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Hard Return

by Samora Chapman / 25.09.2013

I returned to Whoonga Park a wiser man. I wore my toughest leather jacket, my oldest paint-stained jeans and carried my late grandfather’s knob kierie for protection. This time I left my camera at home and used the kierrie as a walking stick, feigning a slight limp. I parked in the suburbs and headed down towards the inner city, feeling like a soldier heading to the front line.

I spent the morning hovering and watching. Since my last visit, Whoonga Park had been fenced off by an impenetrable 8-foot barbwire iron curtain and two metro police officers were stationed at the nearest intersection.

Wire

As I sit across the road from the park and watch – the officers go through a pointless routine. Every five minutes or so a group of people head down to the gate at Whoonga Park. The cops hop out of their van, waving sticks and shouting empty threats to chase the fiends from the park entrance.

The people take little notice of the police. They circle the area and enter the tracks through the hole in the fence at the taxi rank on the opposite side. Others climb through a gap on the bridge less than 50m from the cops, who turn a blind eye, defeated by numbers.

In an hour, I count about 30 humans entering the ‘Whoonga Nucleus’. Some leave the way they came in. Others disappear.

Contrary to what I thought, the ‘refugee camp’ down on the tracks is in constant flux, as people stream in and out from all over the city. This continues night and day. But some seem to stay in the nucleus, waiting and wallowing in the abyss with no place to go.

Bridge

I approach the cops and stick my head in the window to find out what’s the deal: “We’re keeping people out of Whoonga Park,” says Officer Kunene, referring to the empty patch of dead grass covered in plastic bags and faeces. “It is a municipal park. So we must protect it.”

“But what about all the people on the tracks?” I ask bemused.

“There’s nothing we can do about that,” he says. “That’s Metro Rail’s responsibility. We would go down there, but we need orders from our superiors before we can do anything. If it was up to us… we would use force to get rid of these people.”

“If you did try and remove them, where would you take them?”

“That is the problem,” he says. “There is no place for them.”

Cards

At that moment a group of four youngsters emerge from a hole in the fence and I head off to track them. I follow them about a kilometre into the city before they turn on their heels and face me.

“You want some whoonga white boy?” Says a tall, wrecked coloured dude in a beanie. He’s so stoned he’s swaying like the ground is a rocking boat in a storm.

“I just wanna talk. That’s all. I wanna know why you smoke?”

“You wanna know why? Because we are alone.”

The gang pushes on into the city and I follow. A quiet kid falls back and chats to me. He’s called Senzo. I share an orange with him and ask: “Do any white people go to Whoonga Park? I’m afraid to go down there.”

“Anyone can go and buy whoonga. It’s R20 a hit. Come with me, let’s go.”

We break away from the rest of the gang and circle the Whoonga Nucleus to the city-side of the train tracks, where there’s another entrance. People are streaming in and out of the entrance, floating like ghosts with eyes as dark and frightening as a moonless night.

“We can go in here. No worry about the cops. Come.”

My heart is racing. Fear grips me and I break away and keep walking, leaving Senzo dumbfounded. I can’t go in. I am too afraid.

Mattress

The Score

I head back to my perch overlooking Whoonga Park and wait. Soon two guys come out of the park and sit on either side of me.

On my left is a burly, sweating guy hanging onto the railings and looking in all directions like he’s getting hunted. On my right is a small, rotten looking character with missing teeth and a withered leg. His name is Mandla.

Mandla has a friendly vibe, and I feel I can trust him… I even consider going in. But I’m shit scared, between two worlds like a thief at the window.

“Look at me!” says Mandla. “I am a swart man. I am a Swazi. I’ll take you in. Come.” I stall and fall quiet, but eventually I slip him 20 bucks and say: “I’ll take one hit.”

Mandla’s gone in a flash and I immediately think I’ve been had. The scary beast is still sitting on my left, keeping an eye out. Probably making sure I stay put, get hooked and keep coming back.

But after about 15 minutes Mandla appears and says: “Come with me.”

We start walking, heading for one of the inner city parks for a smoke I assume… and to my surprise Mandla opens up like an informer.

“The guys who are selling are all foreigners,” he tells me. “There’s about 16 dealers, but they are on shifts. Some in the day and some at night. The dealers are from Tanzania, Mozambique, Kenya, Swaziland… places like that. They are killing the people.”

“Do they smoke? The dealers?”

“No they don’t smoke, they only sell. Mostly Zulus and Xhosas smoke. They are the animals.”

“Why are there so many dealers?”

“Because there are a lot of people who want whoonga. Even laarnies come and buy a lot of whoonga. Especially churros. They park in the taxi rank under the bridge and get the lighties to go onto the tracks to buy it for them. Each dealer is selling to maybe 60 or 70 people a day. I think they make up to R70 000 per day. And they put all the money and the drugs in a hole in the ground.”

“Where do the drugs come from?

“I don’t know. But there is only one boss. All the dealers work for one man.”

“What’s his name?” I try my luck.

Mandla ignores the question.

“Where’s he from?” I persist.

“The boss-man is from Tanzania.”

At that moment we head through an empty alley and Mandla tries to give me the whoonga but I put up my hands, like this is a stick up.

“I don’t want it…” I say.

This news upsets Mandla, and he looks at me in a kind of desperate, sad way. “I don’t understand. You tell me to go buy you whoonga. Now you don’t want.”

“Ja, I’m sorry. I never meant to lie to you. You can sell it, or smoke it if you want. I’ll come with you.”

So we head to a filthy park near the harbour and Mandla unwraps a little plastic package tied around his finger. He crushes some zol, adds mix and laces that shit with the white powder, which tries to escape in the breeze. He quickly folds it into a joint and lights up looking around like the park is full of vampires.

“How many times a day do you smoke?”

“About four times.”

“So that’s around 100 bucks a day you need for whoonga. How do you find the money?”

“Easy. It’s easy man. I find the money.”

As the drug takes hold, Mandla’s body relaxes, gravity disappears and he’s floating in bliss. He becomes quiet. The conversation is over.

Click here for Part 4 of our Whoonga investigation: The Raid and the Writing. Read the previous instalment here.

*All images © Samora Chapman.

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RESPONSES (12)
  1. The Roy says:

    just keeps getting better and better.. amped for the next installment .. Keep it up Joegz

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  2. Gerald Haynes says:

    Wonderfully written little piece, I myself have been down to Whoonga park to cure my curiosity. I remember distinctly the curve I parked my bony on as I walked towards a man who seem to have a look of complete emptiness inside, in reference to your description, his eyes were dark and sunken in, sporting a black hoody and generally looking under nourished, like in a zombie state if one had to describe his over all appearance, ive seen my fair share of horror in this beautiful city but it really left me feeling scared and uneasy. He too asked what I was doing here and do I know what these people want from me, at first it didn’t make sense but it actually didn’t need too, I knew I was not meant to be here and climbed back on my Big Boy scooter and rode off. Another amazing thing is the amount of money being made on a drug which must have huge profit margins, made up from many chemicals like A.R.V.s which are freely supplied by most clinics and government hospitals, Whoonga Park, an uncharted drug haven seems to be potentially an epidemic on the horizon. Look forward to your next installment!!

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  3. humbug says:

    Though u left ur camera at home?

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  4. Dazla says:

    Wow, I was scared for you.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    Bravo Samora. The first two stories were decent and so was this until you enabled a whoonga addict. But seriously, Sam -can I call you Sam?- get a fucking clue dude. You’ve flouted moral and ethical laws by purchasing drugs, then by enabling one of your interviewee’s addiction. Come on dude!

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  6. IOIIOOIO says:

    “referring to the empty patch of dead grass covered in plastic bags and faeces. “It is a municipal park. So we must protect it.””

    Classic.

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  7. gatiep says:

    i want dis shit man, it klinks kak lekka man,
    i just dont want the ret poisen my bru, i want to smoke

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  8. that guy says:

    Man,loving these articles,and thanks for buying him a hit even though some think its wrong,but you may have just saved someone from being mugged for that R20,and you got to educate us on these issues.Waiting for the next post.keep doing what you’re doing.

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  9. Chavu Moja says:

    Go down to the bridge, by all means, or the railway tracks, but for your own sake come back with some real findings, and not these silos of nervous impressions. Get in there, meet the dealers, the suppliers. Have a few kattes (quarter grams) analysed, and you’ll find paracetamol at the base, mostly. Explain how the pocket money paid to TZ stowaways by shipping agents feeds the movement of heroin from Dar to SA’s cities. Tell us why SA, as a signatory to the post 9/11 ISPS code, still has a stowaway problem. And why are TZ’s boarding ships in SA ports and not in Dar, or Mombasa? How do they manage to stay out of Lindela between ships? Your Durban whoonga investigation isn’t finished, it’s embryonic. You haven’t even established that Whoonga is derived from the Swahili word for flour–unga–which is Dar slang for heroin.

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  10. Anonymous says:

    You left your camera at home, right?

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  11. c'mon dont be such a pussy says:

    get chavu in the mix !

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  12. b says:

    interesting series, totally understand the fear but then you might as well be one of us sitting behind a laptop exploring this world.

    get chavu in the mix !

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