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type of lis­tener – an ac­tive, em­pa­thetic lis­tener. It’s all about them, not about you. Most peo­ple we worked with were so vul­ner­a­ble. It had never been about them. That’s prob­a­bly why they are users in the first place.”

Af­ter train­ing, the ac­tors de­camped to their own neigh­bour­hoods in Umlazi and KwaMashu, and re­turned two months later with note­books laden with de­tailed re­search.

“Dy­lan calls them in­tu­itive so­ci­ol­o­gists,” says Cop­pen. “No­body could have got that level of ac­cess.”

“Be­fore, I thought all whoonga ad­dicts were just crim­i­nals – peo­ple who would mug you and steal your phone,” says Mthombeni. “So imag­ine, now I had to ap­proach these peo­ple and talk to them ... You need to think about how you ap­proach the users in a respectful man­ner.”

She says that, in a way, you are ask­ing the user to un­dress in front of you in telling their story.

“And then you re­alise these peo­ple have never been heard and are cry­ing out for at­ten­tion,” she says. “They are so re­lieved that they can pour out their prob­lems to you.”

Msomi says that the users re­spected that the ac­tors came to them in a “neu­tral way”.

“They want to stop smok­ing whoonga. They say they don’t know how,” he says. “They say the pain from the with­drawal, known as ‘arosta’, is so ter­ri­ble they have to keep smok­ing.”

It is most com­monly the phys­i­cally ad­dic­tive opi­ate heroin, which is part of the whoonga “recipe”, that makes it so hard to kick.

“These peo­ple have a prob­lem that needs to be sup­ported, not pun­ished,” says Msomi.

Ng­cobo Cele from The Big Brother­hood says that the more whoonga users are judged, the more they feel as though they’re on the out­side of so­ci­ety.

“One guy I met was be­ing bul­lied at school and then an older boy stood up for him. The older boy was smok­ing whoonga, so the younger boy started to im­press the older boy. He was think­ing: if I have this guy on my side, I won’t be bul­lied at school. A lot of it is all wrapped up in try­ing to be a hard man in the town­ship, some­one who com­mands re­spect.”

The Play­house run of Ul­wembu last month also func­tioned as part of the re­search. “It takes in every­thing as it goes along and changes,” says Cop­pen.

Af­ter ev­ery per­for­mance, the au­di­ence is en­cour­aged to re­main be­hind in a fa­cil­i­tated dis­cus­sion.

It is loaded with users, peo­ple from re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tres, po­lice, so­cial work­ers, the home­less, sex work­ers, fam­ily mem­bers and for­mer ad­dicts.

The con­ver­sa­tions are lively and poignant, and loaded with tes­ti­mony and shar­ing.

“They have a com­mon ref­er­ence point in the play,” says Cop­pen. “They are talk­ing about the char­ac­ters, not about each other. It takes away the per­sonal. It’s about a deeper lis­ten­ing.”

He tells of a pre­vi­ous per­for­mance where a se­nior po­lice leader protested about a scene where the po­lice make the users eat their drugs when they are caught. A whole group of users in the au­di­ence stood up and tes­ti­fied, one af­ter the other, about how it had hap­pened to them.

Af­ter one per­for­mance, a 10-year-old street child speaks about how she is glad the mother char­ac­ter in the play did not give up on her son. The part that is im­plied, but re­mains un­said about her own story, is heart­break­ing for many.

Another school­teacher tes­ti­fies how 12 kids in his class are us­ing whoonga, and five are run­ning the drug. To the cast, he says: “We need you des­per­ately.” Sam Pillay, head of the Chatsworth Anti-Drug Fo­rum, says the play rep­re­sents what he sees on the streets ev­ery day. He be­gan fight­ing the rise of the de­signer drug “sug­ars” in his neigh­bour­hood in 2005 and has been warn­ing city of­fi­cials about the ex­tent of the prob­lem for years.

Pro­fes­sor Monique Marx from the Ur­ban Fu­tures Cen­tre at the Dur­ban Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy says they are try­ing to show gov­ern­ment that it is cost-ef­fec­tive to roll out opi­atere­place­ment ther­apy, such as methadone. She be­lieves this should be cou­pled with the de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of the drug, a far bet­ter op­tion than push­ing whoonga un­der­ground.

“Sup­port, don’t pun­ish,” she says, sum­ming up her ap­proach.

Dr Lochan Nai­doo, a Dur­ban-based ad­dic­tion con­sul­tant in the au­di­ence, says that by the time pub­lic health fa­cil­i­ties im­ple­ment methadone treat­ment for users, it will be too late, as hap­pened with the roll-out of an­tiretro­vi­rals.

A mid­dle-aged woman a few weeks out of jail af­ter a nine-year drug con­vic­tion warmly thanks the cast and tells Cele, who plays Andile, a whoonga run­ner and user in the play, that she saw her­self in him. “I was in tears here,” she says. “I was in that story.” “Ev­ery­one has wit­nessed some­thing to­gether,” says McGarry. “And you have cre­ated a safe space for shar­ing.”

In its essence, theirs is a con­tin­u­a­tion of South Africa’s vi­brant protest-theatre tra­di­tion. The dif­fi­culty of black life is un­packed on stage to prompt so­cial change.

At one point over the four days I spend with the cast of Ul­wembu, I am sit­ting in The Play­house foyer wait­ing for McGarry, who ran across the road to get some bean cur­ries for lunch.

He re­turned with the story of how a young guy from the street fol­lowed him into the take­away joint and wanted to know more about the “whoonga play” that was on. McGarry told the young man he was in­volved and could get him a ticket.

As we sit eat­ing our cur­ries in the foyer, the young man ap­proaches to con­firm his seat and thank McGarry.

It’s clear that whoonga is all around us. We are all caught up in its web. Ul­wembu will start the next stage of its run in July in

Dur­ban, play­ing to schools and com­mu­ni­ties


UP IN SMOKE A man smokes nyoape in Polok­wane. SA’s youth is plagued b y the highly ad­dic­tive drug

EM­PA­THETIC EAR Neil Cop­pen, the award-win­ning di­rec­tor of Ul­wembu

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