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Gang Violence Devastates Cape Town’s Townships

Despite Johannesburg’s reputation for being the most dangerous city in South Africa, it now appears that the tourist mecca of Cape Town has stolen its crown.

According to a list of the top 50 most violent urban areas on the planet compiled by Mexican NGO Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice and published last week, the Mother City was ranked a startling number 20.

The ratings are assigned by measuring the number of homicides per 100,000 citizens each year and do not include war zones. So on this basis, Cape Town recorded an average of 50.94, making it not only the most violent city in the country, but also the entire continent.

Joburg, on the other hand, did not figure in the rankings at all, which were, in fact, dominated by Latin American cities, with San Pedro Sula in Honduras topping the list (187.14).

But this is not the first time that Cape Town has been singled out for its high levels of violence. Although domestic arguments turned nasty are the most likely reason for murder in the region, accounting for a third of all 2,580 such incidents last year, next on the list is gang-related violence (18%), which has been escalating in recent years.

As for the areas with the highest murder rates last year, these were found not so much in the region’s high-profile tourist areas, but rather in the townships of the Cape Flats.

The Cape Flats are a vast, barren area about 30km to the south east of Cape Town itself, where people designated as “non-white” during the apartheid era were compelled to live as part of the regime’s forced removal policy.

Among the most afflicted townships there are Gugulethu, where Anni Dewani, whose British husband is currently on trial for her murder, was killed, and Mitchell’s Plain, a predominantly “coloured” (a South African term for people of mixed race) settlement that suffers the highest levels of gang-related murders.

Because, while “black” townships may experience the highest murder rates overall, it is “coloured” communities that suffer disproportionately from organised gang activity.

Craven Engel, a minister and chief executive of NGO, First Community Resource Centre, which is based in the troubled area of Hanover Park, explains that, while gangs have existed in one form or another for generations, before forced resettlement in the 1960s, they were largely benevolent.

But the social dislocation, disempowerment and anger resulting from the policy led to a change in focus. A lack of action by law enforcement then entrenched the situation, leaving communities feeling increasingly hopeless, marginalised and abandoned.

Gang dynamics

In fact, as the gangs increasingly moved into drug trafficking, some corrupt police officers also started taking a slice of the pie. This scenario led to whole roads being “contaminated with drug outlets”, specialising mainly in tik (methamphetamine) and, progressively over the last two years, heroin-based nyaope.

But there are also other factors at play. For example, overcrowding is rife and urban design alienating, something that Engel hopes will be tackled by City planners following an external assessment for a much-needed redesign next year.

To make matters worse, he says: “Unemployment is crazy – 70% the last time I checked – and poverty is crippling people. There’s a lack of opportunity and educational levels are also quite low, with school dropout rates terrible. This makes recruitment to gang culture very easy as there’s derailed youth everywhere.”

In fact, the gang’s recruitment policy with regards to age has now dropped to 12 years old as it is perceived that children will get off more lightly and not be sent to prison if caught.

But being a tattooed member of a gang not only generates an income, it also confers respect, a feeling of identity and of safety by belonging to an organisation that promises to protect you.

What this all means, Andre Standing, a senior researcher at the Institute of Security Studies, points out in a 2005 policy discussion paper – the most up-to-date estimate available – is that there are now as many as 130 street and prison gangs operating in the Cape Town area, which between them have around 100,000 members.

In a bid to reduce the levels of violence that ensue though, Engel set up a social crime prevention programme called CeaseFire four years ago after attending a workshop hosted by a group with the same name from Chicago in the US.

The scheme, which is funded by the City of Cape Town, is based on the idea that gang violence is like a contagious disease. Therefore, when it breaks out in the community, individuals need to be quarantined by so-called “violence interrupters” to prevent it from spreading further.

“An interrupter is like an antibiotic,” Engel explains. “He’s a street-level guy who spends most of his time on the beat and mediates to prevent violence or retribution taking place. Once that’s done, he hands the case over to an outreach worker, who is more of a social worker. They then do risk work with individuals and find out what we can offer them.”

Possible services here include residence at a half-way house to help people deal with substance abuse, skills development, legal support and help in finding work.

But trauma counselling is also available both for gang members and their families who often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder due to living in what is essentially a continuous warzone.

Another thing worth noting though is that both interrupters and outreach workers are all former gang members themselves, often with prison stretches behind them. This status not only gives them street cred, but also means that they are intimately familiar with the issues faced by others.

CeaseFire

As a result, over the last two years, CeaseFire’s Hanover Park programme has successfully intervened with 158 youths, some 70 of whom have left gang life and are now in gainful employment.

“The primary aim is to stop guys shooting and to mediate conflict so as to stop violence spreading. But the hidden agenda is to get people to exit gangs,” Engel says.

Although many programme participants have yet to do so, “almost 70% aren’t shooters any more”, he adds. While they might still carry weapons to protect their turf, “they’ll now think twice before using them”.

This means that, since the scheme began, violence levels in the area have dropped by about 50%. While 38 people died last year, the figure up until 16 September had more than halved again to 16.

One tool that is proving useful in supplementing limited manpower levels, meanwhile, is the Shotspotter gunfire detection system. Despite its far-reaching work, the CeaseFire programme is only able to employ five interrupters and outreach workers respectively, two office staff and two volunteers.

The system, which was developed by California-based SST to alert police should shots go off in troubled US neighbourhoods, is also being used in Kruger National Park in the fight against rhino poaching.

But since 15 August, Shotspotter has likewise been taking part in a three-month pilot project covering a 1kmsq area of Hanover Park. Once a shot goes off in the area, the sound is triangulated using sensors, and audio and location data is sent to interrupters via an SMS message.

They are then able to respond to the incident within minutes and without having to depend on often-unreliable information from members of the public.

Another key advantage of the system is that it provides analytical information, which enables both CeaseFire and law enforcement bodies to deploy resources when and where they are most needed.

Engel explains: “We now know that most activity takes place between 12pm and 3am on Monday mornings, which we didn’t expect. So the data has navigated us much closer to the trouble spots and, because we can see areas heating up and cooling down, it’s now possible to deploy people more effectively.”

A decision on whether to extend the trial or have the system go live will be taken early next year, most likely around the same time that CeaseFire begins extending its scheme into nearby areas such as Manenberg and Kewtown.

As Engel concludes: “There’s much hope around the programme. It takes time for a community to heal, but peace attracts positive things like investment and job opportunities. They’re now starting to happen and so, while it’s taken a long time, we’re finally beginning to see positive rays of hope.”

Is South Africa’s star waning?

What with seemingly endless energy shortages, simmering industrial unrest and innumerable social challenges, South Africa increasingly appears to be a country in trouble.

Although the continent’s second largest economy, and the one that still attracts the highest level of foreign direct investment, there are fears in some quarters that its star may be starting to wan – and will continue to do so unless swift action is taken.

For example, while South Africa may for years have boasted the largest GDP in Africa, it was knocked off its perch by Nigeria in April after a rebasing exercise, making the West African country more attractive to foreign investors overnight.

But the various gloomy perceptions about South Africa’s future were not helped last week by Moody’s decision to downgrade its credit rating to only two notches above junk status, continuing the steady fall from a 2009 high when the country boasted a top A3 rating.

Moody’s took the decision as a result of the developing nation’s deteriorating economic growth, an increasing budget and current account deficit and rising public debt levels (50% compared to 27% only five years ago).

These were caused, among other things, by rolling power outages, known locally as load shedding, apparently endless strikes in the all-important mining sector and generally slow domestic and global demand.

Although the move to cut South Africa’s investment grade status to Baa2 from Baa1 was not entirely unexpected following warnings in July, it has once again raised fears that a slide into junk status could be on the cards.

Similar concerns are also being raised over the country’s five largest banks – Standard Bank of SA, Absa, FirstRand, Nedbank and Investec – after Moody’s likewise downgraded their rating to Baa2 status on Tuesday.

The problem is that, because the banks have sizeable holdings of sovereign debt securities, the SA government’s weakening credit profile is having an impact on their own perceived creditworthiness too.

But any shift to junk status would cost the country dear by triggering an automatic sell-off of its bonds by foreign institutional investors and resulting in new buyers charging higher interest rates in order to counterbalance higher levels of investment risk.

In real terms, this means that it would cost South Africa, and its private sector, significantly more to service their debts. It would also become harder to borrow money in order to fund much-needed projects such as infrastructure development. Other potential repercussions include a likely nose-dive in the value of the rand and a rise in inflation.

Credit downgrades

To make this situation a reality though, two out of the three credit rating agencies would have to make the move. But Standard & Poor’s has already assigned South Africa a BBB- rating, the lowest grade before junk, while Fitch is expected to follow suit in December. This would mean that the country does not have much further to fall.

In South Africa’s favour though, Moody’s appears to have given its sovereign currency the benefit of the doubt. By shifting its outlook on the rating from negative to stable, the agency has made it clear that change is unlikely to occur any time soon.

On the downside, some analysts are predicting that if South Africa fails to sort out key issues such as weak tax receipts and sluggish exports fairly quickly, a downgrade could occur in as little as five years.

But David Knee, head of fixed income at financial services firm Prudential, believes that, when compared to other developing markets, South Africa is not in too bad a shape.

“It is clear that much hinges on economic growth over the medium-term”, he says, adding that South Africa “could indeed be downgraded by the ratings agencies should GDP growth remain weaker than expected for an extended period of time”.

But when “looking at the metrics of South Africa’s peers”, which include India and Brazil, Knee points out reassuringly that “the deterioration would likely have to be fairly significant to prompt ratings action”.

One area that the country really does need to sort out sooner rather than later if it is to prevent such deterioration though is its energy sector.

To this end, the government pledged to inject at least ZAR 20 billion (£1.1 billion) in equity to help plug state-owned utility Eskom’s funding gap at the close of last month – a move that saw both Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s hold off from downgrading its bonds to junk status, a seemingly a recurring theme here in South Africa at the moment.

Eskom needs the money not only to service the debt required to pay for completion of two new power stations vital to ease the country’s chronic power shortages, but also to maintain its existing ageing estate.

Evidence of what happens if such action is not taken came only a few weeks ago, in fact, when a coal silo at the Majuba power station in Mpumalanga collapsed, leading to yet another series of rolling power blackouts across the country.

Reducing exposure

South Africa’s iconic weekly documentary programme, Carte Blanche, attributed the collapse to non-existent maintenance following the introduction of incentivisation schemes that linked senior managers’ bonuses to keeping expenditure levels low.

But Majuba is not expected to function at maximum capacity for another six months, making scheduled load shedding an ever-present threat to both business and the economy.

As a result of all this, organisations such as South Africa’s second largest supermarket chain, Pick ‘n Pay, have been working hard to reduce their exposure by finding ways to cut electricity consumption.

As David North, the retailer’s group strategy and corporate affairs director, explains: “The objective of saving money motivates any business. South Africa is not immune to energy price hikes or electricity outages from load shedding. So when you get a combination of rapid increases in pricing and uneven supply, most companies will look at how they can reduce these challenges.”

To date, the retailer has managed to slash its power usage by 30% per square metre against its 2008 store baseline simply by addressing lighting and refrigeration efficiency issues. Such action has saved it a total of ZAR 508 million on electricity (£28.6 million) since the project began.

In fact, last year alone the company’s ZAR55 million (£3.1 million) investment in retrofitting lighting and refrigeration across 10% of its stores and two of its key distribution centres saved it a huge ZAR14.5 million (£814,949).

Measures taken included implementing less energy-intensive lighting systems, encouraging staff to turn lights off when no longer required as well as introducing motion sensors and key-switches to automatically put them out at night.

Moreover, all of the retailer’s stores now have online electricity metering, which means that managers can monitor energy usage via a dashboard. It alerts them should a refrigeration unit suddenly start consuming more electricity than normal, for example, so that they can take immediate action.

But because 85% of Pick n’ Pay’s buildings-related carbon emissions are generated by electricity consumption, the move has likewise helped it slash carbon emissions by 19.4%, beating the target it set itself in 2010 of a 15% reduction by 2015.

The firm’s efforts have, in fact, earned it an accolade from the Carbon Disclosure Project for being the top-performing retailer in Africa. Which just goes to show that every cloud truly does have a silver lining.

Waste Pickers’ Livelihoods Threatened by South Africa Going Green

Although I was aware that the pollution caused by landfill couldn’t be doing the environment much good, I hadn’t realised quite how much the methane from such dumps contribute to global warming.

According to Innocent Sibeko, managing director of waste management company, Exergy Enviro Group, and one of the African Climate Leaders trained by Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, landfill accounts for a shocking 13% of all global methane gas emissions – and worryingly, methane is second only to carbon dioxide in terms of contributing to global warming.

Sibeko dropped his little bombshell during a presentation on possible African solutions to climate change at a recent ‘Green Drinks’ event in Johannesburg. Hosted by the South African branch of the former US vice president and Nobel Peace Prize winner’s green charity, it – rather appropriately – took place in the garden of social and environmental enterprise, Food & Trees for Africa.

But it seems the whole issue of rubbish is an important and apparently underestimated one. The most recent (2012) National Waste Information Baseline Report indicated that, while South Africa generated approximately 108 million tonnes of waste in 2011, a shocking 98 million tonnes went into landfill, with a mere 10% being recycled.

To make matters worse, the Greenhouse Gas Inventory for South Africa, which was published earlier this year, found that total greenhouse gas emissions from landfill had increased by 72% from 2000 to 2010.

As a result, municipalities up and down the country are now being tasked with trying to find solutions, not least because many of their 1,327 documented sites are starting to hit capacity.

Two of Johannesburg’s five landfill facilities, for example, currently extract, combust and flare methane in order to burn it off and get rid of it.

But towards the end of this month, there are plans to install four 1MW generators at ZAR 10 million (£555,835) a pop at the city’s Robinson Deep site near Turffontein in a bid to harness the gas and generate electricity. The scheme will be the biggest landfill gas-to-energy project in South Africa.

Gas-to-energy

Once the generators become operational early next year, Ener-G Systems Joburg, a consortium that won the 20-year build-own-operate contract, is expected to sell 5MW of power to state-owned monopoly power provider, Eskom.

This new energy source will provide electricity for 4,000-5,000 homes and cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 149,000 tonnes per annum.

But when all five landfill sites come online in future, the amount of power produced should rise to 19MW, providing enough electricity to supply a significant 12,500 middle-income households.

This situation will no doubt prove a welcome respite for Eskom, which is currently struggling to keep the country’s lights on, a situation that led to rolling power blackouts across the country earlier this year.

In a bid to stop rubbish being dumped in landfill in the first place though, the government is also keen to kick-start the recycling collection schemes now so familiar to everyone in the UK.

To this end, the goal of the Department of Environmental Affairs’ National Waste Management Strategy is to ensure that all large towns and metropolitan areas have recycling-friendly separation-at-source schemes in place by 2016.

In the case of South Africa’s biggest metropolis, Joburg, the objective is to save 20,000 tonnes of rubbish from going into landfill each year by rolling out a pavement collection service by the end of 2015.

But 20,000 tonnes would appear to be a drop in the ocean compared with the 1.6 million or so tonnes that currently end up in City dumps. It is also a far cry from the country’s pledge to divert three quarters of its recyclable materials from landfill by 2022, a promise made on signing up to the Polokwane Declaration in 2001.

While the whole municipal recycling situation is obviously still a work in progress, the City has nonetheless set up 10 “buy-back” centres to deal with what material is reclaimed.

Waste pickers

The centres house 25 co-operatives, small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs), which together employ about 500 people, while a further 42 garden refuse sites, about half of which are also operated by SMMEs, accept recycled waste too.

And it is on this kind of model that Sibeko’s Exergy Enviro Group operates. Based in the Vaal Triangle, an urban area about 60km south of Johannesburg, Exergy employs 27 “waste pickers” to reclaim recyclable material from landfill sites or people’s rubbish bins in order to sell it on to bigger recycling companies.

Workers are provided with training to help them identify waste suitable for the market and are encouraged to form cooperatives in order to work more effectively together.

In fact, the South African Waste Pickers Association, which is in the process of being registered as a trade union, estimates that there are about 60,000 such informal workers employed across the country, each earning on average about ZAR120 per day (£6.66).

And certainly they are a common sight around the suburbs of towns and cities in South Africa, emerging out of nowhere with their huge bags and shopping trolleys before the bin-men can arrive to see what they can find of value.

But there is growing concern among this community that, as municipalities increasingly hand out contracts to more formal waste management companies, they will be the ones to lose out – a situation that obviously threatens their livelihood and their ability to feed their families.

While former Minister of Energy Dikobe Ben Martins promised that waste pickers would be considered as part of all government waste-to-energy projects, apparently no reference has been made to them in the National Waste Management Strategy.

But there are already reports of worker numbers being cut at landfill sites – and that is even before pavement collection kicks in properly.

So it appears that the old Yorkshire adage of “where there’s muck, there’s brass” could definitely be under threat for these waste entrepreneurs who, when all is said and done, are simply trying to make a living in a country where unemployment levels remain desperate.

Kruger’s Time Bomb: Rhino Poaching and Too Many Elephants

This coming Saturday, Johannesburg and London will be among 125 cities worldwide to host demonstrations demanding action to curb exploding levels of rhino and elephant poaching.

In a measure of just how emotive the issue is becoming in South Africa, between 10,000 and 20,000 protestors are expected to turn up for the Jozi march to call for harsher penalties against poachers and traffickers in ivory and rhino horn.

Petitions will also be handed to the embassies of 19 countries, including key end-destinations such as Vietnam and China, which are accused of failing to do enough to tackle the problem.

Each year, the African continent sees a massive 35,000 or so of its elephants slaughtered for their tusks. But between January and 6 August this year, South Africa alone had already lost 631 of its estimated 21,000 rhino to poaching, according to Environmental Affairs Minister, Edna Molewa.

A shocking 408 of the creatures were butchered in the world-famous Kruger National Park, a distressingly high percentage in an environment believed to house between 8,400 to 9,600 white rhino and about 2,000 or so critically endangered black ones (South Africa National (SAN)Parks).

But, sadly, this year’s death toll already compares unfavourably with 2013 when about 1,000 of the creatures – a scary three times the 2010 tally and 10 times the 2007 one – were killed in total.

Demand for their horn, believed by traditional medicine advocates to cure everything from fever to cancer, has continued to soar over the last seven years in line with noticeable standard of living increases in South East Asia.

As a result, the horn can now fetch as much as $65,000 per kilogram on the black market, making it more expensive than gold or cocaine.

Unfortunately for South Africa though, being home to 82% of the continent’s entire rhino population and 93% of the world’s white rhinos, it is now at the epicentre of a poaching time bomb.

In fact, the fear is that if such activity continues unabated at current rates, the animals will end up becoming extinct in the wild within 10 years. Therefore, a number of measures are now being introduced in a desperate attempt to address the situation without having a negative impact on tourism.

According to the SanParks Times magazine, a key initiative involves the creation of a so-called Intensive Protection Zone (IPZ) in the south of Kruger, where 60% of the Park’s rhino population lives.

Intensive Protection Zone

The 4,000km2 IPZ, which is equivalent to about a fifth of Kruger’s total landmass, is intended to concentrate the beasts in an area protected by the latest hi-tech gadgetry.

The goal is to make surveillance, early warning and detection easier and take pressure off the mere 400 or so rangers trying to safeguard vast swathes of territory.

For example, one aim is to fit boundary fences with motion sensors that can pick up movement. GPS coordinates will then be sent back to an operations centre so that rangers in either trucks or a helicopter can be deployed in the event of a security breach.

In particularly vulnerable areas such as the Park’s 220-mile eastern border with Mozambique though, fences will also likely be equipped with a new gunfire-detection system.

California-based SST’s “ShotSpotter” is currently being pilot-tested for the first time outside of troubled US urban neighbourhoods, where it has to date been used to alert police of firearms-related activity.

Instead microphones have now been planted in different spots in the Park in order to triangulate the origin of gunshots fired as far as two miles away, with coordinates being relayed to Kruger’s operations centre within 30 seconds.

As to how the IPZ came about, meanwhile, it was all made possible thanks to a ZAR255 million (£14 million) donation by the Howard G Buffet Foundation in March. Work is expected to commence this month (October) and take about two years to complete.

But these are not the only measures in the pipeline. According to Environmental Affairs Minister Molewa, there are also plans to transfer rhino to safe havens in lower risk parks and reserves both inside and outside South Africa. Discussions are already taking place with nearby countries such as Zambia and Botswana.

The only downside is that, at an estimated $45,000 per animal, the exercise could prove prohibitively expensive unless additional funding can be found.

But something has to be done, not least because an estimated 80% of all rhino poachers come from the impoverished villages of South Africa’s neighbour, Mozambique.

Hot pursuit

One of the world’s poorest countries with close ties to China, its Limpopo National Park has been linked to Kruger via the cross-border Giriyondo Access Facility since 2006. The two form the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which will also include Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou Game Reserve over time.

But there is now talk of erecting a fence along the Kruger-Mozambique border in a bid to prevent poachers entering the Park through the bush.

A ‘hot pursuit’ agreement signed by the two countries in May could also help. The aim is to allow police officers to pursue poachers across borders so that they do not simply disappear under village protection after committing a crime as is currently often the case.

Interestingly though, while the poaching of species such as antelope and wildebeest for bush-meat is not uncommon in Kruger, elephant poaching has not been an issue for the last 10 years – although with one incident in July and another three months before, there is concern that the problem may be starting to rear its ugly head again.

If anything though, the challenge in Kruger is simply having too many elephants. With numbers estimated at between 13,000 and 16,000, the population is around twice what it should ideally be – and growing.

And sadly, the situation is now causing considerable environmental damage. At the very least, elephants help to keep indigenous flora healthy by bumping into trees with their huge behinds, knocking them over and thereby thinning them out.

But once there are too many, they can end up just destroying the habitats of other Park dwellers. Southern ground hornbills, which build their nests in deep hollows in very old trees, for example, tend to breed successfully only once every three years and are now endangered in Kruger, largely due to elephant behaviour.

Although culling was banned by Park management in 1994, rumours are now circulating of possible moves to reverse the decision. But a key inhibitor is likely to be the international outcry, not least because it becomes necessary to kill entire family groups, including babies, due to the distress and dangerous aggression generated among survivors.

One possible way to try and alleviate pressure on the elephant population though would be to go ahead with a planned wildlife corridor. The goal is to connect Kruger and the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park with South Africa’s first ever World Heritage site, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in KwaZulu-Natal.

The Wetland Park itself is in the process of becoming part of a new Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation and Resource Area, which will include a number of reserves in Mozambique and Swaziland.

But the international border fences have yet to come down – and seem unlikely to do so any time soon until the rhino-poaching situation can be sorted out once and for all.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse Fuel South Africa’s Rising Violent Crime Rate

South Africa’s dreadful international reputation for violent crime will certainly not have been helped by the latest statistics released last Friday (19 September).

While overall crime levels may be falling, the most scary offences such as murder, attempted murder and aggravated robbery are all on the rise, according to Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko.

For example, the number of homicides during 2013/14 rose for the second year running, this time to 1,7068, a leap of 5% on the previous 12 months. This means that the equivalent of 47 people were killed each day last year.

Just as worryingly though, it appears that social unrest is also on the up in the form of protests against poor or non-existent service delivery in the townships as well as strike action, particularly in the mining sector.

Interestingly, the number of sexual offences against women and children was down slightly though, with rape levels falling by 6.3%, something Nhleko attributed to a “higher consciousness” in society as a result of government and media campaigns.

But the country is far from being in a position to pat itself on the back. It still has one of the highest rape rates on earth and to make matters worse, the estimates are that only one in 25 incidents is ever reported.

As to the cause of this increase in violence, meanwhile, Nhleko attributed it at least partially to high levels of substance misuse. “The prevalence of drugs and alcohol abuse in our community is extremely concerning,” he said. “They tend to a production point for criminal activity.”

Of particular concern these days is a cheap narcotic known as ‘nyaope’ in Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, and ‘whoonga’ in Durban – an illegal drug to which President Jacob Zuma warned earlier this year the nation’s youth were becoming “slaves”.

According to the United Nations, this heady cocktail of heroin, dagga (marijuana) and other substances ranging from milk powder to even anti-retrovirals and rat poison to pad it out, is unique to South Africa.

Although it first emerged in Durban in only 2010, its use has spread like wildfire among impoverished township dwellers over recent times, particularly since Afghanistan started flooding the world market with heroin following bumper opium poppy crops.

Whoonga

Sean, an addict who spoke on African news channel eNCA’s recent Checkpoint documentary, ‘Whoonga Addicts Special’, indicated that, in Durban, where heroin is smuggled in via the city’s port, the drug costs as little as ZAR20 (£1.10) a parcel or straw, which can be either smoked or injected.

Hence his decision to move there from Joburg, where the price is more like ZAR100-200 (£5.50-11) per hit, of which most addicts need several a day.

Sean was, in fact, one of the thousands of people who were cleared out of the slum-like King Dinuzulu Park near Durban’s city centre – now dubbed Whoonga Park by locals – in July.

The police arrested some 2,000 addicts, including girls as young as 15 who were involved in prostitution to fund their habit, following gang warfare by two rival groups the previous year.

Worryingly though, says Ishara Poodhum from the South African National Council for Drug Abuse and Alcoholism, the number of nyaope addicts is growing by 10% year-on-year, and its dreadful withdrawal symptoms, which include diarrhea and vomiting, make it a particularly difficult habit to break.

Even worse, statistics show that the average age of drug dependency in South Africa is now 12 years and dropping, a figure that is shocking by anyone’s standards.

But if Sabelo Qwabe, a resident of Clermont township in Durban, is to be believed, the sheer ubiquitousness of whoonga, which people can become addicted to after a single hit, is part of the problem.

He told Checkpoint that it was possible to buy the cream-coloured powder almost anywhere – in “the food shop, clothes shop, supermarket, even the tuck shop because they see it gives them money”.

Sadly, Qwabe’s 13-year old brother died smoking it after having been an addict for only six months.

While the government has already built seven rehab centres across the country to cope with all kinds of addiction and plans to build six more, waiting lists are huge and addiction rates mounting.

Alcohol

But despite the dreadful toll that nyaope is taking on the townships, it is alcohol that is the single most abused drug in South Africa, according to Quintin van Kerken.

A former addict himself, van Kerken heads up the Anti-Drug Alliance of South Africa to provide education and support services to substance abusers and their families.

Alcohol, he says, accounts for roughly 20% of all addiction at the national level, while drugs of all types come in next at another 20%. The remainder is made up of a heady mix of prescription medication, gambling, sex and porn.

In fact, it turns out that, according to this year’s World Health Organisation report on alcohol and health, South Africans are actually the heaviest drinkers on the continent and the 29th biggest topers in the world – although they behaved better than the Brits who come in at number 25.

In real terms, this means that the average person here consumed just over 27 litres per annum in 2010, about 10% higher than the global average.

But it is also important to bear in mind that, because three out of five South Africans do not drink at all, the ones who do are making up for the rest, particularly in binge-drinking to get drunk terms.

One of the most shocking things I have come across in relation to the whole alcohol thing in this country though is the so-called ‘dop’ system (Afrikaans for a drink).

Now mostly but not entirely defunct, the system, which was widespread in the Cape Winelands until relatively recently, saw local wine farm workers being paid a portion of their wages in the form of daily measures of cheap, low quality booze.

The practice, which was made illegal in 1961 although prohibition was not enforced until the end of apartheid in 1994, led to large numbers of people with serious addiction problems.

And they are problems that, sadly, are still being played out in all too many families today.