The late Alexander Shulgin, “the godfather of ecstasy”, was more than just a Harvard-educated chemist with a penchant for MDMA. Over the course of his long, trippy life, he methodically documented his more than 4 000 doses of psychedelic drugs and bioassayed hundreds of distinct psychoactive compounds, many of them falling in the realm of what we generally label ecstasy.
In the undulating ghettoes of Durban, his legacy of experimentation lives on – albeit a little more loosely – among a generation of youth who may have never heard his name.
Over the course of the past 30 years or so, parts of Inanda, about 20km northwest of Durban, replaced their expansive shanty towns and peri-urban characteristics with dense swaths of unseemly RDP houses. In many cases, these encroach on the townships and former villages from within as opposed to expanding their boundaries. To the eye, at least, this heightens the claustrophobia and competitiveness that come with incessant urbanisation.
The almost wilfully low-budget aesthetic of gqom – Durban’s sound of the underground – perhaps sonically represents this reality. Whereas the best of Durban kwaito production is sleek, with lyrics suggesting upwardly mobility, gqom is loopy, lo-fi and off-beat, sounding exactly like the pervasive nihilism it sometimes documents.
In the Sbucardo-produced song u Ma ka Girl, a baritone-voiced Bhejane describes waking up penniless and goes to do some gardening in the Indian township of Chatsworth. But the house’s owner only gives him R10 instead of the R1 000 he’s demanding. Frustrated, he heads back home, to an unnamed township. Once there, he doggedly starts coercing his baby’s mother (who earns an income grant) to spare him R40 so he can at least get his hands on a R50 pill. The playful nonchalance in the voices of Bhejane and his cohort Bhizer belies the desperate circumstances they cinematically depict.
Although the genre has no direct relation to the drug scene (in terms of patrons), as one ecstasy dealer put it, it’s just a contemporary style within which young black kids are enjoying themselves.
‘Just a black version’
“With other forms of music you just won’t enjoy qoh [ecstasy] anymore, it kind of has to be gqom,” a dealer says to me one evening from his small earthen yard, with about 20 people dancing to a fresh batch of gqom MP3 files blaring in the background. “White people were taking drugs since way back, in their own clubs, listening to their own kind of music. This is just a black version of that.”
In the city and township venues where the genre has taken root, one quickly develops a sense of the scale of pill-popping in the metropolis.
KwaMapiwane is a club in one of the many “ghetto” sections of Inanda. “Ghetto”, in this case, refers to shantytowns that have been transformed into favela-like hill-scapes by the reach of the government’s RDP housing project.
The “club”, if one can call it that, is basically a large room (about the size of three “matchbox” houses) made of concrete blocks.
The vibe is dark, yet engulfing and electric. Inside, there are a few couches and chairs arranged close to the perimeter walls. A tangle of rope lights washes the club in purplish blues and neon greens. Much of the space is given over to dancing, which happens to a seamless but nonlinear mix of gqom and tribal house tracks.
By about 1pm, with people in various stages of euphoria and paranoia, a tall, thickset woman named Phiwo* stands out among the crowd. Her dancing is intensely physical, bordering on violent as she picks and lets go of partners at whim. She glistens with sweat and chews gum intently. She partners up with a few people, overpowering them with her size and emotion. She kisses and licks a female stranger who gently fobs her off. She then humps a sitting male reverse cowgirl style before being temporarily dragged away by her embarrassed sister.
The next night, at the central town Club 101, where patrons dance emotively to gqom and house on twin dance floors that stay packed until the morning light, I met Qhawe*. He had been topping up his high since the night before and came from one of the neighbouring townships.
He explained to me that often, on weekends, one night blends into the following day and the next night. These moments of indulgence are usually strung together by an endless supply of music, pills and alcohol.
When other patrons go to sleep off their downers, the more hardcore among them, like Qhawe, will bump heads for a “morning bang”, a way of nursing the morning comedown with more doses of pills and alcohol.
“We usually don’t eat because the pills take away our appetite,” says the lanky, gaunt Qhawe. “I know its unhealthy, but then we can’t force the food down our stomachs.” He and a friend spent hours regaling me with tales of bad trips where imagined threats of physical violence would prey on a user the entire night.
Tales of youngsters flopping out and dying from dehydration are increasing but they remain under-reported. Last May, a 26-year-old youth was found lying on his back outside Spank Music Lounge in town, bleeding from his nose and ears. No other signs of trauma were visible, so venue manager Bless Gwala told Zulu daily paper Isolezwe that it was probably an overdose, as drug use was common among patrons.
But writer and filmmaker Tiny Mungwe, who once made a film called Akekho uGogo critiquing Durban’s kwaito-driven social scene, says more fingers should be pointing at the type of society being created for today’s youth, rather than at the youth themselves.
“People are given options to get by: they are basically given groceries [in the form of social grants] and ubumnandi [fun]. You’ve got people who are at a life stage where
they’re experimenting and the options they have are really limited,” she says, putting the drug taking into perspective.
“There are so many other subcultures that exist in different racial and social contexts, where people experiment with drugs or sex or those things combined.
‘Much more support for affluent kids’ “For white kids in the suburbs it’s okay for them to get shit-faced because they get pocket money and they don’t have to earn it. Also, there’s much more support for kids from affluent backgrounds if they get addicted to drugs, whereas with kids from the townships there is no support.”
Yet the societal impact can be seen in the rate at which shell-like RDP houses are transformed into drug-sharing zones and discotheques.
“If someone is on qoh,” the dealer tells me, extolling the virtues of his product, “even if you step on their toes they won’t beef with you, there’s just this overwhelming kindness that envelops them. In my opinion, it should be freely available at the store, like liquor.”
This dealer, a wiry man in an oversized hoody with a gruff but friendly disposition, supposes that his product is shipped from Nigeria.
“I’m not saying it’s coming directly from Nigeria, but if it was being made locally, we would know what’s in each consignment and how to manufacture it by now.”
Because the songs don’t go into the other side of the curtain – the long, drawn-out downers, the loss of appetite often cured with another “bang” – the pill-popping youths are left to counsel themselves and internalise the sometimes fatal effects of taking pretty much unknown substances. Names like “apple”, “Mitsubishi” and “banana” remain vague signifiers at best.
“Yes, it’s illegal and yes it’s a crime,” says a dark, beefy man in a green sweater outside a Ntuzuma shisa nyama (braai shop), “but it’s not like we’re selling whoonga [nyaope]. There are worse substances out there.
“In any case, it’s alcohol that’s killing the nation. Also, the pills today are weaker, in my experience. Before, if you took one, it would last you pretty much your whole night out. These days, you can take maybe five or four, on your own, and you’ll still be fine.”
*Not their real names
Kwanele Sosibo is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. Follow him on @kwanelesosibo