, SIMUNYE, Oct 23 – More than two decades after the end of apartheid, South Africa’s youth hoped to be reaping the benefits of the country’s fresh start, but a potent drug is taking a heavy toll on the most vulnerable.
Like all mothers, Caroline had big dreams for her eldest son, naming him Tshepo for hope.
“He was my hope,” she said, choking back tears. “But now I don’t know.”
For three years, 19-year-old Tshepo has been hooked on nyaope, a drug that is smoked like a rolled joint.
Inside is an addictive mixture made from marijuana and heroine that has spread like wildfire through South Africa’s impoverished townships over the past decade.
Despite being born after the fall of white-minority rule in 1994, black teens like Tshepo have little opportunity in democratic South Africa.
Youths in Africa’s most developed economy suffer from an unemployment rate hovering around 50 percent, among the highest in the world, and the situation has deteriorated in the last five years.
The lack of jobs and nyaope’s easy availability have combined to devastating effect in poor communities, local experts say.
Nyaope users, dishevelled and strung out, walk like zombies in many South African cities, begging at street corners, doing odd jobs or committing petty crimes to secure money for their next hit.
– Drug lords ‘destroying the country’ –
So dramatic is the rise of nyaope that it has caught the attention of President Jacob Zuma, who in August visited a community in Pretoria that said it was suffering a crisis of drug abuse.
“Drug lords you are destroying this country, we will not let that happen,” Zuma said.
In Johannesburg and Pretoria, two cities that form the economic heart of the country, families complain that the state has done little to curb nyaope use.
“Parents are making a lot of complaints,” said Jan Masombuka, a social worker and lecturer at the University of South Africa (UNISA) who runs a counselling practice in Mabopane, in northern Pretoria.
“If you go to Mabopane station you will see young men addicted to the substance on a daily basis. They just go there, don’t go to school, are neglected,” he said. “There are so many of them.”
Data on nyaope is scarce.
Until 2014, the street drug — which sells for 35 rand a dose (about two euros, $2.5) and contains varying amounts of chemicals — was not even listed as an illegal substance, a sign of widespread ignorance about the substance.
– ‘Large scale’ problem –
“UNODC is concerned with the growing number of reports from the public, the police, social workers and health workers… this points to a problem of a large scale,” said Zhuldyz Akisheva, UN Office against Drugs and Crime representative in southern Africa.
“The true scale of the problem is difficult to assess, due to a lack of data.”
Caroline described how her son’s life changed when he started using the drug at just 16 years old.
She lives in Simunye, a town an hour’s drive from Johannesburg, in a simple house built by the ANC (African National Congress) government that came to power under Nelson Mandela in 1994.
“He started this in school,” said 43-year-old Caroline. “He was bunking off his classes.”
Caroline’s story is a familiar one. In her street alone, there are at least three young men addicted to the drug.
Her neighbour, 64-year-old Elizabeth Hlathe, was caring for her grandson after his mother died.
The boy started using nyaope, coming home at any hour of the night, and stealing pots and pans from the house and from neighbours to scrounge money to feed his addiction.
In the end, she reported him to police.
“It’s almost an everyday issue,” said Jacob Molathwa, Simunye’s municipal councillor. “This nyaope is very dangerous.”
In Simunye, Ramadan is an exception, recovering from his nyaope use after using the drug for two years.
“It’s difficult. I almost died,” he said.
“Even now I am still taking this medication for stopping cramps and heart pain.”
When he was still using nyaope, Ramadan sought shelter with other men in an abandoned construction site near Simunye.
Speaking anonymously, one of Ramadan’s former associates described life on nyaope.
Sitting on a ragged mattress, speaking with a weak voice, his eyes stared off into space.
“Sometimes I feel I can stop this thing today. But it’s like something is eating you like a worm, you are sweating, you don’t know what to do,” he said.