Whoonga, the highly addictive drug cocktail, was described by national police Commissioner General Bheki Cele recently as a “big national concern”.
He said the Hawks were investigating the prevalence of the drug. But whoonga has been around for a while - originally called “sugars” and thought to be confined to Chatsworth. It is now smoked across Durban - even in places like KwaMashu where residents in September called on police to close homes where the drug was being sold.
Experts say whoonga is just a new name for sugars.
“We discovered about a year ago that the sugars drug had its name changed. Whoonga is not a new drug; it is sugars being sold under a different name, a rebranding,” said Dr Anwar Jeewa, a drug expert and head of the Minds Alive drug rehabilitation centre.
“There has been a lot of confusion recently, with some saying that whoonga is anti-retroviral medication crushed and smoked in a dagga joint.”
“The media has made a fuss about the new drug on the streets, panicking people and worrying the government. But it’s not new,” the SAPS’s Colonel Jay Naicker said.
Idris*, a former drug dealer, confirmed this. “Whoonga is sugars. It’s the same thing, just a different name,” he said.
While a typical whoonga concoction includes brown heroin, rat poison and ammonia, some distributors are now said to be adding tik, or methamphetamine, to the mix.
“The drug dealers add all sorts of stuff to the heroin, the primary ingredient, just to increase the mass of the drug when it’s sold and make the heroin go further. A lot of the stuff has no effect and users have no idea what’s going in,” said a member of the police’s Organised Crime Unit.
Issa*, a whoonga user in rehabilitation, said he first encountered the drug while living in Cape Town three years ago and it was always referred to as whoonga. “Tanzanians in the Cape used to bring it into the country and sell it. It was heroin, rat poison and ammonia and we used to call it whoonga,” Issa said, adding that the mixture would sometimes include over-the-counter products such as baking soda and headache tablets.
Another ex-whoonga user said he first heard the name used in Chatsworth. “Sugars had become fashionable in Chatsworth and the more popular it became the harder the cops cracked down on the dealers. So people started calling it whoonga to confuse the cops,” said Rafick.*
“Whoonga is a Tanzanian word and is what sugars is mostly called in the townships. Guys used to come from Umlazi to buy sugars wholesale, but they used to call it whoonga.
“It’s so bad that when you are addicted you have to take it just to feel normal. You can’t function without it, can’t wake up in the morning. You can’t eat properly and you feel nauseous. My joints used to hurt and I would be in pain until I took it.”
Rafick said his addiction saw him turn to crime often just to support his habit. “I was stealing from my house and selling everything. I sold everything, even the pots... I would find myself staring at the neighbour’s house wondering what I could steal.
“The drug is a big problem – it’s everywhere now. It’s big in Chatsworth, but people are smoking it everywhere now.”
* Not their real names.