South Africa

Maverick Citizen: Op-ed

Treating substance abuse — less than the cost of tik 

Treating substance abuse — less than the cost of tik 
The liquor store in Pacaltsdorp.(Photo: Supplied)

Earlier in 2020 Maverick Citizen carried a feature on the efforts of the Smoking & Alcohol Harms Alleviation & Rehabilitation Association, an NGO based in George, to combine activism, treatment literacy and registered medical treatments to overcome substance abuse in the community.

In this interview, Thembinkosi Matahwa, advocacy co-ordinator for Smoking & Alcohol Harms Alleviation & Rehabilitation Association (Sahara) and a resident of Thembalethu, explains why methamphetamine is the most problematic substance in the community.

In the communities of Thembalethu and Conville, outside George, substance use poses a major threat to safety and security. Sahara has a strategy to try to overcome this, explained in this video produced by Maverick Citizen. Users of illicit substances such as methamphetamine (tik) often turn to violent crime in order to acquire money to buy substances. Inebriated youth walking home at night become easy targets for robbery, or become victims of pedestrian-vehicle collisions.

“From about 2008 going up, tik became popular, and serious violence started to happen in Thembalethu” says Matahwa.

He points across the street.

“Tik is accessible to anyone. You can go to any corner. If you see a barber shop, you know that there are drugs there.”

The paranoiac behaviour of tik users has earned them the nickname “amapara-para”, and their rapid movements and wide, staring eyes make them easily identifiable.

According to Matahwa, substance use often starts in primary school, with children as young as 10 falling prey to marijuana, Mandrax, and methamphetamine. Local schools find themselves increasingly referring children for substance use treatment. Government facilities are overwhelmed and ill-equipped to manage youth substance use disorder. The onus falls upon local NGOs, such as Ithemba Lobomi and Sahara to provide treatment and support to those affected and their families.

Matahwa explains that young substance users pose a significant safety threat to the community. They loiter on street corners after dark, armed with knives and pangas, robbing passers-by and assaulting those who resist. In recent years, high school children have been forming gangs and fighting territory wars, with illicit substances playing a large role in the youth gang culture.

The police are of no help — struggling under an enormous burden of community crime, they are making no progress on curbing the distribution of drugs in Thembalethu. The community sometimes resorts to mob justice to solve their problems.

Matahwa describes a harrowing incident he witnessed, in which two substance users were killed by a mob in front of the police station after committing crimes while high. He says that the community has been trying to find ways to police itself by using a neighborhood watch system with some success, but they don’t have the power to take down the extensive drug supply chain in the community.

Justin Prins* and Denver Lewis* are recovering substance users at one of Sahara’s support groups. They describe, first-hand, how substances drive crime and gangsterism in Conville.

“My friend got me into drugs when I was 17. I was only smoking cigarettes then, and he told me I must use the stuff he was using,” says Justin. He wrings his hands to keep them from shaking — he is withdrawing from multiple substances and Sahara’s medication is just taking the edge off.

“I know my friends would steal from their own mothers to get money for drugs.”

Justin is unemployed, but is hoping that he will be able to keep a job once he breaks through his substance use disorder. He is looking forward to a better relationship with his family once his treatment is successful. Maybe he’ll even be able to have a girlfriend. The obstacles on his road to recovery are immense. His friends are exerting enormous pressure on him to return to the habit and he has no work or hobbies to distract him from his cravings. With effortless access to substances in the community it would be all too easy — for R20 he can buy a hit at a nearby dealer at any time.

Denver started using substances after his uncle died when he was a teenager, but he is 27 now and ready to stop. He was initially only using marijuana, but he soon started drinking heavily and using multiple other substances. He describes weeping when he first used methamphetamine because he understood the consequences — he had seen it happen to others before.

“You can get tik just about anywhere,” he says, identifying several nearby spaza shops and intersections with dealers. “It’s so easy —before I came here, I was smoking every day, my sister,” he tells me.

Denver is now two months sober and smiling, but he paints a grim picture of his past.

“I robbed people many times to get money for tik. It wasn’t hard. I robbed people’s homes, and people on the street — that’s even easier.”

He describes threatening passers-by with knives to persuade them to part with their valuables and cash. “That’s what tik does to a person.”

Methamphetamine drove him further and further into a life of crime and gangs.

“It’s a particular feeling. When you’re high, it feels like you’re floating, you can’t feel your feet on the ground. And as time passes, it gets harder and harder for you to get that feeling again.”

He is covered in tattoos, and explains that they symbolise his past deeds and strength in his gang.

“Tik and gangs — they go together.”

Denver’s home life is fraught with difficulties as he is trying to provide for his child as a single father. He left his girlfriend and took over their child’s care when he found out that she was a sex worker and was abusing the Child Support Grant. Prostitution is common in his community, and he reveals a shocking trend: substance users forcing their girlfriends into prostitution in order to fund their habit.

“People are desperate, do you understand? And there are no other jobs.”

Denver is confident that with the help of Sahara’s medication and support groups, he will be able to stop using substances for good and regain control over his life. The sedative medication he is taking is helping to minimise his withdrawal symptoms.

Both Justin and Denver are on the road to recovery, but they say there are more — many more — young people like themselves who are captured in a cycle of drugs, crime, and poverty. Denver offers to show me around the neighbourhood and point out what he knows is happening: drugs, sex work, and crime. He promises that no harm will come to me as long as I’m with him.

“But I don’t know if you have the heart to see that,” he says.

I nod, but don’t take up the offer. It’s hard to admit it, but I think he is right. MC

*Pseudonyms were used to protect identity.

Emlyn Allwright is a medical student at the University of Cape Town, with a special interest in journalism.

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