Maverick Citizen


Dark cloud of drug abuse hangs over schoolchildren in Soweto

Dark cloud of drug abuse hangs over schoolchildren in Soweto
Children walk past wall paintings of Nelson Mandela in Soweto. (Photo: EPA / Kim Ludbrook)

South Africa faces a growing problem of substance abuse and addiction, especially among young people. This includes alcohol and a growing range of drugs. In Gauteng, this has been identified as a priority issue by Premier Panyaza Lesufi. Yet despite this, there are surprisingly few programmes, people and accredited facilities to tackle the problem. In this series, Maverick Citizen sets out to hear from young people themselves, as well as teachers, parents and carers.

Part One

The saying, “it takes a village to raise a child”, doesn’t really apply if the villagers are giving children drugs to use or sell at schools and in the community. 

With newer and cheaper drugs widely available on the streets, parenting is becoming more difficult. It’s not like in the old days, where we were told drugs are only sold by criminals. Today, you find young children pretending to be high on drugs. This is because they see their brothers and sisters crushing and smoking drugs in their presence.

Children are getting pregnant, but no one ever seems to know who is impregnating them. Boys start to smoke drugs at the age of 12, but no one knows who is selling to them.

There are gambling tables in our streets, where children play dice and smoke drugs. Children as young as six or eight years old are growing up inspired by seeing their brothers, smoking and gambling in the streets, as if it’s a good thing to do.

Drugs are easy to access; young dealers are selling on each and every corner with no questions asked. Some children swap their prescribed medication for drugs, taking them with soft drinks and drowning themselves in that mixture.

Having witnessed all of this in my Soweto neighbourhood, I went out to talk to these children and their families. This is what I found.

Sixteen-year-old Lwandle (not his real name) is from Pimville, Soweto. He told me he started to sniff glue when he heard his friends talking about how glue made them feel excited. As time went on, they began to smoke marijuana.

“It started by wanting to feel what that glue tasted like. My mother gives me R20 for lunch every day, but that day I bought glue. I was too shy to buy it so I asked one of my friends to buy it for me. We went to a park where my friend poured the glue into the empty milk carton.

“He showed me how to sniff it. I vomited instantly because of its horrible smell. I went dizzy… I wanted to sleep there but I had to go to school.”

Lwandle said by the time he got to school he was high. He felt happy, talkative and was annoying other children in the class. His friends gave him water and sweets and told him they would calm him down. But they didn’t help, and he found himself at the principal’s office.

“After some time, my friends and I started to smoke marijuana. It got worse because I started disrespecting my mother, demanding more money from her. I sold my uncle’s watch just to have money to impress my friends.

“Then one day my mother found marijuana in my school bag. Yho! I won’t forget that day… my mother was deadly angry! She asked me to show her where I bought it or she would send me back home to the rural area. It was difficult… if I took my mother to my friends that are selling marijuana I would put my life and hers in danger. But to attend school back home in the rural area is another story.”

Because his mother didn’t want her only son to be on drugs, she took him back home. Lwandle said he was only 13 and that it was a very difficult year. He missed his mother and his uncles were tough on him. After school he had to show them his books and explain the day’s lessons. The following year he was back in Soweto, more disciplined and respectful.

Lwandle is grateful to his family for their support in getting him off drugs. He is not smoking any more and says he loves his mother very much.

Rescued in time

“Drugs… it’s easy to get them here at Hlakotsa Street – right at that corner house is where we’re getting them. Everyone knows they have been selling them for years. Nyaope is a very dangerous drug… one smoke of it and your life is gone!’’ said 15-year-old Sandile Nxumalo.

He said he was lucky because his parents pulled him out of the drug scene in time. They noticed he had lost his appetite and had begun to smell bad – “drugs have their own smell”.

When he was high, he would fight his siblings and take their belongings, like phones and earrings, to sell.

Nxumalo said his father called the cops one day and he was taken to the police station. One officer told him they would take him to a juvenile prison and nobody would trust him after that. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Nyaope Boys — ‘There is one way in; your way out, it’s only when you are dead’

He was told his family and friends would distance themselves from him and treat him like a thug.

Those words changed his life. He promised his family he wouldn’t smoke again. But it was tough to get the drugs out of his system. He was rehabilitated at home and his father asked the church congregation to pray for him. He was embarrassed… Everyone knew he had been locked inside the house because of drugs.

“The painful thing is that the community still treats me like a drug smoker,” he said.

Selling drugs at school

Melusi Zondi (17), not his real name, is from Diepkloof, Soweto. He started by smoking marijuana and cigarettes. Then he was introduced to crystal meth, but only smoked it for a short period because he was getting sick after he smoked it.

“The reason why I’m not smoking marijuana any more is because I’m selling it at school. Ungadli is’toko mawudayisa ” (You can’t sell and smoke at the same time”).

“I’m selling Rizla rolling paper, marijuana and matches. It’s not that difficult to sell at school, because we created our own smoking zones. Teachers don’t go to those zones because they don’t know about them. My duty is to be in those zones before we go to our classes in the morning. Also, at lunchtime, it’s selling time.

“It’s easy to make a business at school… when I’m running out of stuff, I can call friends who are schooling next to my school. We just exchange the money at the fence… we are working together.’’

Zondi said now that he is an adult, there are some things he needs that his parents can’t afford.

“To be a man, you can’t always be running to your parents if you want something. Things are expensive out there, so their parents are always telling them about saving money. Or waiting for their stokvel to pay them.”

Zondi says he needs to make money to have good clothes and a good phone. Also, at school, the girls don’t want a boy that has got a poor style. When he is high on drugs, he feels like he owns the world; a feeling that he can’t explain.

“Some people I know are selling dangerous drugs in our community. Me, I’m only selling marijuana… it’s just a plant that you can get easily.”

Zondi says it is not difficult to bring drugs into the school.

“When we are approaching the school gate, I give my bag to my friend. I go first to be checked that I don’t have knives or drugs. When they’re done checking my pockets, I go into the schoolyard and my friends throw my bag over the fence. Then everything is good… I start selling.

“It’s not a good thing to sell drugs, but there is nothing I can do. Money is life. If you don’t have money, you will end up stealing other people’s stuff. I won’t sell drugs for the rest of my life… when I finish school I will leave this nonsense.”

Pimville teacher Sandile Ndlela (45) said it’s difficult to stop children from using drugs:

“We teach them about the dangers of drugs, but after school they’re going back to the communities where people are smoking drugs publicly. School children are coming with drugs to school every day, no matter if we can check their pockets and school bags. 

“Also, it’s not safe for the teachers. Some students were threatening us that if we took their weapons or drugs, they will wait for us after school.

“The police try to visit the schools unexpectedly and confiscate drugs, weapons and other stuff that are not allowed to be in the schoolyard. But the following day, our children will come with drugs,’’ said Ndlela.

He said parents, police and communities need to stand together to save South Africa from the scourge of drugs.

“It’s not about waiting for the government to help us, but it’s about working together to keep our world clean of drugs.” DM/MC


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