Nokuthula Ndamane’s son, Bonginkosi, both motivates her to beat her drug addiction and is a reflection of how much nyaope has completely taken over her life. The five-year-old lives with Ndamane’s relatives in Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal, hundreds of kilometres from where Ndamane lives in Mayfield Ext 5 in Ekurhuleni, Gauteng.
“I ask myself when he is crying, who is he calling out to? Who is he calling mother? I don’t want him to live the life I was living, I don’t, because I know the pain of growing up without a mother by your side,” she says. “I am a parent. I need help. I want to raise my own child … I haven’t seen him since last of last year when they took him. I talk to him on the phone, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen him.”
Ndamane’s family took Bonginkosi when her addiction to nyaope intensified. By then she had quit school, too. “I don’t want him to grow up with anger, and end up doing drugs with a broken heart because I didn’t raise him, the same way I keep asking why my mother didn’t raise me … Look at my hands … I don’t look like Bonginkosi’s trustworthy mother. I am scared to go and see my child face-to-face now that I look like this. He is not used to me like this. There is a difference between an old photograph of me and a photo taken now,” she says, caressing her charcoal-covered hands.
Ndamane was raised in rural KwaZulu-Natal by her grandmother. Her mother lives in a hostel in Gauteng and she usually discourages Ndamane from visiting because she is afraid she will steal from her or hear negative comments about her from other hostel dwellers.
“I am now 24 years old and I have never received a cake from my mother, but I can’t blame her. I just ask why? I now find myself being that mother who cannot raise her own child even though it’s my wish [to do so] just as I was raised by my grandmother,” she says.
‘The thrill of the high’
Ndamane says she feels her mother has given up on her. She used to buy her methadone – a prescription medication used for heroin recovery – but Ndamane has struggled to quit while still in the same environment that led her on this downward spiral. She lost the mental fight against the drug and its insatiable appetite. Her boyfriend, Bonginkosi’s father, had already progressed to stealing by the time she was trying to quit, and she became consumed by the smell of the vapour when her boyfriend would smoke it around her.
“Obviously I remember the thrill of the high, I can’t sit there and not ask for two pulls. Obviously if I quit, I need to find the right place and live in an environment where I know no one smokes so I can continue with school or find a job … I cannot go to rehab and come back and sit in the township. Sitting is what pressurises us into smoking because you are sitting doing nothing when you are used to hustling,” she says.
“When you kiss it, you marry it,” she says of the stranglehold nyaope has on its users. “Once you taste it, just know you are in … You will never quit … Don’t ever try it because it will destroy your life. It’s easy to go in, you can see the door. But when it’s time to leave, it’s hard because you see a lot of doors and all of them lead you down to one thing.”
Dineo Kitsane, 23, says that when you start smoking nyaope, everyone loves you and they are generous with the drug. “But once you are hooked, when you don’t know what to do, that’s when you must learn to hustle for yourself because you have no choice, everyone is taking their own path.”
Hustling for what is called a “tie” because of the way it is fastened is extremely gendered. Some men steal to make enough for a tie, which costs R25. Women risk their lives and put their bodies on the line for one. Kitsane says they have slept with men to make enough money, but some have taken advantage of them. “As long as his need will be satisfied, whether you will be satisfied has nothing to do with him. I don’t know how many people I have been raped by, they’ve given it [sex] to me by force,” she says.
When Kitsane has tried to lay a charge, the law has disappointed her. “When [we] go to the police to report, we are told we are just nyaopes … Everywhere you try and report, no one takes you seriously. They take you as if you are crazy because you smoke. You go there and say someone did something to me and they won’t pay attention to you. They say, ‘She is a nyaope, she was probably trying to steal.’” Kitsane adds that she is often accused of things she has not even thought of doing.
“The police are expected to serve everyone in the community without discrimination,” said Gauteng provincial police spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Mavela Masondo. “The victims should go back to the station and lay a formal complaint with the station commander. They can also escalate their complaints to the district commissioner.”
Ndamane says she just wants to be treated like a human being. She alleges that the police often beat them. “Why don’t they just take what they want? Why must they beat us? Sifelani (Why are we suffering like this because of drugs)” We are also humans, it’s not that we are not people.”
Ndamane and Kitsane are at a scrapyard weighing the goods they have spent the day roaming around to find, not only to make some money for food but also for a tie. Their last stop before going to the “drug house” is at a tuck shop to buy cigarettes. A man waves at Kitsane dismissively while actively avoiding eye contact. She went to school with him and like most of her former school mates, he can no longer look at her.
“Even when people give us money, they drop it or they leave it on the floor so they don’t have to touch our hands,” says Kitsane. Ndamane adds: “We don’t like looking this dirty, but we don’t have time to shower because we have to keep working.”
Kitsane moved from Pretoria to Mayfield in 2012, where she was living with her grandmother. She only saw her mother at the end of the month. She was a social marijuana smoker, only smoking when it was provided by her circle of friends. A friend offered her two pulls of his nyaope on her 21st birthday, on 28 October two years ago, when she complained that the marijuana wasn’t strong enough. After a while, she smoked because of peer pressure.
“I started smoking because I didn’t see myself as deserving of love … I am a girl, my sister, it’s supposed to be a mother who raises me and teaches me how to wear a pad, but I learned how to put on a pad myself because I lived with my uncles as the only girl,” she says, visibly anguished.
Kitsane says nyaope affects their menstrual cycle and some of her friends have warts and other infections in their vaginal area. “Imagine being a girl and not having your period for three or four years? What does that say about what things are like inside my body? Your womb moves and you end up becoming sick with other things,” she says.
Ndamane says: “We only started this because of problems. We were not receiving love. Some are pressured by their parents. We are at least grateful to have a roof over our heads because some sleep outside or on plastics. Whenever we run away from home, we come here.”
“Here” is a small, cramped shack that they call the “drug house”. Between 15 and 20 men are hunched over, fixated on foil or sleeping. They are the only two girls. Like an umbilical cord, the shack is directly connected to their nyaope dealer’s shack. He is strategically seated on a chair, back resting on the fence, close to the window of the drug house. It’s less than a stone’s throw away.
The yellow shack has no furniture or beds, just a group of people squatting on the floor and looking obsessively for any untouched part of a piece of foil on which to spill the ivory powder before lighting it from underneath, inhaling the vapours and swiftly kicking in the high with a cigarette.
“I sleep here with all these boys, thankfully they are used to me now. I am also grateful that they don’t think of evil things like raping me. They now take me as their sister because we smoke the same thing,” says Ndamane. She is still with her boyfriend and they live together in the drug house. She says they often fall out over nyaope. He is in a black bomber jacket in the sun, asleep on a piece of cardboard.
‘It’s not safe’
Ndamane says they don’t steal, but because they live with men they are at the mercy of community members who take the law into their own hands and act on accusations. Kitsane and Ndamane explain that a few days ago, they lost their friend Themba to a mob beating. He was killed.
“Even where we sleep, it’s not safe. The police can arrive at any time. They can come and kill us and accuse us of stealing or the community can come and burn that shack,” says Kitsane.
Kitsane drifted in and out of her home as nyaope tightened its grip on her life. She used to live with her mother and stepfather, who have six children between them. Kitsane goes back from time to time, to eat when she musters an appetite. She has to stand by the gate and when she is allowed in, the abuse is abundant or “they will remind me of something useless I stole months back and kick me out”.
Breaking down in tears, Kitsane says she picked up the worse-for-wear takkies that she is wearing. “If I had to ask my mother for a shoe, she would say, ‘Dineo, you are too old. Why don’t you go and work so you can buy yourself a shoe?'” she cries.
Her mother has actively encouraged her to find a job so she can afford to rent her own shack and buy food for herself. Before her father died, he left her and her siblings a shack, but she no longer has a room there.
“Imagine, I must sleep in a drug house, on the street, while my father’s friend sleeps in a shack that is meant for me and my siblings,” says Kitsane. “If my father was by my side, he would never allow me to pick up takkies off the street. He would buy me anything I want … Sometimes we are pressurised by our parents to smoke this thing … Once we have smoked, we are free from stress and do not think of anything else,” she says.
Although it is incredibly difficult to quit, the women say they are inspired by others who have overcome the asphyxiating compulsion of the drug. Their friend Simphiwe Gambu now works as a fruit packer in Bapsfontein, but he often comes over quite late after work.
“There are some who used to smoke drugs who are now driving their own cars. They were encouraging us and telling us that it’s up to us,” says Ndamane, adding that she has tried to quit twice but has more impetus because of her son.
She had dreams of being Miss South Africa and modelling for clothing retailers Edgars or Jet. Now she says she wishes to be a metro police officer or a pilot. Kitsane wanted to be a pilot then changed her mind to medicine, but says she lost hope when her mother and stepfather spent her school fees.
“In other countries, they don’t have this drug because other governments can see what this drug does to people. Why didn’t our president fight to get rid of this drug? He can see that this drug is finishing the youth, so many children are dead because of this plastic.
“We are not doing this to ourselves, my sister. When we are rosting it’s difficult because you can even rummage through your mom’s bag, even if you don’t want to, and you only feel the remorse after you have smoked. Like, why did I do that, because I didn’t want to? And now you are scared to go back home because you stole R100 to feed a habit,” says Ndamane.
‘It takes everything’
It’s almost 6pm and the women are doing their last round of hustling. The afternoon high has worn off and they are reaching the “rost” stage. Kitsane describes it as the point at which the craving is unbearable. She complains of having sweats, fatigue, vomiting a blackish-greenish “thing”, painful eyes, a blocked nose, no appetite, coughing and incredibly painful joints. She has fainted many times.
They stand at tuck shops and at traffic lights. They lie and say they want to buy bread.
“This drug, my sister, can even separate you from your family and your loved ones. It takes everything away from you. It takes away your future so you can feed a habit that you don’t even understand, that also has no future,” says Ndamane.
Kitsane chimes in. “It’s like feeding a baby that is not growing, that you can’t even see … It makes you go back [regress]. If I find R1, I don’t think of buying Chappies [bubblegum], I think of adding more to the amount to get to R25. Imagine how long that will take me.”
Ndamane says: “I am smoking drugs, but anyway God can bless me. Life goes on and the wheels turn. One day I will be successful. One day I will proceed, everything will be alright and I will make my child proud of me.”