Crystal meth may have trapped users in crimes, but it is also the fulcrum of an illicit economy that employs hundreds.
Keypads, batteries, touch screens, circuit boards, SIM cards, camera lenses, plastic clips. Lance the cellphone repair guy is scratching through an overstuffed backpack for a missing part. A disembowelled Nokia lies on the coffee table beside him, next to an ashtray, an empty cigarette box and a day-old copy of Die Son. It has just stopped raining. The room is dark. Lance is sweating.
“Speak to that guy,” the owner of the apartment says, pointing at his guest. “He’s one of the tik-koppe. He’s one of the aliens. He smokes every day. He’s fucked up. Look at him.”
I do. Lance, who is 32 years old, has a seeping wound above one eye and straight, greasy hair. He starts fiddling with a screwdriver and acts like he doesn’t hear. Using tik in a community that widely refers to its addicts as “aliens” has hardened him to throwaway insults – and besides, he needs money for his next fix.
“Write what you like about me,” he mutters, prizing open another phone. “I don’t care. People must know what’s going on.”
Two days later Lance, who has been using tik for 14 years, takes me with him to score drugs.
We enter Hangberg’s informal settlement, and find five boys huddled at the doorway of a wooden bungalow. Lance hands one of them R30 and he receives a small packet of white crystals, which he slides into a pocket. Lance winks at me.
“Now we go smoke.”
Crystal methamphetamine – known locally as tik for the popping sound the crystals make when smoked – has had a massive impact in the Western Cape since the early 2000s, when it became widely available on the streets. Researchers have linked its arrival to the activities of Chinese-organised criminal groups, who began bartering its ingredients with local gangs in exchange for poached abalone, a delicacy in the Far East. Within a few years the drug had eclipsed mandrax and marijuana as the low-cost drug of choice on the Cape Flats and beyond.
According to research by the South African Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use, which monitors addiction trends among patients receiving treatment at specialist centres, the drug has become the most frequently reported substance of abuse in the Western Cape, with nearly 28% of users at 32 clinics listing it as their primary addictive substance in 2013. This represents a precipitous increase from less than 3% of patients just 10 years before, indicating the remarkably sudden onset of a new drug epidemic. (See graphic on Page 26)
A cheap and highly addictive stimulant, tik abuse has become particularly rife among the province’s coloured population, contributing to what the South African Medical Research Council (MRC) considers one of the highest methamphetamine addiction rates in the world. Its main short-term effects are increased energy, confidence and libido, accompanied by elevated blood pressure, body temperature and heart rate. Addiction can set in disturbingly quickly, resulting in cravings and increases in physiological tolerance. Other effects are weight loss and psychosis.
In Hout Bay’s impoverished Hangberg fishing community, tik has destroyed families, trapped children in addiction cycles and fuelled waves of criminal activities by cash-strapped users chasing their next fix. Yet it has also become the fulcrum of a powerful illicit economy that employs hundreds of people, operating in parallel to a hostile formal job market and exacerbating drug use trends by offering dealers a meaningful form of income.
Joseph (whose name I have changed), a former merchant, told me that he sold drugs in Hangberg for seven years, but quit when his conscience got the better of him.
“It’s an easy industry to get into,” he explained, sitting on a broken armchair in his home.
“And it’s a good way to make money. When I started dealing I didn’t see at it as damaging my community, like I do now. It was just a job opportunity, and the kids had to eat.”
At first Joseph sold marijuana, mandrax, crack cocaine and heroin, only stocking tik after his customers started requesting it.
Instead of mandrax
“The market changed quickly,” he said. “Tik became the popular thing. I don’t know why it happened – it was like a trend, you know? All the kids began using it instead of mandrax, which is what my generation smoked growing up.”
By 2006 he was buying the drug wholesale from suppliers on the Cape Flats, adding a mark-up of nearly R100 a gram, which sounds like good money until you consider the range of costs merchants incur.
“A dealer never eats alone. From that R100 I must pay my driver. I must pay the guy at the safe house for storing my stuff. And then there are the boys who sit outside all day, actually selling the drugs.”
In all, Joseph said he directly employed four people through his illicit business, as well as six more downstream. He estimated that the 15 merchants currently operating in Hangberg collectively employ at least 150 people – a big number for a small, tight-knit community that has increasingly turned to illegal crayfish and abalone poaching for income in the absence of viable jobs in the commercial fishing industry.
“Kids these days are very materialistic,” said Juan Julies, headmaster of Hout Bay High School.
“They know that their chances of getting a well-paid job after school are small because they live amid such widespread unemployment. They want the shoes, the bling, the lifestyle. And the merchants make it easy for them to join the trade.”
A short distance from the school, Hout Bay Community Awareness Rehabilitation Education Services (Cares) offers some addicts hope.
Housed in the local clinic, a utilitarian facebrick and plaster building where people queue patiently to see doctors, dentists and social workers, Cares represents a partnership between nonprofit organisation Faces and Voices of Recovery (Favor) and the Western Cape departments of health and social development. Since opening its doors in 2011, the centre has treated more than 500 patients, the majority of whom have been addicted to tik.
Patients enter an intensive four-week programme on an outpatient basis, focusing mainly on lifestyle changes, education about dependencies and triggers, and training to avoid relapses.
“It’s about giving users practical tools to get their lives back,” explained Jurgens Smit, chief executive of Favor South Africa.
“And it works. Our experience is that recovery is real.”
Laminated motivational posters
Sitting in a bright blue room with laminated motivational posters stuck to the walls – “Expect a miracle”, “Recovery is beautiful”, “Staying clean is a choice” – Josephine (whose name I have changed), a matronly mother of four wearing hoop earrings and a loose patterned shirt, told me about her own journey of recovery.
“I was among the first tik users in Hout Bay,” she said, “and I quickly became one of the worst. People wouldn’t let their kids anywhere near me. I spent my days with gangsters and merchants, getting high.”
After being arrested for shoplifting and losing custody of her two eldest children, she began trying to quit, but fell back to her old habits each time.
Nearly 15 years after starting to use drugs – mandrax and marijuana, in addition to tik – she joined Cares in 2012 after a friend convinced her that she needed help.
“I came here knowing that I’d had enough,” she said.
“I didn’t want to use drugs any more. But I didn’t think that anyone would be able to help me.”
Now, after two years clean, she works full time for Cares as a trained facilitator, assisting incoming patients with treatment. By the end of this year she hopes to have qualified as a fully fledged therapist.
But for each inspiring narrative of recovery, how many tik users remain yoked to the cycle of addiction?
I asked Professor Bronwyn Myers, chief specialist scientist at the MRC’s alcohol, tobacco and other drug research unit, how adequate treatment facilities were for coping with the province’s tik epidemic.
“There are a number of options in marginalised communities,” she explained over the telephone, “but not nearly enough. A few nongovernmental organisations run treatment programmes, the City of Cape Town has a network of outpatient centres, and there are three inpatient clinics run by the provincial government, although it’s difficult to get into these as they have extremely long waiting lists.”
But it was pointless investing in extra treatment capacity without addressing the root causes of substance abuse, she said.
“Treatment is important, but so is dealing with structural factors like poverty and unemployment. Many patients leave rehab only to find that their lives are the same outside, and it’s very easy for them to start using again. I don’t think it’s a question of throwing more money at treatment. We need to focus on the full picture.”
“In here,” Lance says, ducking through a dark doorway. There are broken concrete slabs on the floor and an ancient photograph of a pin-up girl on one wall. Lance sits on a crate and unzips his jacket pocket.
He bites a hole in the corner of the packet, sprinkles the powder into the bulb-shaped end of his plastic pipe, and places the stem between his lips. The crystals make a soft crackling noise as they melt. He breathes out and his face vanishes in white mist. “I feel lekker now,” he tells me, drumming on his thighs.
“I feel like I can do anything. I’m going to fix some cellphones.
“You know, I never knew how to fix anything before – I learnt from smoking tik. Your brain tells you that you can do something and then you just do it, like that.”
He snaps his fingers. His pupils are black discs. “But now I need to go find more money.”
“What will you do afterwards?” I ask. He laughs.
“Buy more tik.”
Kimon de Greef is a freelance writer who lives in Cape Town. Follow him on @dj_kimon