The Whoonga Economyby Samora Chapman / 15.04.2014
I hadn’t been down to visit the Whoonga Nation in nearly six months, but I knew it was still there. Its existence plays at the back of my mind, when I’m hanging out with the cool kids down at the pub, taking my son to the park or going surfing in the sparkly warm Indian Ocean. I’ve always known I have to go back. Even though I don’t want to.
Because little has changed down at frightening Whoonga Park. Durban Mayor James Nxumalo estimates that there are currently 1 000 addicts wandering the city. I believe there to be more. And if you think you’re all good out there in the rest of the motherland, officials estimate that the number of whoonga users in Johannesburg has exploded to 7 000.
Brown heroin and rat poison is the flavour of the future.
In the six months since the story broke, the whoonga “colony” has been chased around the inner city like a herd of unwanted zombies. Blasted with water canons. Rounded up. Chucked into vans and driven out to Stanger, Pietermaritzburg or the South Coast and dumped like so much surplus flesh and bones. Metro police have been accused of torching their mattresses and other possessions. But still the Whoonga Nation grows.
There have been two major events in the whoonga timeline worth mentioning.
Late last year, the police attempted to arrest a foreigner that had been identified as a whoonga dealer. A gunfight broke out during which the foreigner was shot in the chest and died. The whoonga nation then attacked the police with stones and planks and started murdering each other. An informant was caught and beaten near death. Scores of addicts were injured and arrested for public violence.
Mayor James Nxumalo subsequently popped down to Whoonga Park for a walkabout in February. He addressed the delirious whoonga heads, saying that the city intends to bring the drug under control by June and that there are plans to develop a rehabilitation centre for the addicts. It is all part of his ‘Clean My City’ programme.
In a bizarre twist of events, a young fiend came forward and began pleading with the Mayor for help. He claimed to be ANC provincial spokesman, Jackson Mthembu’s son. He was taken to the ANC provincial offices but later ran away… probably as the sweats started kicking in, sending him back into the fires of hell.
The whole nation is now situated at Botha Park, ‘out in the open’, so to speak. This is quite a change from the areas they inhabited previously; on the train tracks and under highway bridges or sheltering in the storm-water drains that snake their way beneath the city on their way to the harbour. There are three security guards patrolling the Park. They do not appear to be armed with anything more lethal than pig sticks.
The other development is that of the new ‘whoonga economy’, a side-industry to sustain the addicts. Mammas stream in and out pushing trolleys bearing pots of hot mielie pap, rice and sweet tea in colourful plastic flasks. Steam from their cooking pots rises over the gathering in the mornings, ‘cos as soon as they smoke, the addicts are able to eat. A couple opportunists wander around selling small bags of peanuts and cheap cigarettes to quell the munchies between meals. And life goes on.
The Whoonga Nation is evolving. It’s become a self-sustaining micro-economy, where you can buy and sell drugs and goods, take your brown sugar and have a hearty meal. I hung out on the outskirts for a couple hours and then went looking for Mandla, my broken-souled whoonga guide.
There’s no such thing as luck
Mandla’s my only way in. I walked in circles around the lower Glenwood ‘hood trying to find his brilliant smiling face. He always begs the same intersection, but today he was absent. After an hour, my cheeks burned crimson red. I was wearing a leather jacket, camera stashed down the front like a pistol and the heat was wearing me out. On the verge of giving up and going home, I finally spotted him marching up Helen Joseph Road.
“Mandla! How you bru!” I holler and his response is void, inaudible. His sparkling white teeth have turned grey, his eyes are watery yellow holes.
“Things are okay. But things are bad. I need food bru,” he mumbles to the pavement.
Luckily I came prepared. I break out my tomato sandwich and tear it in two. I hesitate for a moment… then give him the bigger piece. I also hand over an old pleather jacket I brought for him. Winter’s coming.
“Can we talk? I’ll buy you tea.” He nods.
We walk up to the trendy Bean Green, which is near his begging haunt. I go in and order, then come out and roll us two cigarettes. An old man in khaki shorts across the road won’t take his eyes off us. He’s seething, he reckons something’s up. On second thoughts, I probably shouldn’t have brought my knobkerrie with, ‘cos now I look like a lost pimp and we’re getting eyed by the coffee connoisseurs as well. So we leave.
But we underestimate the man in khaki shorts. He flies out from behind his gate, intercepting us as we cross the road, grabs Mandla by the collar, pulls him back into his driveway, slams the gate in my face.
“You come with me boy, I’m gonna deal with you!” he spits through gritted teeth.
Before I know it, I’m shouting and shaking the gate, my temper boiling.
“Let him out, he’s with me!” I’m hollering, causing a damn scene.
“I know what you up to!” The man shouts, waving his finger at me through the gate as he retreats. “If you come in here, I’ll fuck you up! You dealing drugs, that’s what you doing!”
Mandla is frozen. Wide eyed. A pawn. I tell the man I’m a journalist, that this is my friend and he’s helping me with a story. It’s no use. He’s shaking his head, starting to drag Mandla away.
I look around for help and spot Richard Lyster; family friend and lawyer standing outside the coffee shop checking the scene. I beckon, he comes to our aid.
“I know this guy,” shouts Richard, now at the gate. “He’s a respected journalist. Let him do his job,” he says. Oom relents, situation diffused. We escape the vigilante grip and disappear quickly into the nearest park, adrenalin coursing. It’s a terrible start.
The Whoonga Chase
Mandla sits, shakes, and smokes sadly. “I stopped whoonga two years ago,” he tells me, “I only smoke zol now.”
This catches me off guard. Mandla’s normally totally straight with me, but something’s changed. I watched him klap a king-sized whoonga joint six months ago, so either his perception of time and space is warped, or he’s just lying.
“Will you come with me? I’m going down there now.” I ask straight to the point.
He shakes his head.
“I took Methadone… I got it from the pharmacy – 12 tablets for R150. You grind it and smoke it same like drugs. After seven days you come right. Now I’m hundred percent. I don’t even have the rostas anymore.”
“What’s the rostas?”
“The pain… the stomach pain.”
“It will be better if they take the kwere kwere (immigrants) back to where they came from so we don’t have to take this drug… but the police can’t catch them.”
I give up on Mandla, thank him and go on my way. I’ve got my knobkerrie and I’d rather face 200 drug fiends this morning than 200 unread emails. I walk downhill towards the inner city and every step of the way the buildings deteriorate, the graffiti increases and the swerving fiends become more frequent.
I arrive on the edge of the park and hover. Soon, the people on the edges beckon me in. This is how it goes. So I join the group on the outskirts, under a tree. The air reeks of urine. A skeletal man stumbles past, pauses and vomits red, thick liquid… then continues on his way.
I’m hanging with a group of about eight people. A teenage girl is braiding an older women’s hair. Two kids, not yet teenagers, crouch in the dust smoking a massive whoonga spliff as if it were the breakfast of champions. Their smiles are irie and blissful as they cackle like 100-year old men.
We start a banter because I’ve met them before – they both beg outside Woolworths in Glenwood – so you probably know them too. They ask if I’ve brought them anything and I say no. “We not talking to you if you bring nothing,” shoots the small lightie. “Fuck off.”
I manage to spark a conversation with a sharp young cat called Max before I get torn apart. He’s got short dreads and a Harry Potter scar on his forehead. He tells me his story, but it’s the same one I’ve heard many times. He wishes he could go home to his family in KwaMashu but he’s hooked. He sells cellphone accessories to feed his habit, and steals if he doesn’t have enough money for whoonga.
“If I don’t smoke my eyes start crying and my nose starts pouring. You can’t stop the crying, even though you not really crying,” he explains, pulling at the skin on his face, making his eyes bulge out.
I ask about the police. “They come every few days and throw people in the vans. They were here this morning. If you have drugs on you they take you in. Otherwise they drive you out of town and throw you away.”
The only new info I glean is that everyone is aware of some kind of pharmaceuticals that help you get off whoonga. “You can take Methadone, Suboxi or Subatex,” says Max. “You need a script to get it, but it is possible. But every time I have enough for the muthi, I end up buying more whoonga.”
“Does it work?” I ask.
“Ja, it works, but everyone I know that has taken it comes back after a few weeks. They always come back.”
I ask Max if I can snap a pic of him, but he refuses.
“They will skin you alive.”
As I leave I sneak a few photos, but in seconds the sky is filled with glass bottles, stones and other debris – like big killer raindrops. And I’m running away from whoonga park… again. Back to my beautiful life a kilometre up the road.
*Images © Samora Chapman