As I walk down the steps, rushing to catch my ride from outside Berea Centre in Durban, I bump into a gentleman who calls out for my attention. I quickly dismiss him by saying “angihambi,” meaning I am not going. I suspect he’s one of the taxi conductors who populate this place, competing to fill up the taxis across the road.
I continue walking briskly but this gentleman continues to follow me and I clutch onto my bag because I don’t want to get robbed by Durban’s petty thieves. After following me a while he blurts out, “sis you don’t remember me, do you?”
I stop for a brief moment to listen, although I’m pretty sure I don’t know him. He continues: “I know you…..you’re from DUT. You came with your colleagues to talk to us”.
For a moment I freeze. Then it occurs to me that he is one of the many drug users I have met during my fieldwork as part of the Urban Futures Centre at the Durban University of Technology. Our project involves working with drug users to understand the pathways into and out of street-level drug addiction. At this point, I am a bit self-conscious and somewhat embarrassed because I dismissed him as one of the taxi conductors.
I try to remedy the situation and apologize for not recognising him. I greet him, ask how he’s doing, and eventually say my goodbyes. I seldom forget those I’ve met in previous research because usually I meet participants in somewhat safe environments. But my recent experiences doing research among street-level drug users in Durban could not be described as occurring in ‘safe’ and ‘comfortable’ environments. Anything but. Doing research in the spaces many drug users inhabit is confronting, discomforting, disturbing, and at times dangerous.
The drug using community has always been among us. Yet, buying and using drugs is most often hidden due to its association with illegality and the shame that is piled upon people who use drugs. In truth, prior to being involved in the street-level drug addiction project, I too held closed and even discriminatory views of the drug-using community. I saw them as dangerous, criminally minded and morally deficient. That is when I did think of them, of course. Mostly I just didn’t. That in itself is an indication of how marginal they were in my mind’s eye, much as they are marginal in the eyes of the ‘respectable’ community I come from.
My views on drug use, and of what Durban as a city is all about, have changed dramatically since I started to meet and interact with whoonga users living on the streets of Durban’s CBD. Whoonga is a form of low-grade heroin that users smoke. Its use has spread dramatically over the past four years in Durban. Whoonga users now occupy parts of the city, forming communities, where they gather for as long as they are not dispersed by the police.
I had expressed my interest in working on the Street-Level Drugs project. But didn’t fully know what I was signing up for. When the time came for me to go ‘into the field’ I was uneasy. My unease intensified when I discovered us researchers had to be chaperoned into some of the spaces inhabited by whoonga users by a unique police officer who had built good relations with them.
On my first encounter with whoonga users, I felt distraught about the extreme squalor they live in. I was appalled by the unhealthy and unsafe conditions of the hidden spaces they occupy, often illegally. Anxious as I was, I needed to understand this further and come face-to-face with my own demons.
The more I interacted with the whoonga using community the more I came to understand their life experiences. They shared their stories freely with no expectation other than to be heard, the only interruption being the need to find another fix as the terrible withdrawals took hold.
I couldn’t help feeling helpless when they asked if I was there to help them. What was I supposed to tell them? How could I legitimize our being there? I wish I had the answer. I certainly hope that this research project will influence public policy on drug use from an informed perspective and result in these users getting the right help to change their lives for the better.
Street level whoonga users are victimised in almost every way possible. They are typically regarded as criminals — dirty and unworthy of any form of societal respect. Scant attention has been paid to why whoonga has become so endemic in Durban. Little is known of why people leave their homes, schools, and jobs to live on the streets among other whoonga users. Even less attention is paid to the harm created by the lack of care for whoonga users, on the part of the city, the police, and the communities from which the whoonga users come.
I have learned first-hand that the whoonga users are part of our city, our communities, and our families. They have the same basic needs of survival and human dignity. The cause of their problematic drug use is most often driven by a sense of disconnection, a loss of hope, and in some instances historic trauma.
I have learned, more than anything, that what problematic drug users require is not punishment but support. Our role as a society and as researchers is to break the cycle of harm, and to find better solutions that meet drug users where they are at, rather than where we are in our moral dispositions. I have learned that stigma hurts, and that drug users should be viewed as having the same fundamental rights as anyone else. I have learned that locking away drug users and punishing them makes the harm far worse for the users, their families and for the society at large.
I have learned that the real difference between me and the whoonga users lies only in the different struggles that we experience as individuals and how we cope with these struggles. I am now firmly committed to a harm-reduction approach to drug use, and no longer believe that a prohibitionist stance is useful to anyone, least of all the drug using community.
I am pleased to be part of a group of researchers that is focusing on the most marginalised of groups and that is committed, through engagement, to finding better solutions for street-level drug users that will have a long-term impact on public policy.
Matsepo Motsetse is a National Research Fund Intern at the Durban University of Technology’s Urban Futures Centre.
Photo: ‘The Support Don’t Punish’ event held at the DUT city campus. Credit: Urban Futures Centre.