Durban - It has become a no-go area for ordinary people. It’s been described as a breeding ground for criminals and the “rotten heart” of Durban.

Now, after a visit by eThekwini’s executive committee to Albert Park on Tuesday, a task team is to be set up to deal with Durban’s whoonga addicts.

At least 300 people were milling about under the freeway bridge when officials and councillors went on their walkabout. Residents say this number more than doubles at night as beggars, petty criminals, prostitutes and addicts congregate to buy “their fix” in what is becoming a major problem.

Albert Park is just 3km from Durban’s beachfront where millions of rand have been spent to make the city attractive and safe, and to lure local and international tourists who are the economic life-blood of South Africa’s holiday city.

It is also a short distance from Glenwood, Umbilo, Berea and Musgrave where residents are plagued by petty thieves and beggars who can turn violent.

Tuesday’s excursion was led by mayor James Nxumalo who was accompanied by metro police officers. The crowd scattered at their arrival but were coaxed back

when told that no one would be arrested.

Nxumalo and councillors engaged with many addicts asking them why they used whoonga and why the area was a hot spot for drug use.

What the councillors saw was so shocking that they agreed immediate action was needed.

“The problem started small and has escalated. If we don’t do anything about it, it will escalate even further. We need to control the situation as soon as possible,” said Nxumalo.

“They face many problems. We want to set up a team that will facilitate the process,” the mayor said, adding that some of the users wanted to be rehabilitated, find employment or go back to school.

The involvement of rehab centres would form part of the plan.

The task team would be led by deputy city manager Musa Gumede.

Some of the addicts who spoke to The Mercury said they were desperate for help to escape their lifestyle.

“We want to change and we do need help, but if we don’t smoke we get sick,” said one.

“There will come a time when no one is found to be loitering in Albert Park,” promised Nxumalo.

Deputy mayor Nomvuzo Shabalala said she had always believed the park was full of foreigners.

“To my surprise most of them are from Durban and the surrounding areas. I found one who was a soccer player a few years ago, but now you can’t recognise him,” said Shabalala.

The extent of the problem saw political differences set aside yesterday, with opposition councillors saying they would back any initiative to resolve the problem.

DA caucus leader Zwakele Mncwango said the visit had “opened our eyes” to just how bad the situation was.

“Whoonga is one of the most addictive drugs, and once you start using it you cannot stop,” said the deputy head of the KZN Anti-Drug Forum, Sam Pillay.

“It is heroin-based, like sugars and, as you take it, your body’s tolerance levels increase. This means the frequency and quantity of the drug you need to take to get high increases,” he said.

This meant more money was needed to fund the user’s habit, which often led to him or her stealing from their parents or close relatives.

“Eventually the parents can’t handle it anymore and throw them out. That’s when they end up at places like Whoonga Park,” he said.

The deputy head of communicable disease services, Dr Ayo Olowolagba, said that besides the use of whoonga, the conditions in which the addicts lived made them susceptible to contracting HIV and TB.

“Their environment is conducive to unprotected sex which is dangerous because if one person has HIV they can infect many others. Because there is no proper sanitation, they can get cholera or diarrhoea. With no proper ventilation, TB can also be spread easily,” said Olowolagba.

A community worker in Albert Park, Florence Attwell, said “24-hour shops” to service the addicts were also a concern.

Police spokesman Thulani Zwane said metro police would be in a better position to provide comment as they conducted the raids and patrols.

Metro police spokesman S’bonelo Mchunu, however, said the park was no longer a “law enforcement issue” as it had been brought under control. “It is no longer an issue. Since we deployed patrols to the area last year it has been taken off the agenda,” said Mchunu.

The Mercury