But a potent drug is taking a heavy toll on the most vulnerable. Like all mothers, Caroline had big dreams for her eldest son, naming him Tshepo for hope.
“He was my hope,” she said, choking back tears. For three years, 19-year-old Tshepo has been hooked on nyaope, a drug that is smoked like a rolled joint. Inside is an addictive mixture made from marijuana and heroin that has spread like wildfire through SA’s impoverished townships over the past decade.
The lack of jobs and nyaope’s easy availability have combined to devastating effect in poor communities, local experts say. Nyaope users, dishevelled and strung out, walk like zombies in many South African cities, begging at street corners, doing odd jobs or committing petty crimes to secure money for their next hit.
So dramatic is the rise of nyaope, it has caught the attention of President Jacob Zuma who, in August, visited a community in Pretoria that said it was suffering a crisis of drug abuse. In Johannesburg and Pretoria, families complain the state has done little to curb nyaope use.
“Parents are making a lot of complaints,” said Jan Masombuka, a social worker and lecturer at the University of South Africa, who runs a counselling practice in Mabopane, in northern Pretoria.
“If you go to Mabopane station you will see young men addicted to the substance on a daily basis. They just go there, don’t go to school and are neglected,” he said. “There are so many of them.” Data on nyaope is scarce. Until 2014, the street drug – which sells for R35 a dose and contains varying amounts of chemicals – was not even listed as an illegal substance.
“We are concerned with the growing number of reports from the public, the police, social workers and health workers … this points to a problem of a large scale,” said Zhuldyz Akisheva, United Nations Office against Drugs and Crime representative in southern Africa. “The true scale of the problem is difficult to assess, due to a lack of data.”
Caroline described how her son’s life changed when he started using the drug at only 16-yearsold. “He started this in school.” Caroline’s story is a familiar one. In her street alone, there are at least three young men addicted to the drug.