The fundamental elements of the lethal drug cocktail whoonga, also called nyaope, are brown heroin, dagga, cocaine and antiretrovirals, but since surfacing in Durban’s inner city in 2010, the exact components and ratios within a “straw” of whoonga have depended on a dealer’s imagination. Rat poison, laundry detergent, cleaning supplies and contraceptive pills are only some of the known ingredients dealers have used to beef up a hit. What is not up for interpretation, however, is the powerful addictiveness of the drug. Just a few straws are said to be enough to ensnare a user. Heroin is physically addictive and a big part of the pull. Whoonga comes equipped with painful side effects. One blogger described a “terrible clawing sensation from inside the place where your stomach used to be” after using the drug, and some are reported to have died from excruciating stomach cramps and acute pain elsewhere in the body. Other side effects include violent aggression, anxiety, and a decrease in heart rate and lung function. According to a Vice documentary titled Getting High on HIV Medication, traces of strychnine, a potent rat poison, cause the sharp physical pain associated with smoking whoonga, and the morphinelike element in the heroin eases it. So the only immediate way to ease these symptoms is another whoonga-induced high. Since the whoonga high only lasts about 20 minutes, the average user needs about seven hits a day, or one every four hours or so, at a cost of about R25 per straw. The clutch of addiction often leads desperate users to seek out alternative means to feed their habit. There are several reports of HIV-positive individuals being robbed for their ARV medication, which is then used in whoonga concoctions. A doctor featured in the Vice documentary recounts his clinic being robbed by users eager to get their hands on his supply of the medication. In Durban, places such as King Dinuzulu Park near the central business district became hotbeds for robberies and crime as whoonga addicts and dealers settled into the space. The SA Police Service led a sweeping operation in the summer of 2014 that resulted in the arrests of 91 people and the displacement of hundreds more. After the scene, the police searched the park for whoonga, only to come away empty-handed. Neither the drug nor the drug dealers were found. Whoonga has since made its way from Durban to other major cities and townships throughout South Africa, and children as young as 10 are reportedly now using it. Despite the damage the drug has inflicted upon black communities, access to treatment and rehabilitation centres remains limited, and often nonexistent.
LETHAL STRAW Heroin, dagga, ARVs and tobacco are the basic ingredients of whoonga, also known as nyaope