Ris­ing from the ashes

As drug abuse con­tin­ues un­abated in SA, lives are be­ing saved be­hind the scenes, writes

CityPress - - Voices -

South of Jo­han­nes­burg, near Mey­er­ton, are many farm­ing ar­eas and plots. Bernie Ro­drigues, a coun­sel­lor from the Come Back Mis­sion, asks me to turn right off a tarred road on to a gravel lane lead­ing to a farm­house. As we ar­rive at the gate, she says: “This is the Hadas­sah Cen­tre for Women. Here, we deal with girls af­fected by drugs and al­co­hol abuse.”

A farm worker ac­com­pa­nied by a woman opens the gate when he recog­nises Bernie sit­ting next to me. As we get out of the bakkie, Bernie in­tro­duces the woman to me as the house­mother and coun­sel­lor.

Af­ter clos­ing the gate, the farm worker lifts a bag of mealie meal from the back of the bakkie and takes it to the farm­house.

The place and its sur­round­ings are dry due to a lack of ad­e­quate rain­fall.

Bernie’s eyes quickly sur­vey the farm­yard and, with a smile on her face, she says: “This farm was given to us by God. We dreamt of hav­ing a place such as this and our prayers have been an­swered.”

She ex­plains that “Hadas­sah is the He­brew name for Es­ther. Like Es­ther in scrip­ture, the girls are groomed for six months. The girls are raised from a ‘bro­ken’ state to ‘whole’, from or­phan to queen.”

As we walk, Bernie points to­wards a veg­etable patch and says: “The drought made it dif­fi­cult to grow our nor­mal crop this year and the bore­hole pump is not work­ing.”

The chal­lenges of run­ning the project im­me­di­ately man­i­fest them­selves. We con­tinue walk­ing and then stop be­tween two barns.

“Let me show you this one,” she says as she opens the steel door. “This was a drugs fac­tory. In here,” she points to a mas­sive steel safe, “they kept the drugs.” The barn is large and the fac­tory must have man­u­fac­tured prodi­gious amounts of drugs. The setup con­jures im­ages of large-scale drug op­er­a­tions and the con­comi­tant harm on in­di­vid­ual lives.

Bernie tri­umphantly says: “Through God’s help, we have re­claimed this place and stopped it from ru­in­ing lives. It’s now a place where we re­build the fallen and help­less, and re­store them to whole­ness.”

With her voice break­ing, she says: “It hurts me deeply to see what the drugs are do­ing to our girls and to our com­mu­ni­ties.”

In the other barn, the pre­vi­ous own­ers kept pigs, chickens and other an­i­mals – the idea be­ing that the smell of the an­i­mals would neu­tralise the smell of the drugs be­ing man­u­fac­tured. Ad­ja­cent to the farm is a va­cant plot that served as a land­ing pad for he­li­copters that col­lected and trans­ported the drugs to var­i­ous des­ti­na­tions. Bernie men­tions that, a few years ago, there was an ex­posé by the TV show Carte Blanche on the op­er­a­tions of the drugs fac­tory on the farm.

We walk back to the farm­house and en­ter the house through the kitchen door, where we are met by the de­light­ful smell of the food cook­ing on the gas stove. As we en­ter the lounge, we are greeted by young women, their mag­nif­i­cent smiles hid­ing their bro­ken lives caused by drugs, sex­ual abuse and al­co­hol. The girls in this house have taken the first bold step to re­claim­ing their lives by seek­ing help – they are ready to rise from the ashes and live a life of vi­sion and hope.

The other rooms in the house con­sist of dor­mi­to­ries, show­ers, a com­puter room and the din­ing room, which also serves as a train­ing fa­cil­ity on the sub­ject of eti­quette.

“We also have out­side rooms that have been con­verted into beauty sa­lons, where the girls groom each other on Satur­days,” Bernie says.

The scourge of drugs and sub­stance abuse is grow­ing ex­po­nen­tially na­tion­ally and glob­ally. Be­cause of this, an or­gan­i­sa­tion called Moth­ers and Sis­ters in El­do­rado Park, south­ern Jo­han­nes­burg, was prompted to write a let­ter to Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma in 2013 ask­ing for govern­ment in­ter­ven­tion. This com­mu­nity ac­tivist or­gan­i­sa­tion made the pres­i­dent aware of the in­tol­er­a­ble na­ture and ex­tent of the prob­lem of drugs, which were de­stroy­ing fam­i­lies and the com­mu­nity.

Govern­ment re­sponded by in­tro­duc­ing po­lice raids aimed at the homes of the drug lords, as well as at the so-called lolly lounges, which at­tracted young girls to en­ter­tain the drug users. The cam­paign also of­fered young­sters in the town­ship bur­saries and learn­er­ships. This in­ter­ven­tion led to the re­vised govern­ment National Drug Mas­ter Plan 2013, in which So­cial Wel­fare Min­is­ter Batha­bile Dlamini said the pol­icy would use the op­er­a­tional plan for El­do­rado Park town­ship as a blueprint for the rest of the coun­try.

In a re­cent news­pa­per in­ter­view, Dereleen James, a mem­ber of Moth­ers and Sis­ters, said: “The po­lice cam­paign was ef­fec­tive, but only for three months. The state of play is that new Lolly Lounges have emerged and drug lords con­tinue with their trade. The jus­tice sys­tem is dis­ap­point­ing; some pros­e­cu­tors are not aware that, in terms of govern­ment’s National Drug Mas­ter Plan pol­icy, they can ap­proach a mag­is­trate for an ur­gent court or­der.”

In a re­cent dis­cus­sion with Dereleen, she re­it­er­ated the point about the lack of im­ple­men­ta­tion of the plan in the jus­tice sys­tem to fa­cil­i­tate speedy re­fer­rals to re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tres, and about re­ac­ti­vat­ing the nar­cotics po­lice unit that was dis­banded.

Ac­cord­ing to com­mu­nity ac­tivist or­gan­i­sa­tions in the town­ship, the sit­u­a­tion in El­do­rado Park is de­plorable. Dur­ing an SABC Spe­cial As­sign­ment pro­gramme in Fe­bru­ary last year, it was re­ported that 20 young peo­ple had com­mit­ted suicide in the past year in the area.

The rec­tor, Rev­erend Deon Hat­tingh, at the Angli­can Church of the Trans­fig­u­ra­tion in this com­mu­nity, says: “While govern­ment in­ter­ven­tions have im­proved the sit­u­a­tion, the prob­lem is still se­ri­ous and seems to be fu­elled by un­em­ploy­ment and poverty.”

The ques­tion is, what is hap­pen­ing in the fight against drugs? Is this com­mu­nity still un­der siege? Who is lead­ing the fight on the ground?

The fam­ily home of Cheryl Pil­lay houses the head of­fice of the Come Back Mis­sion not-for-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion. Cheryl heads the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s op­er­a­tions.

“We started our work in a garage up the road from here about 10 years ago. There were no fa­cil­i­ties avail­able to sup­port drug users and al­co­holics,” she says.

“From the con­fined spa­ces of the garage, our think­ing was ex­pan­sive as we de­signed a vi­sion of an or­gan­i­sa­tion that would bring holis­tic heal­ing and trans­for­ma­tion to marginalised peo­ple who were sur­rounded by ab­ject poverty and high lev­els of un­em­ploy­ment, and who were torn apart by al­co­hol and drug abuse.”

Cheryl is a pe­tite woman with a large heart and in­domitable spirit who is for­ever ready to em­brace rather than avoid the strug­gles of life.

She pauses for a while and, with a smile on her face, says: “I come from a fam­ily that al­ways wanted to make a dif­fer­ence in the lives of oth­ers.”

Our dis­cus­sion is abruptly dis­rupted by a man who brings in a 14-year-old boy who had been ap­pre­hended ear­lier by mem­bers of the com­mu­nity while car­ry­ing a large bread knife. Un­ruf­fled by the boy’s sud­den presence, Cheryl turns to­wards him and, in a calm voice, asks him to sit down. The boy is ner­vous and fright­ened. Cheryl asks him for his name and, as he re­sponds, she reaches for her cell­phone and takes a pic­ture of him.

“Who are your par­ents and where do you stay?” she asks. She notes his an­swers on her phone. She also notes down his school and the name of his class teacher. In a soft but firm voice, she asks him what he was do­ing with the knife.

The boy is hes­i­tant to speak at first, but when Cheryl says that he will be locked up if he does not speak, he shifts ner­vously be­fore say­ing that some boys were teas­ing him and that he wanted to stab them.

Cheryl asks him if he’d smoked a joint, and he ad­mits to us­ing dagga. Cheryl stands up and tells me to meet her the next day as the case has to be re­ported to the po­lice. She also men­tions that she is due to meet with so­cial work­ers that af­ter­noon and will hand over the boy to them.

When Cheryl and I meet the next day, she tells me that the boy had been tak­ing drugs since he was 12, and that both his par­ents are un­em­ployed.

“At Come Back Mis­sion, we have a suc­cess rate of more than 50% with boys. The achieve­ment for girls is be­low this rate. The boys will nor­mally rob and steal to feed their drug habits. The girls, on the other hand, give their bod­ies in ex­change for drugs and this erodes their self-es­teem, mak­ing their re­cov­ery process much more dif­fi­cult.”

Cheryl ex­plains how frus­trat­ing it is to deal with some of the un­re­solved cases. “It is dis­ap­point­ing to be con­tin­u­ously han­dling re­lapses and re­peat re­ha­bil­i­ta­tions. We are ex­cited by the suc­cesses we achieve and these en­cour­age us to con­tinue sav­ing lives.”

Cheryl points to an of­fice ad­min­is­tra­tor with a smile and says: “She is a re­cov­er­ing ad­dict and has been clean for sev­eral years and is now one of our trusted vol­un­teers.”

Look­ing at Cheryl, it is clear that she will not al­low any set­backs to dim her sparkle in the fight against drugs.

The Come Back Mis­sion takes a holis­tic ap­proach in the treat­ment of its out­pa­tients. The cen­tre makes use of so­cial work­ers, coun­sel­lors, mo­ti­va­tional speak­ers and also re­cov­er­ing drug ad­dicts.

It is Tues­day even­ing and the speaker is Pas­tor Kurt Jegels, who is a re­cov­er­ing drug ad­dict and a for­mer Satanist who has been free from drugs for more than 20 years. The coun­selling room is full of out­pa­tients and their fam­i­lies, as well as other vis­i­tors who have come to lis­ten to the pas­tor’s tes­ti­mony.

The pas­tor in­tro­duces him­self: “I am Kurt and I am in the min­istry of de­liv­er­ance. I am an or­dained min­is­ter with spe­cial fo­cus on evan­ge­lism.”

Be­fore con­tin­u­ing, he looks around to make sure he has the full at­ten­tion of ev­ery­one in the room, and then says: “I am of Por­tuguese ori­gin and I grew up un­der a sys­tem of Satanism. Satanism was our re­li­gion in our fam­ily and, as a child, I al­ways saw my fa­ther smok­ing dagga.”

The use of drugs is of­ten the gate­way to other forms of de­struc­tive be­hav­iour. Pas­tor Kurt in­forms the au­di­ence how Satanists use drugs to lure fol­low­ers into their fold. Re­al­is­ing that some mem­bers of the au­di­ence are shocked, he pauses and al­lows the si­lence to take over for a while. When he con­tin­ues, he em­pha­sises that the de­ci­sion to quit drugs must come from within you if you are to suc­ceed.

“When you have made the bold de­ci­sion to change your life, all the sup­port struc­tures can be brought into play. In this way, you will have a chance to change your life. It took four dif­fi­cult years of clin­i­cal treat­ment as well as coun­selling to make a full re­cov­ery in my case. But it is pos­si­ble to make it if you are de­ter­mined”.

Amid all the de­spon­dency and de­spair sur­round­ing the scourge of drugs, there are peo­ple who work tire­lessly be­hind the scenes to sup­port the fallen and bro­ken. These coun­sel­lors, care­givers and pas­tors are res­cu­ing peo­ple from their shat­tered lives. They are not de­terred by the wors­en­ing drug statis­tics and do not feel they are on board a sink­ing ship, but are in­stead el­e­vated by the lives they save.

Greeney is fundrais­ing di­rec­tor of Ca­reerBuild

The Hadas­sah Cen­tre for Women near Mey­er­ton re­ha­bil­i­tates and cares for drug users and al­co­holics


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