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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!” is Tanzanian… 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.

Crowd

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.

Whoonga

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.

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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.”

Eish.

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

Fence

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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RESPONSES (39)
  1. Warm says:

    Isn’t “sugars” also meant to be a heroin/rat poison concoction?

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  2. Warm says:

    Ah sorry, saw that you mentioned that.

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  3. Will says:

    One of the most potent, well-researched and though out pieces I’ve read in a while! Killer!

    Thumb up17   Thumb down 2

  4. takezito says:

    wow, great reporting. scary shit!

    Thumb up10   Thumb down 2

  5. Jo says:

    Hot damn. Gritty shit son. Grips you by the short and curlies and doesn’t let go till its done. Tony would be proud.

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  6. Mathew says:

    I seriously cannot wait for part 3.
    This along with the first is one of the best most intriguing articles I have ever read

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  7. Shannon says:

    Great story. Can’t wait to read more.

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  8. Jenna says:

    Bring on part 3! This is investigative journalism at it’s best.

    Thumb up8   Thumb down 1

  9. Rowena says:

    I stopped reading at “stricknene” . It fails a MS Words spellcheck. FFS.

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  10. Rowena says:

    *Word. Oh the irony.

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  11. Zefron Zachary says:

    Great piece but come, Samora, get the words right guzzy –

    ‘heroine’ is a female hero – heroin is an addictive opiate
    ‘stricknene’ – wtf? It’s strychnine.

    Otherwise a great piece on a topic that’s prone to fuckloads of misinformation.

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  12. electric_window says:

    Tight lines……..Very cool…..there are awesome stories and imagery to be had at Durban bay. Zachs side and Bat side.

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  13. Zefron Zachary says:

    Compliment the guy on a great piece and the hoodrats give it finger on account of tuning the spelling? Whatkind you naais.

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  14. Binwe says:

    Um, have you guys checked the Daily Maverick coverage on this- circa over a year ago?

    Also, Tanzanian is not a language. Did you mean KiSwahili?

    Content check, saving journalists everywhere.

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  15. Anonymous says:

    He might not spell everything correctly, but that doesn’t take the fact away that you can understand what is written, and how gripping it is!!

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  16. Tz says:

    Very interesting article.
    Its always good to get clued up on stuff like this. You never realize the size of problems like this in our country till people like you get the fuck up and investigate.

    Very brave, man, very well done.

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  17. Luke says:

    ‘One report’ / ‘another report’? Great article dude but if your gonna lay down shit like ‘mutant drug resistant HIV’ and such, probably best to link said report/s.

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  18. Cami says:

    Bring on part 3. Brilliant! And as for your spelling, I think it is fucking epic! :)

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  19. Anonymous says:

    So you went to the edge of Whoonga Park for a bit of Gonzo reporting of poverty an suffering, found you can’t get in there because they were pelting you with stones. Then you went on to your browser and researched info that we all know/have access to. Now everyone thinks you’re a ground breaking journalist.
    I am sorry. You didn’t get the story, except for an interview with your gardener who gave you nothing. To top it off, you can’t spell, use cliches and spew out gawky ‘journalism’. Its clear you haven’t done enough research.

    Of course if you live in the suburbs, you’d find this riveting. Durban white kids like to high five each other on very stupid shit! This is not journalism, its lilly-liverred poverty porn…

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  20. Margot says:

    Anonymous, stories on Mahala never appear to have been subbed or even proofed. It’s not all his fault. But why have they chosen such an irritating font?

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  21. Samora says:

    “Whoonga” is the name given to the drug by the Tanzanian drug dealers. It is not a Swahili word.

    Everybody is jumping the gun on this piece… it is really a chapter in a 4000 word piece so of course there are huge holes in it. I am not an expert and I don’t claim to be the absolute authority on the subject. But I have spent time there. I have spoken to many people hooked on whoonga, and I have explored the whole area, meeting many interesting people and seeing incredible sights. Maybe it matters to some that I am white, and I am from the suburbs… but really that shouldn’t be the focus of the piece. I have tried to be true to the story and I am only at the tip of the ice burg – I’ll be the first to admit that.

    And yo… I battle with spelling. You got me! Big ups.

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  22. Samora says:

    *Sorry… not ‘everybody’ of course. Thanks for sharing and showing support! If we can put the issue in the spotlight it might contribute to some solutions. Some real action from the city, corporates, welfare orgs – to address this social catastrophe.

    Firstly… I know this is flogging a dead horse, but I urge people not to hand out cash to beggars and other desperate people. Lucky somehow finds R140 a day for whoonga by begging on the streets and so do MANY others. That’s around R2800 a month. If you want to help those less fortunate, give responsibly… or give food, clothes, work. These things can help uplift people, give them strength and hope… a greater sense of well being and they might be less inclined to drown their pain with this horrible drug.

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  23. amsterdam says:

    a journalist (and I’m not talking about the kind that studied and qualified) knows that we live in time – sin. when was the last time you thought about whoonga before you read this article?

    so some of the spelling was a bit out. a few things weren’t linked.

    people are only speaking about ww3/syria now.. that shit is age-old.

    “the media admits to receiving talking points from the government” – earth shatters. (“.)

    this guy went there. he got pelted. I’m grateful I got to read this article. it reminded me that sometimes you lost in the radiostream that is “beautiful durban”. people are reading THIS article. say thank you then right a better article if this one offended you so deeply. don’t signal the rifles to fire if you’re not going to commit to preventing the next execution.

    thanks, samora.
    it was nice meeting you.

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  24. Samora says:

    @ Anonymous… you call me lily -levered, but you aren’t even brave enough to put your name behind your opinion? Are you worried people might call you on being the racist you are?

    Big love!

    Durban White Kid

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  25. Margot says:

    Samora…I get what you’re saying about rather giving money to shelters etc. I do. But don’t you think that’s kind of nanny-state thinking? While not healthy, their choice to smoke whoonga/zol/buttons/sniff glue/drink meths/whatever is a valid one. A lot of people on the fringes of society choose to leave shelters and upliftment programmes because it just doesn’t work for them. Society and its constraints does not make sense in their wiring. When I give money to beggars, it’s not with the prerequisite in my mind that they will spend that money on items that I believe wholesome. Which is not to say that it wouldn’t make us all feel nicer and safer and happier if they did! But basically, I think being a human is hard, and for some it’s harder than others. People do what they gotta do.

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  26. Beeber says:

    Spelling issues should get caught by the eds and subs.

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  27. Nick says:

    This literally scares the shit out of me.

    On a happier note, great journalism, looking forward to part 3!!!

    To all those who have such excellent command of the english language and are apparently better journalists, why don’t you post a link to your great work here in the comments section.

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  28. Peter says:

    This is a fine story, typos and all. But for all those who think that is the most intriguing and hard-hitting journalism you’ve ever read – or read in a long time – please get out there and do some proper reading.

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  29. Olinde says:

    Let’s be frank – Mahala? Not known for Pullitzer-grade content.

    No offence, Samora – this is a solid piece and I look forward to reading the rest. But some of the comment makers here could really do with some broadened horizons.

    & hey MR EDITOR MAN (you are a man, right ‘Andy’?) – please proof the stuff your writers send in. Otherwise, you create the perception of laziness – not on the part of yourself, but on your writers. Pull finger, as they say. Yes, it matters – why else would so many people raise the issue?

    (thank you, Peter says.)

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  30. Dazla says:

    Joogz! Nice piece, you’re like a war reporting. That gully is rough and you took the time to experience it yourself so that you could fill us in on what it’s like down there. Most people are too shit scared and sheltered, they need to know what’s happening in their back yards. Ballsy.

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  31. Dazla says:

    *reporter, sorry.

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  32. Luckmin says:

    Stylish stuff blood brother. Highly enjoyable.

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  33. IOIIOOIO says:

    Lord knows I wouldn’t have the balls to go there. It’s an interesting series and I wouldn’t expect much more or less from a site like mahala. I can tell you genuinely care about this issue and are not just doing it for the number of clicks. The journalism in this series sure as hell beats some of the shit you see on News24.

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  34. Don Mega says:

    so, how do i buy whhonga without getting stoned by people??
    i would like some without rat poisen, just the heroin to mix with kat and exstacy , what a buzz dude…
    get back to me thanks

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  35. Chavu Moja says:

    Go down to the bridge, by all means, 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. Whoonga isn’t a Swahili word, as you claim–google translate would have cleared that up. It’s derived from the Swahili word for flour–unga–which is also Dar slang for heroin, because when heated on tiles and crushed the stuff looks kinda floury, and is hardly more combustible.

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  36. Goitsemang Maroga says:

    It takes a brave and passionate writer to report about such things, and the drug is also known as Nyaope. There’s a video clip I’ve seen where in Thembisa they even go as far as including Vim(cleaning product) as one of the ingredients. When they’re high they walk with their eyes closed and they talk very slow. Bathing is a huge problem, they all look alike, Some don’t rely on begging but they’ve became self made taxi marshals and they get starting from R1,00 per person and they “salary” differs on the distance travelled by that customer, some help people to carry their heavy parcels when you in town but then again they’re those who depend on quick cash and they have a very strict target market, us! the students. Pretoria is the capital of addicts, you find them everywhere, near clinics, schools, churches even near the police station.

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  37. m says:

    Brilliant journalism. It used to be Mandrax, then tic. Now its Whoonga. The devastation of your people continues,

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  38. Anonymous says:

    This is ridiculously bad

    Rat poison, really? That shit’s expensive.

    Why not just grass clippings, or literally anything? This is such an old, lame myth.

    People just wanna get scared, but whoonga is nothing new. It’s just dirty Heroin.

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 1

  39. Zee says:

    New street name for it is staws.

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