Johannesburg, South Africa – It is just after noon and three youngsters walk towards a petrol station outside downtown Johannesburg in Gauteng, the country’s richest and most populous province. Unphased by the icy winter chill in the air, they do not look older than 16.
One – a young woman – eagerly scavenges through a bin looking for food. The other two follow closely behind, chatting as they nibble on a packet of chips.
To most they would merely appear to be street beggars.
But there is more to them. They are drug addicts, hooked on South Africa’s latest drug cocktail: nyaope. And their untamed addiction has forced them to abandon their homes.
Nyaope is heroin sprinkled over marijuana, rolled into a cigarette. In most instances, the heroin is cut with an anti-retroviral medication used to treat HIV.
“That thing brings us here. In Soweto you can’t hustle. It’s too expensive. You can’t hustle it like here. Here we get money quickly to buy,” says Lucky Tsobane, 22.
Toll on addicts
In South Africa’s underdeveloped urban areas, known as townships, the drug retails for R30 ($3). In the city centre, where Nigerians dominate the drug trade and distribute the toxic concoction, it is only R20 ($2).
Although Tsobane naturally has a dark complexion, the skin on his arms and legs has turned unnaturally black and is nearly crocodile-textured from a combination of smoking nyaope and not bathing regularly.
The drug cocktail, Tsobane explains, helps him relax. If he has not smoked, he is anxious and restless.
We steal. We are doing crazy things. Everything we steal because we want to smoke.
When he wakes up in the morning, the craving for the drug leaves him with unbearable stomach cramps. He has no appetite until after he has had a hit. And should he drink water or smoke cigarettes before the hit, he will get sick.
“Other people vomit. Or their stomachs run. You have to smoke it to function normally,” Tsobane says.
His two friends – Moeketsi Shiba, 23, and Matsepo Ndliso, 22 – admit that they have had three hits already that day. Their high will last for about an hour. Or two.
Now that their craving is satisfied, their next mission is to head to the closest traffic intersection where they will beg for money – something that has become a day job for them. They could stand there until 10pm, depending on how generous motorists are.
In their early 20s, their addiction has only brought them a tough life. Their hands tell a story: hardened, wrinkled, dry, ashy, darkened with dirty fingernails, and burnt fingertips from smoking the rolled cigarette to its bitter end.
“We steal. We are doing crazy things. Everything we steal is because we want to smoke,” says Shiba, 23.
They have endless tales – sleeping in an alley between two buildings sardined with other street dwellers; hiding their stash of drugs in their anuses to prevent police and criminals from finding it.
No way out
Tsobane – like Shiba and Ndliso – started off smoking marijuana. One day he saw his friend smoking the drug cocktail and joined in. That was four years ago. It has since become a downhill journey.
“If you were to see where I’m from and you look at the way I look now, it’s a different picture,” Tsobane says.
His mother, who has just expanded their house in the township, where she lives with his stepfather and sister, has nearly given up trying to get him to come home. Instead, she visits him on the street and occasionally brings him food and clothing.
Shiba has two siblings – an older sister and a younger brother – and two children. “My father is dead but my mother is alive,” says Shiba, who left school just two years short of completion. “I smoked it for maybe eight months and then I started to get arrested. That’s why I left school.
“I want to stop smoking and I want to start working for my kids. I used to wash cars in the [neighbour]hood. I’m prepared to do anything for work.”
Although he has not stolen from his family, Ndliso admits that she has. Tears well up in her eyes as she explains how she stole her mother’s money and mobile phone to feed her habit. “I’m too scared to go home,” she says.
After four years on the street, Ndliso has contracted HIV, prostituting herself for just R15 ($1.40) – not even enough to feel the full effect of the drug. She discovered this after seeking treatment for tuberculosis, which she also contracted on the streets. She now has the added burden of having to hide her medication, which often gets stolen.
Her poor health however, does not prevent her from smoking. “This thing we are tired of smoking; it’s just that we don’t get help. I want to go school but I can’t. I smoke nyaope everyday,” says Shiba.
Sandra Pretorius, a director at the South African National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (SANCA), explains that Tsobane, Shiba, and Ndliso are suffering from the highly addictive heroin in the nyaope mix. All it takes is smoking it two or three times to become an addict.
“This makes it very difficult to treat. The physical withdrawals include severe intestinal spasms, shakes, sweats, headaches, vomiting, and diarrhoea. This needs withdrawal medication, not just group rehab,” says Pretorius.
The drug of choice
Use of nyaope has increased dramatically since 2007, says Pretorius. Ten years ago, a traditional heroin user in South Africa was white, between the ages of 19 and 24, and unemployed or studying.
But Nyaope has changed the status quo.
Other people vomit. Or their stomachs run. You have to smoke it to function normally.
“There has been a big [uptick in users] among black youngsters,” says Pretorius. This could be attributed to the fact that the drug is very cheap and therefore attainable for disadvantaged youth caught in socio-economic circumstances that push them to drugs.
In its most recent profile of clients in treatment, a SANCA report reveals that while the use of most substances of abuse has remained largely unchanged, “the mixed combination of marijuana with heroin is escalating”.
According to the SANCA report, there is an emerging trend of clients using more than one substance. Heroin and opiates are listed as the third most frequently abused substance among its clients. And with 40 percent of their clients, marijuana was their primary substances of abuse, which the report describes as a “drastic increase of nine percent from last year”.
Andrew Stoller, from the South African advocacy group Anti-Drug Alliance, says he has seen firsthand that clinics, especially in South Africa’s disadvantaged communities, are ill-equipped to deal with heroin addiction, particularly because heroin was not previously a drug of choice in those areas.
Outdated policies aside, there are the problems of inadequate funding and government facilities.
Having previously worked in the rehabilitation industry, Stoller has changed direction and now focuses on awareness campaigns. Ultimately, his aim is to stop the likes of Shiba, Tsobane, and Ndliso before they even take their first hit.