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