposed three-month rehabilitation model, dismissing it as “unnecessary” and “unsustainable”. For Pillay, the city simply doesn’t have enough beds or time to deal with the scale of the problem.
“When you look at the number of addicts who are successfully being rehabilitated, the number is dramatically less than the number of guys who are getting addicted each day,” he says. “And what does that do for crime? What does that do to the economy? What’s the social impact on families? It’s a far-reaching catastrophe, this.”
From Pillay’s experience with the Anti-Drug Forum, he has learnt that to wean users off the substance in five days to two weeks. But it’s a long-term process, and crucial to it is a tablet called Naltrexone, a drug the state still refuses to implement in local treatment centres.
For Dr Lochan Naidoo, the president of International Narcotics Control Board of South Africa, the government first needs to acknowledge that the treatment of heroin addiction is a specialised field that requires a highly trained task force to tackle it. He dismissed Shembe’s proposal to enlist the help of social workers and Unisa students to deal with addicts as an insult to those in need of help.
“What we fail to understand in this country,” Naidoo said, “is that a large portion of people turning to whoonga do so because they have problem with abandonment and poor engagement with their families.”
Such is the case with Mbali, an addict in her twenties who had been sleeping in Botha Park for the past four months and who agreed to attend a meeting hosted by the Dikonia and Urban Futures Centre at the Durban University of Technology.
The meeting was called to discuss the whoonga crisis in the city, and organisers were adamant that the discussion take place based on principles of respect and constructive engagement.
Mbali sat at a table beside representatives of the metro police and South African police service, as well as academics, drug specialists and city officials. She agreed to attend the meeting in a bid to voice the concerns and views of the people living in Botha Park.
When it was her turn to speak, she rose sweating, wincing uncomfortably under the sterile glare of office lights.
“Can you tell us how we can help the people of Botha Park, Mbali?” a journalist called from the back of the room.
“Describe to us what life is like inside the park?” implored another.
When Mbali spoke, the frantic scribbling of pens almost drowned out her already barely audible responses.
“Most of us living at the park don’t have employment,” she told the room. “But we are not all criminals. Those who are criminals and try to hide in our group are pointed out to the police. Things are hard enough for us as it is. We don’t want to be associated with crime.”
Mbali went on to describe how she used to visit Botha Park daily to score whoonga and started living there after she was kicked out of her family home. She spoke of the sleeping conditions at the park, the cold winter nights, the terror she felt during the Dalton Road assault where a friend was paralysed in the attack.
Although Mbali welcomed the city’s assistance, she set out to remind the room of the social circumstances that fuelled her addiction in the first place.
“They city is trying to help us. They came yesterday and took some of us from the park to rehab, but what about after? Most of us don’t have homes to go back to. Many of the kids in the park have lost their parents and their houses have been sold. We need shelter, places to stay. We need jobs.”
A factor often overlooked on the tenuous road to recovery is what happens after the rehabilitation programme is completed. As Naidoo suggested, most addicts have been kicked out of their homes and communities, and are not welcome back. There is a great deal of mistrust and betrayal that many family and community members are not prepared to endure again.
To counteract this, Shembe has been working with the department of correctional services and a veritable army of substance-abuse councillors, so that ‘rehabilitated’ individuals are accompanied by a person from correctional services when braving the risky return trip home. But for Shembe it’s the lack of existing post-care community support structures that is the greatest failure of her proposed model.
“It is crucial that the recovering patient is able to consistently check in with support structures, and until such programmes exist, our department is simply wasting valuable resources and time.”
The only solution, Naidoo suggested, is to call on a common body of knowledge that exists on this area. Over the past few years the city has called him into various meetings, but − as with the FDR’s Pillay − failed to act upon any of the insight shared.
“All we can do as a society is put structures in place that are meaningful and address the needs of the people taking this drug,” said Naidoo. “One of the primary issues we have to acknowledge is that not everyone out there on the streets wants to stop taking drugs.”
After the meeting I introduced myself to Mbali over a soggy plate of cocktail sandwiches. She was far more animated and at ease outside of the formalities of the conference and told me that one of the drug counselors at the meeting offered to treat her for free.
“I’m so excited, I want to get rid of this thing in my life,” she beamed, wiping the sweat from her brow with a snack-tray serviette before asking if I was able to give her R20 before she returned to the park.
I brushed over her request, attempting to change the subject, but she touched my arm gently and persisted.
“If you really want to help me like you say you do, then please can I have R20!”
But barely a week after the Dikonia and Urban Futures meeting, it seemed the positive outcomes of the discussion and co-operation pledged between police units, addicts and activists had amounted to very little.
The SAPS and metro police launched a joint raid on the Botha Park island, sending the whoonga population once again fleeing into the night while setting fire to their meagre belongings. Those who were arrested were dumped back in their respective communities.
While politicians, police and Berea residents celebrated a minor and belated victory local newspapers were already reporting on a variety of new satellite colonies mushrooming in parks and public spaces around the city.
As I drove past the vacant Botha Park island, I thought of Njabulo and his tragic end. I thought of Damon and his re-entry into the world after rehab. I thought of Mbali and the raid, and regretted not having given her that R20.
I thought about Shembe’s Seven Pillar strategy, a plan that is being implemented to deal only with the thousand or so vagrants who congregate in city spaces – a mere handful of the population currrenlty in the grips of this addiction.
As Botha Park retreated in the review mirror, Naidoo’s closing statement at the Dikonia and Urban Futures meeting lingered in my thoughts.
“This is just the beginning,” Naidoo warned. “What we see going on here in Durban is not going to get any smaller – it’s about to get massive. South Africa, I’m afraid to say, is set to become the next South America.”
For Phumzile – the community theatre participant – not even Njabulo’s death was to occur without incident.
“He was 25,” she said, drawing her monologue to a close.
“He had been addicted to whoonga for more than five years. That’s five years that my aunt and family had to deal with this problem. When they brought his body from the mortuary to our house for the vigil, we noticed immediately that there was something odd, something strange about it.”
“Strange?” I asked.
“His body it was … how do I put this … soft. You see, it’s not supposed be soft when a person passes on. In Zulu culture this means that the person’s spirit may come back and take somebody from the family, or worse, one of us might inherit these problems from him. So the following morning we all took turns to talk to him and calm him and clear the passage for him, but while we were doing this… his… his…”
She paused and took a deep breath before continuing.
“He started moving his head and hands like a person who is still alive. It seemed as if his spirit wasn’t ready to leave. And so, under the guidance of our elders, my cousins and I were made to take sticks and beat the body.”
“You beat the corpse?”
“Yes, we took turns hitting him. I was scared to do this because even if a person was bad while alive, we have always been taught to respect the dead. But we had to hit him. In order for Njabulo to not come back and torment us, we had to hit him. We had to defend ourselves and so we hit him – we hit him, we hit him.”
Despite the family’s best efforts, Phumzile explained that the body would not keep still. It was at this point in the proceedings that her aunt was made to transport the body back to Albert Park.
“The park was the only real home he knew, and we imagined he would find peace there. At the park my aunt bought whoonga from one of the dealers and began to sprinkle it over Njabulo’s corpse, touching some to his lips until his body finally softened and surrendered. At the funeral we all sprinkled whoonga into his grave. We did this so he would be at peace.”
Phumzile concluded by clasping her hands together in what seemed a combined gesture of relief and prayer.
“We did this so he would never visit us again.”
Neil Coppen would like to thank Ricky Tucker and Jason Chung
Pic Credits: All photos by Jason Chung