Almost a year ago, I had the absolute privilege of being escorted through South Africa’s most notorious urban nightmare.
After the tour, I was asked to write a small piece on it, and I stumbled on it this morning. I felt there would be no better place to share it than here.
Note: A South African Rand (R) is exchanged at about 9.5 to the dollar as of this post.
So here’s an unedited extract from my experiences a year ago:
On that day, of the 200 students involved, not a single one was prepared for what was to come. After a buffet breakfast and a short presentation by the manager of the programme, we were driven by the busload to the Inner city of Johannesburg, inquisitive and fresh. We met the Hillbrow Community Watch guards, people who volunteer to patrol some of the most dangerous locations in South Africa… at night. They were tough, serious, solid people. I felt safer with them in the streets of Joburg than I would feel on my own in any other, significantly safer place. They escorted us through some of the scalier streets in Joburg. We passed a stall selling fake ID books and driver’s licenses. We passed hundreds of thousands of plastic bags. We smelled every smell we deemed possible within a few hours, some assaulting, some nostalgic, some alluring. I recognized old computer cables I thought were extinct, and TV’s the size of a fairly large book were abundant.
The buses were waiting a few kilometres down for the group. Once we all boarded, they drove us to Hillbrow. The very centre of Hillbrow, where the gangs run rampant and decent drivers are scarce. We marched past the Hillbrow clinic, its structural integrity seeming to be on the brink of collapse. We walked past a group of Nigerian gangsters, looking away as they taunted the familiar, antagonistic Hillbrow Watch guards. Eventually, a dead end to the road loomed. Strange characters walked in and out of an enclosed park the size of two tennis courts. Some infants attempted to play soccer in one spot. A lady stared at us from her car with bloodshot eyes from the other side of the road.
Our group of 200 separated into several smaller groups, each climbing through a space in the wall to get inside the park. “Come look at the sea!” screamed a woman in her insanity, pointing out toward the end of the park, where thousands of small plastic packets amalgamated on the grass as it dipped down into a treacherous rolling hill. We walked over the packets, disregarding them as a part of the abundant rubbish that formed the grounds of Hillbrow. The park was strewn with small groups of Nigerian men, all of them smoking something, but not typical cigarettes. They eyed us out, perhaps wondering if these were potential trouble-makers. Individual groups of students were escorted by the Hillbrow watch to some dealers who were willing to talk about the drugs they were selling. A young man came up to us first. He was Zulu. He was well-educated, well spoken for a drug-addict. He claimed to have passed matric. He was no taller than I, and certainly not older than 20. He told us of the drugs.
“I sell drugs so that I have money to buy drugs so that I can live. If I do not smoke it, my body will destroy itself. I will die. I live to smoke, and I smoke to live. That is my life. You cannot escape it.”
He opened up a small plastic packet. Inside was a yellowish block of dust. Everyone jumped in disgust as they realised what they were standing on. Old drug doses, discarded on the floor. “This is 1 shot of heroin. It costs R20 a shot. You need about two shots to get high. Instead of injecting it, we like to put it in cigarette paper and smoke it because it hits you harder and faster.”
He went on to explain more about the drugs, how people steal or beg to find the money to fuel their addiction. “People who would not usually steal or kill will do it for the drug. They have to survive,” he said. “I hate it, it’s a death trap. But I cannot escape the drug.”
We went to the next man willing to speak. An abject, pitiful old man. His beard was overgrown and he used crutches to support his limp leg. He had a decaying pink backpack. He explained that, years ago, Hillbrow was prosperous, nobody was homeless. The drug on the market back then was called brown sugar. It was a less dangerous and less addictive version of heroin. Eventually, brown sugar disappeared and was replaced by heroin, once people smoked it or injected it, according to the old man, within seven days, it would leave your system entirely and you would be addicted, craving more. People were consumed by it and living conditions soon plummeted. Once again he explained the death trap. “When I get up in the morning, before I can move, before I can do anything, I must have 2 shots of heroin, or I cannot function. Then, by 2 o’ clock, it wears off and I need another two shots. If I don’t get them in time then I slow down, I get headaches, I can’t move.” He said that he spends R200 a day fuelling his addiction. He cannot afford rehab tablets or doctor appointments. He is destitute, destroyed by the drugs his body requires to live.
“The drug walks hand in hand with the devil. When you take it, you will do things you can’t do when you are off it. When you need it you are prepared to do anything to get it. I am lucky because I have skills to persuade people to give me money. I can ask the gogo at the market to buy me some food. She will buy it for me, but I will sell it somewhere for cheaper to get money for heroin. I am lucky, but others, they can’t do the same thing, so they steal, they hijack, they find babies to use at robots so people will feel sorry for them and give them cash. They get huge money from that, people give hundreds, fifties, you can make a lot of money that way, but it all goes to drugs.”
The most profound realisation of that day was not the sight of real drugs, or the thousands of spent doses of heroin along the sides of the park, or the young people so close to my age, locked in a battle with death until they faltered or grew too tired to carry on. The greatest surprise was the hatred with which these people spoke of their addictions. They despised the drug, they detested the very thought of heroin, their dependence on it. Their aversion for the drug was powerful, but they had no choice but to take the drug. It is, after all, a true life-or-death addiction.
Makes for a good life-lesson. They always discuss these issues in South Africa – how to reduce poverty, raise the standard of education, create more employment, but this felt like a real issue. The underground heroin-empires of South Africa, preying on those who would try it the first time just to keep the hunger-pangs at bay.
Remember to tell me your thoughts in the comments!