South African townships’ addictive drug cocktail

By Nomsa Maseko
BBC News, Delmas, South Africa

Media caption,
Nyaope was made an illegal substance in March 2014, as Nomsa Maseko reports

Dishevelled young men and women surround the corner shops of a small farming community in north-eastern South Africa smoking "nyaope" - a uniquely South African cocktail of drugs.

A mixture of low grade heroin, marijuana, cleaning detergents, rat poison and chlorine, nyaope is cheap costing only about $2 (£1.36) for a hit.

"I need help; I'm desperate to stop but it's just so hard," says Nomsa Mahlangu, tears rolling down her chapped cheeks.

"This drug has turned me into a thief because I steal from my family and neighbours to pay for my addiction."

Easily accessible from dealers around the shops of the township in Delmas in Mpumalanga province, the group she is with is smoking in public view: They prepare joints and then suck up a white powder before lighting up.

It is a scene common across the country, affecting tens of thousands of young people.

Image caption,
Nomsa Mahlangu says her family no longer wants to know her because of her addiction
Image caption,
Nyaope is a mixture of low grade heroin, marijuana, cleaning detergents, rat poison and chlorine

Ms Mahlangu has an enormous scar on the side of her face; she tells me she was stabbed with a broken beer bottle after she was caught stealing last September.

Another young man who will not disclose his name is visibly stoned; he appears to be falling asleep while leaning on the shop window.

I asked him how he is feeling. The 22-year-old smiles and shrugs his shoulder: "I'm in heaven."

His friends, whose thumbs, index fingers and lips are partially burnt, burst out laughing.

They tell me that throwing away a butt is akin to throwing away money - so they pull on it until there is nothing left, sometimes burning their hands and mouths.

As I watch them smoke, some explain that they became addicted because they were experimenting with drugs; others tell me that the frustration of not finding jobs led them to drugs.

Unconventional rehab

"Heaven" is short-lived as the effects wear off in a few hours, but trying to stop altogether can be hell for the addicts - and is expensive because of the medication needed to treat withdrawal symptoms.

Despite the disillusionment in the township, one man has decided that there is hope for drug addicts after seeing his own son "wasting his life".

Oupa Segone:

"I only welcome those who come on their own and not those forced by their parents to quit"

Oupa Segone, the former mayor of Delmas, has opened an unlicensed rehabilitation centre at his farm, about 27km (16 miles) away from the township.

"We can't turn a blind eye and watch as this generation destroys itself," says Mr Segone after receiving a 20-year-old man at the farm desperate to give up smoking nyaope.

"I only welcome those who come on their own and not those forced by their parents to quit."

Mr Segone uses unconventional methods to help the 22 addicts who have been admitted since the centre opened in January.

He mixes farming, meditation and group therapy - there are no doctors or social workers, and the addicts encourage each other to quit.

Image caption,
Oupa Segone has been running his rehab centre since January

I grew up in this area and was shocked to meet an old neighbour of mine at the rehabilitation centre who was one of a few children in the township who went to private school - and we had all envied him.

"I've been here for a week now. I want to be free; it is hell when you are addicted," said Tebogo Moagi.

His plight shows that drug addiction is not just a problem among South Africa's poor.

'Long-term therapy'

The South African National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (Sanca) says unlicensed rehabilitation centres appear to be mushrooming all over South Africa to meet the demand from families who are desperate for help.

"It is the severe withdrawal symptoms that makes nyaope symptoms extremely difficult," says Sanca's Cathy Vos.

Image caption,
It is hard to give up smoking nyaope because of the withdrawal symptoms

"Addicts have severe physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms... when one is addicted to heroin one needs long-term therapy of two to four years because it is so highly addictive."

The government says it is concerned about the increase in popularity of the drug but it took a while for nyaope to be classed as a drug.

Once officials could identify the key ingredients, it was made an illegal substance in March 2014 and now carries a 15-year jail term.

But that does seem to scare any of the addicts.

Maria Khanye:

"My son died in my arms. There was nothing more I could do to help him"

They often go for days without eating, which weakens their immune systems.

Maria Khanye's 30-year-old son Patrick died last year after relapsing several times after attending rehab.

"My son died in my arms. There was nothing more I could do to help him. I held him as he took his last breath; I told him I loved him," she says.

"I begged him to go to rehab but he just didn't listen to me."

The 60-year-old often gives talks in her neighbourhood to encourage other addicts to quit before it is too late.

"I cry when I walk past the shops and I see them smoke every day. This needs to stop," she says.

But there are fears that each day more and more youngsters are becoming addicted to nyaope - and that South Africa has yet to wake up to its dangers.

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