Durban - With heroin flooding the global market after a bumper poppy crop in Afghanistan, a derivative of the drug is sweeping across South Africa in the form of cheap, “crude” variations known as whoonga, nyaope, mpinge or sugars.
The drug cocktail - which consists of third-grade heroin and a combination of chemicals that often includes rat poison - is unique to South Africa, according to the UN, and has resulted in many thousands becoming users in communities countrywide.
The situation is such that the UN, South African National Council on Alcoholism & Drug Dependence (Sanca), law enforcement agencies and even the Presidency have been warning against the drug and its deadly consequences.
According to Carol du Toit, Director of Sanca Durban, whoonga and other heroin-based drugs were “without doubt a huge problem across South Africa”.
“Heroin in its whoonga/sugars form is a significant problem in Durban and the rest of KwaZulu-Natal, while nyaope, as it is known there, is even more prevalent in Gauteng.”
Sanca had noted a significant increase in intake of the whoonga family of drugs at rehabilitation centres across the country. This was placing a severe strain on their resources.
Sanca national director Cathy Vos said there were several factors that made the drug so destructive:
- The drug is prevalent in economically disadvantaged sectors with high youth unemployment.
- It is highly addictive.
- It has severe withdrawal symptoms, which often lead to violent outbursts.
Addicts describe an all-consuming need to feed their habit, which is why whoonga has been blamed for an increase in petty crimes.
The SAPS, through its spokesman Captain Thulani Zwane, said while there was no empirical evidence that whoonga addicts were responsible for the increase in crimes in the suburbs, they believed that substance abuse in general was leading to an increase in certain crimes, particularly the theft of copper, bag snatching, shoplifting and theft from private properties.
Residents of Durban have been aware of the drug’s presence in the city for some time, since a tract of land near the train tracks in the Albert Park area became notorious for the number of whoonga addicts who lived there. It became known as “Whoonga Park”.
The addicts were removed by SAPS and Metro Police earlier this year as part of the city’s so-called “Qalakabushe Intervention Programme” which was aimed at reducing vagrancy in the city and rehabilitating addicts.
However, far from reducing the problem, the plan succeeded only in moving the addicts to an open plot of ground across from the DUT City Campus, with authorities seemingly turning a blind eye to the brazen violation of laws and by-laws in broad daylight in the Durban CBD.
The SAPS and the Hawks agree that the heroin problem is widespread in South Africa, particularly in KZN, Gauteng and the Western Cape.
In March an amendment to the Drugs and Trafficking Act was made so it now covers these chemically modified drugs.
President Jacob Zuma railed against nyaope and whoonga in a speech last year.
“Drug and substance abuse have serious implications for millions of citizens because they contribute to crime, gangsterism, domestic violence, family dysfunction and other forms of social problems,” he said, pointing out that nyaope, whoonga and tik were the biggest problems and urging South Africans to unite against them.
The UN’s annual drug report last year noted that the increase in cheap heroin across the globe was as a result of the record crop in Afghanistan last year. It is the world’s largest heroin producer, with nearly 80 percent of the global heroin trade emanating from it, with the rest coming from Laos and Myanmar.
There are now more than 200 000 hectares of land dedicated to the cultivation of Papaver somniferum - the species of poppy from which heroin is derived.
The same UN report said since 2009, seizures of heroin had increased almost tenfold in East Africa, with 22 tons estimated to be making its way through East Africa annually.
This is particularly relevant for South Africa as almost all heroin in South Africa comes via the ports of Kenya and Tanzania.
From there it is transported towards South Africa mostly by road, although Hawks spokesman Captain Paul Ramaloko as well as senior SAPS officers have noted that Durban harbour is being increasingly targeted by traffickers.
Dr Lochan Naidoo, of Durban, who was this week elected as head of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) at its 110th session in Vienna, described heroin as a “serious problem” across the globe.
The INCB is an independent and quasi-judicial monitoring body for the implementation of UN’s international drug control conventions.
Naidoo said that trafficking into, and consumption within, South Africa had increased over the years and the estimated number of addicts on the continent had more than doubled in recent years to about 2 million.
Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said that the government had built seven rehabilitation centres across the country and planned to build six more so that there was at least one in every province.
“We have a programme that seeks to strengthen the development and implementation of interventions. Community-based programmes have also been introduced to reach out to amongst others rural and informal settlement areas,” said Maharaj.
But Cathy Vos, Sanca national chairwoman, said unless social causes of the problem, especially youth unemployment, were dealt with, rehabilitation could not succeed.
“Rehabilitation alone is not enough. It is almost impossible to rehabilitate someone who has no job, no prospects, nothing to look forward to or get excited about,” she said.
She urged anyone suffering from addiction, or addicts’ family and friends, to contact Sanca at 086 147 2622 for help.