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Best of 2013 | Rat Poison and Heroin

by Samora Chapman / 25.12.2013

Originally published 18 September 2013.

Whoonga is a ‘new’ street drug that seems to have a deadly grip on Poison City and its tentacles are spreading. The name “Whoonga!” was coined by Tanzanian foreign nationals… it is the sound your brain makes, pleading for mercy, when the vicious concoction of heroine and rat poison enters your system.

The nucleus of the whoonga scene is a patch of no-man’s land between the train tracks and the M4 highway in the heart of the inner city. This patch of land is known as Whoonga Park.

Whoonga Park is an abyss. A blip in the system, where hundreds of lost souls flock every day to get their fix. These tend to be the most degraded and marginalized citizens of the city – illegal immigrants, street children and the homeless – huddled together in a kind of trance or stupor… power in numbers and a shared sense of oblivion as their only solace.

I went down there one day in June, on a whim, with no idea of what I would find. I was green and unprepared. Things got rough quick and I had to run for it. As I stood on the bridge trying to snap a few photographs, the people of Whoonga Park pelted me with stones. It was a heavy experience that both frightened and intrigued me.


Back in the safety of my cave, I started to delve into the horrible world of whoonga.

A little research reveals that whoonga is not actually a new drug. It was born many years ago in Chatsworth, an Indian area southwest of the city, and was known as ‘sugars’. Apparently sugars were rebranded ‘whoonga’ sometime around 2010 to confuse authorities who were trying to crack down on the drug, which was rapidly spreading to the townships and the inner-city.

Whoonga is essentially brown heroin, cut with rat poison, ammonia and occasionally tik to make it go further. It is, basically, the worst cocktail of drugs imaginable.

Whoonga is cheap (R20 bucks a hit), ravenously addictive and stomach rotting. Most people lace spliff or tobacco with the powder and smoke about six times a day. Withdrawals include brain-crunching headaches, debilitating stomach cramps, night sweats, nausea and joint pain.

According to one fiend on a grainy internet video: “You cannot eat or shit until you get your hit. You will kill a man to get your whoonga.”

Urban legend has it that whoonga contains two types of Aids anti-retroviral drugs, namely ritonavir (which enhances and prolongs the effects of drugs) and efavirenz (which causes vivid and colourful visions and dreams).

Now consider that South Africa has the highest Aids statistics in the world, with KZN being the worst stricken province. With the government rolling out free anti-retroviral treatment, this means that Durban is the ARV capital of the world. And you know how it goes… the pharmaceutical drugs of today are the recreational drugs of tomorrow.

The rumour that whoonga contains ARVs has been denied by healthcare professionals and drug companies alike. Nevertheless, Africa is a place where rumours, urban legends and even misconceptions can morph into something that has a powerful grip on the people.


Lest we forget the blood curdling urban legend – if you have sex with a virgin you will be cured of AIDS. The effects of this ‘belief’ are catastrophic… with child and infant rape statistics soaring across the nation, sending the whole world into a state of shock.

The association between whoonga and ARVs poses some serious problems, as ARVs suddenly gained monitory value on the street. I came across a number of news reports from 2010 and 2011 claiming that Aids patients were being robbed of their ARVs outside clinics and hospitals.

Another report claimed that smoking whoonga has created a mutant strain of HIV that is now immune to anti-retroviral treatment.

Aids patients have also found themselves in possession of a precious commodity, which can be sold for hard cash. This business opportunity is tempting in a situation where your next meal may take precedence over surviving for ten years in abject poverty.


According to Vumani Gwala, a drug counsellor, the drug is so addictive that addicts will actively try to contract HIV in order to get access to the ARVs; which are then crushed and smoked as a substitute for the real stuff.

What the whoonga heads don’t seem to realise is that it’s the heroin that they are addicted to, not the ARVs. But if smoked ARVs turn out to be a seductive recreational drug, Durban (and the rest of Mzansi) could be in for serious trouble.

However, there’s no hard evidence that whoonga contains ARVs and the pharmaceuticals claim that (even though people seem to think smoking them is fun) ritonavir and efavirenz are not addictive.

In 2011 Dr Thavie Govender and a team of scientists from the University of KwaZulu-Natal did an analysis of a number of whoonga samples and found that it contained heroine and strychnine, a pesticide mainly used to kill rats.

“I would say it’s rat poison combined with heroin… there are no trace of ARVs,” said Dr Govender.

Smoking whoonga gives the user a momentary absolution from the shackles of reality. But within a few hours, the rat poison causes chronic stomach pains. The only way to get rid of the stomach pains is to smoke more whoonga, because heroin is a powerful painkiller. One of the most powerful on the planet.

This cycle of pain and bliss is an endless state of being for the whoonga addict. And an addict will go to great lengths to get the next hit… as all reality falls to pieces around them.

This kid, Lucky, gave me a whole new take on the story. I know him well and even gave him work once. But one day when I was watching Whoonga Park I saw him come out of there sweating. So I figured he was a fiend. He’s a good kid though and I don’t think he steals and shit. He says he’s been smoking the stuff for 7 years now. He says if you have strong blood you can keep smoking and living. But you get these whoonga stones in your stomach which you vomit up. He smokes 7 times a day. That’s R140 per day. He makes the money begging.

“Whoonga is like zol.” He said. “If you clever it makes you more clever. But if you are stupid it makes you more stupid. If you are strong it makes you stronger, if you are weak it makes you weaker.”


He also told me that some cops are smoking it. Big time.


The Return

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 knobkierie 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.

Click here for Part 3 of our whoonga investigation: Hard Return. Read Part 1 here.

*All images © Samora Chapman.

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