Hard Returnby 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
*All images © Samora Chapman.