Whoonga is a substance being smoked in poor township communities around Durban, and it’s popping up in other parts of the country as well.
Drug-taking is commonplace in the townships. Many people find themselves unemployed with too much time on their hands and many struggles they face on a daily basis. Drugs often provide a temporary relief from these struggles.
Backroom experimentation produces an ever-changing array of concoctions that offer a cheap and lethal high.
What makes whoonga different – a fine white powder, added to marijuana and smoked – is its composition. It’s a blend of detergent powder, rat poison and, crucially, crushed up ARVs, or antiretroviral drugs distributed free to HIV sufferers.
With South Africa finally making inroads in the battle against HIV and Aids after years of denial, this is a dreadful blow. Whoonga is cheap, bought from a dealer for just R20.00 a hit. But 40 percent of all South Africans survive on little more than R10.00 a day.
The average jobless whoonga user needs multiple hits to get through the day, so for many crime becomes the only way to secure a regular supply.
Worst of all, it means people in need of ARVs to save or prolong their lives are sometimes going without. They are being mugged for their pills as they leave the clinic.
Some are willing to sell them – the free ARVs now have a value more pressing to the poorest than even their lifesaving properties.
Clinic staff are reportedly being enticed to sell ARVs directly to dealers and addicts. As if that is not shocking enough, perhaps the very worst aspect of whoonga is that many addicts, I’m told, actually seek to become HIV positive, because then they can get their supply for free. No need to commit a crime.
The authorities are well aware of whoonga. The police and the National Addiction Council say they’re doing what they can. But with whoonga production and supply taking place behind closed doors in the rabbit-warren streets of townships blighted anyway by huge levels of crime, prioritising whoonga is a challenge.
With limited resources to turn the tide on ignorance among the ill-educated, officials admit efforts to promote awareness are not enough.