Jail terms for nyaope dealers and users need to go hand in hand with life skills training – and hope, writes Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.
Pretoria - My spirits were lifted last week when I read that the law had been tightened to prosecute users and dealers of nyaope, the drug cocktail consisting of dagga, rat poison, crushed ARV, heroin and heaven knows what else.
In terms of the new law, nyaope dealers can face up to 25 years’ jail and being in possession of the drug could get one jailed for up to 15 years.
The drug has its equivalents with various names in different parts of the country. In some parts of the KwaZulu-Natal this demon is known as woonga. In some communities crystal meth, widely known as tik, has become the weapon of choice for those happy to destroy the lives of young people in exchange for great personal wealth.
It was about time that the law became tough on the nyaope scourge that is making South African townships into wastelands of young potential.
Just over a decade ago, South African lawmakers drafted various schedules into laws dealing with crimes growing in prevalence such as child and gang rape, murders of police officers and armed robbery (including cash in transit heists and car hijacking).
Judges were forced by legislation to send certain categories of criminals to a minimum number of years in prison unless there were “compelling and substantial” reasons to divert from the prescribed sentences.
It was a controversial piece of law.
Many judges complained their discretion as to what sentence to pass had been tempered with by populist politicians.
One anecdote that it had an effect on the criminal population was when I met an acquaintance from my youth who I had not seen for many years.
He confessed that he had been in prison for an armed robbery. He proceeded to add that “I was lucky because it was before these schedule things were introduced so I was sentenced to eight years. I was released earlier than that to continue my sentence at home (parole)”.
My friend knew without having even completed high school, let alone reading the Criminal Procedure Act, that had he been convicted after the minimum sentencing laws had come into effect, he would have faced at least 15 years in jail unless there were compelling and substantial reasons for the court to mete out a more lenient sentence.
Hopefully the nyaope penalties will deter new users and dealers and scare old ones to retirement and rehabilitation.
It is easy for middle class communities or those who have no association with the townships except as the source of their labour to think that this is not their business.
They would be dangerously wrong to say so.
Nyaope users have been known to resort to desperate and deadly measures to support their habit. To that extent, anyone with anything that can be stolen and sold for cash is a potential victim of a nyaope addict.
It is in everyone’s best interest therefore to ensure that proliferation of the drug is minimised.
I am not for a moment thinking that criminalising of drugs and punishment of dealers and those in possession thereof is a final solution. It, along with enforcing the law and going after the big fish, is part of a solution.
It is equally important that conditions that make the use of such drugs appealing to young people be addressed.
It is easy to say that young people must be more careful of the choices they make.
As important as personal choices are, they are not made in a vacuum.
Unless we squarely face the social conditions that influence the choices they make, we might as well build bigger jails for more nyaope and woonga users and dealers.
The fight against drug use in the poorer communities of our country must be understood as part of the struggle against entrenched social, race and class inequality.
Instead of the sports minister threatening fire and brimstone against sporting codes that do not have 60 percent of blacks in the team, he should first place a quota of how many and which sporting facilities should be made available in a community that is losing its youth to drugs and gangsterism.
The biggest adversary against young people is hopelessness. It is this that feeds the drug market rather than just poor morals, bad parenting and the folly of youth.
That is why the minister should also lobby his basic education counterpart to get serious about creating an education system that is not just concerned about ensuring the numbers of those alleged to have passed matric – but whose concern is that pupils acquire enough life skills to ensure they can face challenges and make the most of opportunities to better their own lives.
I am under no illusion that as the result of the new laws, the manufacturers and the dealers of this evil will up their game to stay ahead of law enforcement, but a law will go someway towards comforting besieged communities that at least the state recognises their pain.
The next step would be to see it punish the thieves of young talent.
* Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is an executive editor at the Pretoria News