Our approach to drugs must change

Years ago, when I was at university, I read a book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighbourhood. It documented a year in the life of 13-year-old DeAndre McCullough, his mother Fran Boyd and his father Gary McCullough in their little corner in inner-city Baltimore.

The book, by David Simon and Ed Burns, was later adapted into an HBO series. Some reports have said The Corner inspired Simon’s successful television series, The Wire, but what is not in doubt is that The Corner depicted real people and their battle with drugs.

When I first saw it, I was 21 years old and it was heartbreaking, even if it was also a little far removed. Thank heavens for me and mine, I thought, that we were far from the drugs as depicted in books and movies about inner-city America.

How wrong I was. This week, a story that began life as a book based in South Africa on the issue of drugs has now opened as a film on the big screen. Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story is about a mother’s heartbreak over her son’s addiction and her hopelessness. It comes at a time when people I know and places I am familiar with in Southern and East Africa are battling with addiction in their families.

A Kenyan friend’s child, who should be at university, is one of the bright minds we have lost to drugs. He is not dead yet, but his mother says she sometimes wishes he was. “At least I would know where he is buried instead of constantly worrying whether he is still alive.”

It may sound brutal, but this is essentially an expression of the helplessness that I constantly hear from those whose loved ones are fighting addiction. My friend has banned him from the house because he has stolen food from the refrigerator and sold it to support his heroin addiction.

Closer to home, my family does not know how to deal with two family members who are addicted to drugs. On the Zimbabwean side of my family, a university graduate, who finds himself among the 90% who are unemployed in that country, is addicted to the cough mixture, Broncleer, popularly known in Zim as Bronco.

Initially, small things started disappearing but everyone was sure they had simply misplaced them. Now they know who is responsible for it, so they keep safe anything of value. When extended family members want to visit, the family makes an excuse to stop them.

The family home has become a prison as my addicted cousin appears at any time and steals whatever isn’t secured. Many of the rooms are barred and moving from one room to another means having to carry a set of keys around with you. You have to unlock the bedroom door and then unlock the toilet door, and lock up again afterwards.

Usually, when children are arrested, whatever their age, parents will do everything in their power to have them released. Not too long ago, though, this cousin of mine was arrested — but his parents were relieved that at last they would have some respite.

Prison should not be where you want a child to go to take a break from an addiction, but social services in Zimbabwe are almost nonexistent. Even if he wanted to be rehabilitated, he would not be able to get the necessary support.

On my South African side of the family, a cousin who was pampered by all and given whatever he wanted after his mother died, now has us asking whether we are responsible for his current behaviour. In one instance, while everyone was at work and school, he had no qualms about stealing the gate from the house and selling it to neighbours down the street who were upgrading their security, so that he could buy crystal meth.

We had to buy the gate back but we cannot be sure that he won’t do it again. It is a constant battle, and heartbreaking, to see those you love lose themselves and you cannot help. Furthermore, it’s doubly painful because you want to trust them when they say “I have stopped”, but you know it is a lie.

Many solutions have been proposed around the world, and one of the best has to be the way in which Portugal, among some other countries, is dealing with the problem. It decided not to treat drug abuse as a crime but as a health crisis. This has enabled law enforcement efforts to be concentrated on the purveyors of crime — the drug lords and their dealers. According to reports, this is making a difference.

Of course, it needs the political will to make this work. A police service and immigration officials paid to look the other way by drug dealers will certainly not get the job done.

At a social level, one of the least helpful ways to deal with the problems of drug addiction is to panic and to keep forwarding those WhatsApp messages warning parents about a new drug that children at school are being sold in their ice cream. The best way is probably to be alert to what is going on among young people as we learn the best way of coping should they fall into the trap.

Equally, perhaps the era of being ashamed of our loved ones who are addicts is not helpful. Working together on different solutions as a society may help us to know how to deal with the problem, without having to experience the extremes that Ellen Pakkies had to go through. Because, from the way it’s looking, every street is now potentially The Corner, and with all the problems we Africans already have, it is scary to think we could add to those and lose a generation to drugs.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner (born 1976) is a South African journalist and novelist, born in Zambia and now based in Kenya. Since 2006, when she published her first book, her novels have been shortlisted for awards including the South African Literary Awards (SALA) and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.
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