Fire*, the baby-faced hustler, appears grinning in the doorway of a cramped, dank room made of corrugated iron and chipboard. He wears a maroon jersey, tattered blue jeans and dusty Adidas running shoes, and a tiny piece of beige plastic torn off a shopping packet is wrapped around his index finger.
Inside the plastic is nyaope, the white powdery street drug that has caused a lifetime of heartache for its users – and those around them.
Fire’s declaration about his complicated relationship with nyaope draws a roomful of laughter from his friends and fellow users in this backyard shack in Snake Park, in Doornkop, west of Johannesburg.
Nyaope is more often than not ingested in such desperate surrounds. In a world where your employment status determines the kind of white powder you consume, it is nyaope that finds itself at the bottom of the pile.
It’s a crude concoction of low-grade heroin cut with anything from rat poison to chlorine, but which the Drugs and Trafficking Act defines as the combination of cannabis and heroin.
And, in places like Snake Park, it is the drug of choice. Here, trees and natural vegetation never stood a chance. A few days before, a local girl was raped and murdered, her body dumped near the school she attended. The maze of unnamed roads is symbolic of the uncertainty that troubles its young residents – uncertainty about a future that holds little prospect of gainful employment and where hope comes in small doses. But the nyaope is plentiful. And we are here to smoke.
The plastic from Fire’s hand is carefully unwrapped to reveal a tiny heap of off-white powder. Another pair of hands gently off-loads the powder on to a shard of clean broken glass, the size of a palm. A matching piece of glass is placed on top of the powder, which act as a grinder. The fingers of each hand hold the pieces of glass together, while the wrists swivel back and forth until the powder reaches a fine state.
Meanwhile, a piece of cigarette paper and the cannabis, or dagga, are prepped. The powder is then meticulously dusted off the glass to fall along the line of dagga before being rolled up, the edges licked with a flourish.
A hush of anticipation fills the room. Bloodshot eyes are trained on the joint of salvation that everyone is now craving. The tension is almost palpable.
“Guys, this thing is killing us!” Fire belts out a plea that annihilates the silence. “I’m not asking for myself. I’m asking for all of the guys who are smoking this thing. In our community, too many people are crying.”
It’s a plea that becomes a constant refrain of the many nyaope users we meet in Snake Park.
Just before we sat down to smoke, Fire was fast approaching his breaking point. It was almost 11am and he had not had his drug yet. His mouth was dry. He was edgy, snapping at those around him. The pain from cramps in his stomach had become unbearable. His face was distorted and his winning smile was nowhere to be seen. But a drag of nyaope changed all of that.
“That’s the heroin withdrawal.” Cathy Vos from the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence is all too familiar with the signs. “If you have ever watched the movie Basketball Diaries, [the character played by a young] Leonardo DiCaprio is kept in a room and forced to stay clean in order to kick the habit. That is what heroin does, and this is what is contained in nyaope. It’s terrible to see, but the withdrawals from heroin are the worst.”
It is the withdrawal – the cramps, nausea, mood swings and aggression – that makes nyaope so addictive. A user is terrified of having to deal with the feelings of anxiety and physical pain, so the only possible cure available is another hit, and then another one, and another one after that.
‘Feels like getting healed’ “It’s coming now,” says Neo, whose day job involves stealing cellphones and anything else he can get his hands on. “I can feel it. I’m getting high now. It feels like I’m getting healed … I’m healing. The stomach cramps are going away. You can’t go a day without smoking this stuff. You can’t survive a day.”
At 24, Neo* has already been smoking nyaope for seven years. “I was 17 years old. After school we used to go behind the pub and play there. Then one day this guy from Dobsonville introduced me to nyaope.”
For seven years, Neo’s life has been defined by his need to smoke nyaope. He steals to pay for his habit.
“It has changed me a lot. Even my own mother is scared of me. She can’t stand me,” Neo says as his eyes glaze over, not from the sorrow he feels at this moment, but from the nyaope high. “I’m going to stop now-now … any day now. Any day I’m going to stop smoking nyaope. I just wish there was something to make the pain go away.”
Users are generally glassy-eyed, reclusive and cliquey. Smoking it gives them “power”, they say, to take on the day’s challenges of finding enough money to afford the next hit.
The drug emerged in the 2000s in the Pretoria townships of Soshanguve, Mamelodi and Atteridgeville, according to the justice department. But it was only recently criminalised, closing a loophole in the Drugs and Trafficking Act that allowed nyaope dealers and users to avoid jail time.
Essentially, you could be arrested for the possession of dagga and heroin, core ingredients in nyaope, but the concoction itself was never classified, meaning you couldn’t be arrested for nyaope.
It has been classified under law since April this year. In fact, any drug concoction such as purple drank (prescription-strength cough syrup mixed with cooldrinks such as Sprite or Mountain Dew), crunk (cough syrup and prescription pills), cheese heroin (heroin and cold medicines like Tylenol PM) and GHB (a combination of paint-stripper/pesticide called GBL and caustic soda) is illegal under the new amendment.
“The problem is that a lot of these kids are not at school, and they are unemployed,” says Thapelo Moloia, the spokesperson for Gauteng Community Safety, the government department that pushed for the new amendment, who is upbeat about it.
Rehab or youth camps
“The kids we have arrested are sent to rehab or to youth camps, where we teach them a skill, like sound engineering or beauty therapy. But nyaope is so addictive that often many of them go straight back to the drug when they are released.”
The combination of a recently outlawed but highly addictive drug and poor law enforcement is problematic in places like Snake Park. For some users, the new law is just another stick for cops to beat them with.
“Police? Ah, police, they don’t catch us, my friend. They come, we give them money, they go. That’s how it works here in the location, you see,” says Thabiso, aka “Rocky”.
He’s a nyaope dealer and, unusually for a drug dealer, he’s addicted to his own product. The typical runny nose and agitated behaviour are a dead giveaway.
Rocky admits to selling nyaope to children as young as 13 years old. His merchandise comes from the “Nigerians” in central Jo’burg.
“It’s like I’m working. I go to town. I come back by 11. I sell to the guys until late. Tomorrow I’ll go to town again.”
According to Moloia, the nyaope trade is handled by a new breed of entrepreneur. “It’s not the same guys who are selling cocaine or dagga. These are new kids on the block.”
Nyaope dealers like Rocky are exploiting a new gap in the market that hasn’t been touched by the cocaine and dagga trade.
He supports his young family with his earnings of around R300 to R600 a day.
Thenjiwe*, who is 24, has been smoking nyaope for nearly 10 years. She doesn’t live in Snake Park but smokes nyaope there. She doesn’t come from a poor background but the drug and the people she associates with it have an inescapable hold on her.
“My mother is a contractor so I go with her wherever she goes. They work on RDP houses and roads. She also has other businesses, selling eggs, atchar and other things from home.”
Thenjiwe’s addiction has removed her from a world she once knew, or even aspired to. She pauses for a moment to light her second joint of the day. Her speech slows down as the nyaope takes effect. She breathes in deeply and her eyes almost immediately glaze over. She loses her train of thought and then stops to adjust her clothes.
Thenjiwe’s clean white skirt and black jersey make her stand out among her peers. She’s a lot more conscious of her appearance – for now. But, as the day wears on, her hair becomes unkempt, and her shoes and skirt gather dust.
She has chosen a bright red nail polish but even that doesn’t mask how nyaope has slowly taken its toll.
“I no longer do the things I used to do. I’m always indoors smoking nyaope. I try to get some, I go buy it, and then I stay inside. I no longer go outside. I no longer see the world.”
* Not their real names
Adrian Ephraim is the online news editor for the Mail & Guardian.Follow him on @adrianephraim
• To view the video go to mg.co.za/nyaope