In an open space near the railway in the South African township of Soweto, several young men and women in their early 20s are smoking nyaope, a new drug cocktail.
Some look like the walking dead they are so stoned.
“I was studying, but then I quit because of the drugs. I dropped out of school at 14,” Thuli says through glazed eyes.
She says she sees no future for herself.
She is just 16 and hooked on an extremely addictive drug which is sweeping across this nation, seizing new victims every day.
Nyaope is a whitish powder — low-grade heroin mixed with ingredients such as rat poison and sometimes even crushed-up medicine for people with HIV.
Sprinkled on top of marijuana, it is a highly addictive, life-wrecking cocktail.
“I must smoke this thing; it’s our medication. We can’t live without it. If I don’t smoke, I will get sick,” says another smoker, who did not want to give his name, as he breathes in a lung full.
Despite being high, these addicts all say they want to quit because they realise they have been imprisoned by a drug which is sending them down a dead-end.
“When we were young, we took marijuana first at high school and experimented with that before going onto the harder stuff,” says Kabelo, a 32-year-old nyaope addict.
“These days the youth are starting with nyaope — straight in on the hard stuff.”
Twenty-three-year-old Nomvula, rolling another joint with her pink nail-varnished fingers, says: “My family wants to help me. They think jail would be good for me as a rehab.”
Costing just a little more than US$2 a hit, it is relatively cheap.
But as lives crumble, users soon start stealing to fuel the habit.
They make enemies in their own family and among the normally extremely friendly community.
Ephraim Radebe, a recovering addict, said he was caught by people in the very next street to his home.
“They set upon me, beating me with bricks, saying I must die. Then one man brought petrol and wanted to burn me,” he said.
Radebe says he was “sick and tired of being sick and tired” and has now managed to be clean for two months — much to the relief of his mother, whose life had become hell.
“When I came home, I would take off my earrings and put them in my bag,” recalls Rose Radebe, Ephraim’s mother.
“The next day morning they were gone. He would steal from me and even from my mother’s home or the neighbours.
“This thing is destroying the parents even more than the child because every day you feel like: ‘Where did I go wrong?’”
Even though it contains heroin, the drug nyaope is still in the process of being classified as an illegal substance and the government says this has hampered efforts to prosecute cases involving the drug.
There have also been reports of police officers working in cahoots with the dealers.
While nyaope is mostly found in Gauteng Province around Johannesburg, a similar cocktail known as whoonga is available on the streets of Durban and communities in the Western Cape have been ravaged by the drug.
Following the rapid rise in drug addiction, the government has pledged to set up a rehab centre in each of the country’s nine provinces.
“The department is funding a lot of non-profit organisations that are dealing with the drug issues,” says Lumka Oliphant, spokesperson in the Department of Social Development.
“Our communication campaign has heightened, so people know the consequences of drugs and so that our children are educated, as they are the ones the drug dealers are targeting.”
Judging by the speed at which nyaope is spreading among the community, it is abundantly clear that the government’s intervention is woefully inadequate.
Soweto’s main treatment centre is overwhelmed.
“Soweto is a very big area and I have only four social workers,” says Ananias Mbewe, director of the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (Sanca) in Soweto.
“If I had sufficient funds I’d be able to employ new social workers and to retain the ones I have, especially the young ones.”
“We must join hands again substance abuse. It’s a societal problem that affects everybody – the youth, adults. It knows no colour and it knows no gender,” says Mbewe.
Sanca does not offer any in-patient treatment, which makes quitting harder.
“You take the medication there at Sanca and then you go back home and most of your friends are doing nyaope, so you get tempted easily to go back,” one addict tells me.
Realising that sufficient help is not available, Radebe and another recovering addict, Anwar Jones, are helping other addicts to stop smoking nyaope.
They find them where they are smoking or at the rubbish dumps where they look for something to sell to fund the next hit.
“I don’t see myself as a human being,” one young man says as he strips copper wire from an electrical appliance.
“But you are,” shoots back Jones, who has received some free counseling training from the Ubuntu Academy of Coaching and Training, U-ACT.
“And the change can happen. The change will happen. We want to help you get clean, get reconciled with your families and have a better life.”
A “Good Samaritan” has offered Radebe and Jones some support and by engaging help from Narcotics Anonymous, addicts are able to start the difficult road to recovery.
“I don’t want to go to jail. The community should help us, so we can have a rehab for girls,” says Thuli. “I do want to stop but it’s hard for me, it’s really hard.”