Welcome to Nyaope Street

2014-09-07 15:00

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It’s a sunny Tuesday morning in Mamelodi, a township northeast of Pretoria. Thirty young men and women huddle behind a brick maker’s shop, along the rat-infested dirt section of a lane near a church, a shebeen and a scrapyard.

The youths, all shabbily dressed, roll joints and use tinfoil to scrape the off-white powdery street drug nyaope off the tiny piece of plastic it’s rolled in.

Welcome to Nyaope Street, so named by those who live there because the highly addictive drug sells faster than the wares of nearby tuck shops and street vendors.

The 150m-long street with no official name is home to one of the notorious drug dens that have proliferated since the early noughties, when nyaope – a mixture of heroin, rat poison, dagga and sometimes antiretroviral drugs – was first sold in the township.

Mamelodi, which has the distinction of being the home of the late struggle hero Solomon Mahlangu, also has the unenviable title as the township most ravaged by this drug. Four out of five households have at least one member addicted to it, says local anti-drug group Thandanani.

Mamelodi’s Solomon Mahlangu Freedom Square has also fallen foul of the drug’s users, who have stolen cement and building equipment to fund their addiction. Curiously, the bronze statue of Mahlangu remains untouched.

On that Tuesday morning, the young people crouch, engrossed in their hand-rolled cigarettes. When City Press approaches, they stand, alarmed, only lowering their guard when we are introduced by Edgar Masuku, coordinator of the Stanza Bopape Health and Community Development Centre.

They are too ashamed to be named, wishing to spare their families further embarrassment, but they are willing to be photographed.

A tiny 35-year-old woman who looks easily two decades older, known to the rest as Big Mama, sucks the powdery drug through a marijuana joint before striking a match and resting her back against the brick wall, inhaling as if it’s her first breath.

“We need to go look for something to sell because this is our last hit,” she says to a 22-year-old man waiting his turn to smoke.

She curses photographer Leon Sadiki for taking pictures and staggers to a nearby dump to scavenge for something to sell.

By the next day, she has returned with her bounty from the dump and opens up about her 10-year addiction.

Born in Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, she moved to Gauteng in 2000 to look for work and found a job as a cleaner at a hotel. Like many of her fellow addicts, she has been to rehabilitation twice, but cannot kick the nyaope habit. She’s desperate to stop, but says the addiction is “stronger than any will to quit”.

“I had a nice job, found a nice man and life was good. That was until I experimented with nyaope,” she says, smashing a hammer into the bases of used fluorescent light bulbs to get to the copper and zinc she sells for R70.

Her eyes well up with tears as she speaks of her seven-year-old son.

“He doesn’t recognise me. He refuses to call me his mother and refers to me as a zombie. He lives with his father,” she says, before swallowing the lump in her throat and taking another drag.

Moshe Mahlangu (33), the only addict willing to be named, sits next to the scrapyard’s entrance. An addict for eight years, he says he dreads rehabilitation because of the agony of withdrawal.

“The minute you wake up in the morning, your body only wants nyaope. And when you are out, you will almost do anything to get it. Your stomach hurts so bad it’s as if one person is holding your intestines pulling from the front, while another is pulling from the back, and they are both slicing tiny pieces of your insides, and pulling again and again,” he says, his words accompanied by wild gestures.

The 30-year-old dreadlocked man next to him laughs in agreement. He hasn’t bathed in a week, and asks us to return the next day when he has washed and is wearing clean clothes. Only then will he speak to us.

Some Nyaope Street addicts, and others in the neighbourhood, are smart young people who once held down good jobs.

Thokozani* (29), an electrical engineer, boasts of how he used to be trusted to manage power substations in Gauteng. But a few months after the tall, bespectacled man began smoking nyaope, he lost interest in everything.

“I left my job and went straight to my dealer. I never went back to work. When you’re addicted to nyaope, you can’t hold down a job. You want nyaope all the time because your body needs it.”

Thokozani has just returned from a six-month stint in rehabilitation and relapsed out of “boredom”.

“My family doesn’t have any idea I smoked nyaope again. They think I am still recovering, sitting at home.”

Nyaope Street’s addicts share many traits – from greying, aged skin, lack of hygiene and their ingenuity when it comes to finding the R30 to R40 they need for a “fix”. All admit to having stolen or doing “bad things” to feed their addiction – anything from cutlery from home to part of the 100m fence that was stolen from the Stanza Bopape centre last year.

Almost every neighbour said they’d lost valuables – from shoes to wheelbarrows.

Marumo*, their dealer, is himself an addict. He is adamant he won’t stop because “if I go, someone else will take my place and this is big money”.

He earns R2?500 a day. His stock is dropped off daily, he says, from his “Nigerian supplier”, who lives in Johannesburg. He won’t elaborate.

“Once I’ve reached my target, I go home – whether it’s 11 in the morning or 7 in the evening. People come to me. I don’t force them to smoke,” he says, pulling a fistful of the drug out of his pocket and walking away to a corner to smoke.

Residents and local community workers believe the recent criminalisation for possession of the drug – which carries a hefty fine or up to 15 years in jail – has not stemmed the tide.

Nyaope Street resident Lebo Maoka (34), mother of two teenage boys, rarely lets her children out of her sight, fearing they will be pressured into smoking the drug. She has helped many addicts enter rehabilitation programmes run by NGOs, but all have relapsed.

“I am losing all hope. Every day these kids come to me for help. I connect them to local programmes, but they always go back to their old ways. These kids can’t live like this,” she says.

Her neighbour Amos Maefadi, disillusioned after trying in vain to help many Nyaope Street addicts, blames the drug’s rise on a “disconnected” community.

“The future of this community and this country is doomed, unless we do something. Police must play their part. It is pointless arresting addicts and dealers, just to see them go free an hour later. The community must take the blame because we allowed nyaope to sink into our area for too many years, and now it might be too late to save some of these kids,” he says.

Like many of his neighbours, Maefadi, who sells sweets and cigarettes outside his yard, sleeps with one eye open.

“They stole my braai stand, garden equipment and steel chairs a few years ago while I was sleeping,” he says.

Grace Masangu, wife of Pastor JJ at the nearby St Philip the Apostle Church, holds her hands up to the sky and asks God to intervene.

“I have seen schoolchildren smoking before the bell rings. Those who are not attending school cause the trouble. They are like rats.”


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