Fighting their inner demon

Friday, July 12, 2013
By: 
Bathandwa Mbola

He is young, but looks older than his years; his shoulders seem to carry the weight of the world. His face is drawn and his emotions are hard to read. He looks underweight, worn-out and emotionally detached from his immediate surroundings. At any moment he looks ready to lash out, to break down into tears or to nod off to sleep. Personal hygiene is also lax.

Meet Mohau. He is sixteen and is one of hundreds of Gauteng’s youths addicted to nyaope. I meet Mohau by mistake. He was with his 67-year-old grandmother, Doris, who has taken him to dedicated social workers in Eldorado Park for help. 

It was in the same area which has been under the watchful eye of government and police since the drug and crime clean-up operation led by President Jacob Zuma a few months ago.

Zuma visited Eldorado Park in mid-May following a letter by one Dereleen James. She documented her struggle to try to get her 17-year-old son off tik (crystal meth).

Ironically, I found Mohau being comforted by James whom I had an appointment with.  “This is my life now. I have resigned from my job and decided that my community, the children of this place, the addicts like Mohau need me more.

“There are very few people [who] understand drug addiction to its fullest and this is why I have decided to do this full time. I know, I have been there,” James tells me.

I try to make conversation with Mohau, a grade 10 dropout, whose words form slowly on his lips.

He says he started experimenting with dagga last year and upgraded to nyaope which turned him into an addict in November.

“My friends and I wanted to know how it feels like to be high on nyaope because everyone was talking about it,” he mumbles.

Mohau says he started with one shot a day in November, then to an average of four shots. The concoction is sold by various people in the township whom some, he says, are parents.

“They will tell you that there are no jobs in South Africa  and selling nyaope is their way of making quick money … they know that the stuff is dangerous but they sell it anyway.”

A hit of nyaope - which is a mixture of heroine, dagga, battery acid, rat poison, ARVs and other dangerous ingredients - costs anything between R25 and R30. This has resulted in crime spiralling as the desperate youth will do anything to feed their habit.

The drug mushroomed in 2006 in Pretoria townships Mamelodi, Soshanguve, and Atteridgeville.

Since then it’s been the perfect storm among the youth as it is cheap, highly addictive and it has spread to many parts of the country, earning itself several names such as whoonga, kataza, pinch and ungu.

Nyaope is smoked by heating it up and inhaling the fumes, Mohau tells SAnews. This is followed by a rush or drowsiness and a feeling of being relaxed.

“My friends and I only go for the good stuff- the one that smells like vinegar. When I smoke it I go into this high level of relaxation…like in a deep coma,” Mohau’s face lights up - possibly reliving the sensation. 

The drug, he says, makes him feel warm when cold, filled when he’s hungry, calm when angry and clear when blurry.

However, when this blissful state wears off, which he says is about 2-3 hours after, agonizing withdrawal symptoms set in. The latter, he says, includes stomach cramps, chills, nausea and diarrhoea and according to Mohau, the only way to alleviate this torture is by finding another fix.

“It is terrible. I get terrible stomach cramps like now and I would ask my friends to hit or try to sit on my stomach just to ease the pain.”

Most nyaope addicts I have come across in the township have a face with a vacant look, red eyes, red lips, lack speech and look like they have not bathed in weeks, yet these individuals have parents who love them dearly.

Mohau is no different. His grandmother says he was an intelligent, respectful and humble boy before he used nyaope and she has not given up on her grandson, whose mother passed away several years ago.

“I have hope that we will get help here and that he will make something of his life because he was clever at school.  This demon has robbed me of my handsome grandson,” Doris holds back her tears.

Like many parents and guardians, Doris has been terrorised by her grandson.

“He has done it all; he steals from me and his uncle and terrorises us to feed his addiction.”

Mohau and Doris’s situation is a mirror of what is happening to hundreds across the country and Eldorado Park youth who are besieged by drug abuse, especially nyaope.

And one person who has travelled that path is mother of two, James, who, frustrated by her 17-year-old’s addiction, wrote an emotional letter to President Zuma to intervene.

Dedicated to making a change

Since then, there has been great improvement with the closure of many ‘lolly lounges’ (buildings where the consumption and sale of drugs take place) and increased police visibility in the area.

Their operations consist of vehicle check points, stop and searches and visiting identified houses of alleged dealers and lolly lounges. This is continuing on a 24-hour basis in the area.

“At least there is peace now, there is help. At least our voices have been heard, there are police and plans in place, and that gives me peace of mind.”

The road ahead might be long, but at least it's no longer dark, she says.

James has now dedicated her time counselling parents and advising them on how to cope with addicted children.

Before we continue with our conversation, her cherry red cell phone rings again. She excuses herself.

“Sorry I have been inundated with calls from all over the country from people wanting me to speak at their community meetings, parents seeking advice, some even telling me about lack of service delivery in areas I have never even heard of.”

Her home is now a holding house for addicts before they are transferred to rehabilitation centres.

“I still feel like I’m failing my community somehow because we do not have a safe house in Eldorado Park, which is a challenge in this fight against drugs.”

James says there is an influx of cases and this has prompted her to establish an organisation called Sharing Without Shame.

“More and more people are coming out now. I have realised that there so many more people going through what I went through.”

Her dream is to see a 24-hour rescue house in the area, with doctors and social workers who can start the rehabilitation process for the youth in the area who want to turn their life around.

“I have seen it with my son and what withdrawals symptoms are like.”

The withdrawal symptoms have even pushed others to commit suicide.

She also envisages a massive education programme for parents in the area so that they can understand what they are dealing with. In that way, she says, there is going to be fewer murders and less suicides.

With the constant theft to maintain their habit, schools in the area do not have taps, bulbs and even fences.

She appealed to private institutions to open up their doors and start giving back to communities in need.  “SA needs them to open up their doors now, to say we are going to help these kids free of charge.”

Mapping a way forward, James says they need people from all corners to come together and address the problem.

“Parents need to start supporting their children, understanding drugs and going to the schools and being actively involved. We need to start cleaning up Eldorado Park and work with the police and go and report any unlawfulness. We need to take back our community and have pride in it.”

James’ action has landed her a LeadSA Hero of the month award - which recognises people making South Africa a better place.

James’ 73-year-old mother Joyce, who had opened her humble home to me earlier, says she is proud of her daughter.

“It’s thanks to her action, we have quieter nights in Eldorado Park… government is up and doing something,” beams Joyce.

“I am pleased about the award. I am honoured and humbled by it. I still wonder why me because I was just doing what any parent would have done at [that] time and situation,” James says.

I ask about her son Kaylin. Immediately her face lights up.

“He hasn’t been doing drugs for more than 12 weeks now. But I can still see it in his eyes - he still needs rehabilitation.”

She says drugs have taken their toll on him and dashed his dreams.

Since James’ letter to government, the Presidential Inter-sectoral Plan was established in Eldorado Park, which sees the different spheres of government coming together to deal with drugs and related socio-economic problems.

The plan is based on two key strategies which are the Drug Master Plan – aimed at reducing demand, harm and supply and the Gauteng Provincial Anti-Substance Abuse Strategy which focuses more on prevention, early intervention, treatment, after-care, re-integration and strengthening the role of civil society in this struggle.

It is hoped that lessons and successes learned from Eldorado Park will help develop a model that can be replicated in other areas facing similar challenges in the province like Lenasia, Ennerdale and Bosmont.

South Africa is both a transit and end user country, with approximately 15 percent of the population said to be on drugs which is costing South Africa R20 billion a year.

A study conducted in 2009 indicates the use of drugs among teenagers had increased over the last 10 years by more than 600 percent, with the average starting age of abuse at 12 years and younger. 

The law enforcement agencies have had their hands full as well – over 41 drug laboratories closed down last year alone.

Although work is currently being done, some community members in Eldorado Park believe that the war against drugs is far from being over or won.

“The problem is more social. Yes there will be police patrolling and sending these kids to rehabilitation, but they return to environments where there are no jobs, no opportunities and they go back to drugs,” says Siyabonga Zwane, who works at the local petrol station.

Another pessimist is Gladys Motsamai, who indicated that since the clampdown in Eldorado Park, lawlessness has moved to neighbouring locations like Freedom Park, where she lives.

Gladys, who makes a living by selling fruit and sweets near a local clinic, says the issue around drugs is proof that greed will forever reign.

“The anti-drug abuse campaigns are carried out in vain because they arrest the sellers, leaving the big guys who live in mansions in affluent suburbs who cash in on the sale of the drugs.”

The general feeling I get in Eldorado Park is that parents of drug addicts have left this fight against drugs to the Lord. The victims are hooked like fish on a rod and would do anything to get their next fix, even if it means travelling to different locations as supply has dwindled in Eldorado Park. Quitting drugs needs more than a strong will and those who have attempted have been left severely ill.

The community might be divided on whether government and law enforcement agencies will win the battle against drugs. But one thing’s for sure, the community remains hopeful and is eager to claim back their township from the silent killer. – SAnews.gov.za