Neil Coppen

writings/ plays/ poetry/musings/travel journals and newspaper columns

WHOONGA WARS

September10

 

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.

*

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 The CON where Part 1 and Part 2 of the article were first published, Loyd Geyde,  Ricky Tucker and Jason Chung

 

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