The nyaope isn’t worth it, but they have little else

Recovering nyaope addicts in Pretoria ride the Covid-19 emotional rollercoaster, and we discover how boredom, shame, and the supposed need for female attention means many might possibly return to their lives of drug use and, in some cases crime.

A group of Pretoria’s homeless nyaope-users seem to have lost their determination and, despite receiving medication at a shelter in Centurion to wean them off the addiction, some have chosen to return to the drug.

For the past four months, the Lyttelton Sports Ground has been used to house a number of homeless drug users.

Since the commencement of the lockdown in March, meals have been served three times a day, along with regular doses of methadone – medication used to relieve severe pain and prevent withdrawal symptoms in those addicted to opiates.

But the road to sobriety has taken an about-turn for some of them.

Speaking all at the same time with masks hanging around their chins, the men pulled out from their pockets small needles with orange lids, admitting that despite the methadone treatment, they have chosen to go back to drug use.

Idle hands are the devil’s workshop

Some of the homeless men at the Lyttleton Sports Grounds shelter can be seen sweeping the floor of a tent set up to house them, 21 July 2020, Pretoria. Picture: Jacques Nelles

“We get a meal, have methadone and then lay down and do nothing. What is that? At least if we had jobs to help us forget about nyaope… We walk to town to get it. It’s just an hour to get there and another hour to come back. We used to live on the streets so we’re used to walking,” they said.

Quietly hiding among the crowd that were relaying their stories and grievances about the shelter was Koketso Mokwena, a nyaope user who had vowed to use the lockdown to kick the habit.

Unlike others who were taken off the streets by law enforcement, Mokwena had reported to the Caledonian Stadium himself when lockdown commenced, the first venue where the city’s homeless users were housed. He planned to return home to Hammanskraal after being clean of the habit.

When Citizen first met him in March, the vocal 22-year-old was excited to begin his recovery. During the initial 21-day-lockdown, he would often be seen encouraging other users to join him for methadone treatment.

Now, his mood had seems to have toned down, as he speaks with a soft voice behind a surgical mask.

“I don’t smoke nyaope anymore. I now smoke crack-cocaine,” he told The Citizen. It’s not clear if this is to be considered a victory, or an admission of failure.

“I’ve been smoking it for almost two months now. Being here gives me more stress. I see no progress in my life and it’s stressing me. I want to go to rehab now. They’ve arranged for social workers to come sometime this week to help me to go there.”

The social workers arrive sooner than expected and about two hours later, his eyes light up in excitement for the first time all day.

“I first need to go to home affairs to do my ID. Once I get my ID, then they will give me a date of when I can go to rehab. I will have to get a temporary ID because I really want to leave,” he said.

A glimmer of hope

There were some users here who left to reunite with their families. But more had fled the shelter to go back to the streets and use drugs.

This was something Phillip Msiza is attempting to prevent by using his leadership role to encourage a positive mindset. Msiza, 38, had been using nyaope for ten years and is one of the many users who got off the habit at the start of the lockdown.

“I drink methadone but I want to get off of that too so that I don’t depend on it. I now take very small dosages. I’ve decided I don’t want to smoke nyaope anymore. I am a leader of this place and should lead by example. I told myself to act like an older brother to the people here, because if there is no light in front of their eyes, they will obviously not be encouraged. I also pray for them every day before we eat our meals,” he said.

The users attend classes each day on the premises, where they are taught about hygiene, life skills, arts and crafts, and computer training among other skills. They are then awarded with a certificate once the short course is completed, Msiza explained.

He conceded, however, that the users often experience boredom, which leads to them “thinking about their lives, which isn’t good”.

“They get bored, which is dangerous and makes them want to leave. There are some who are in the choir and can sing very well, but they don’t want to take part in the classes. Others don’t want to do things with people but want to do things on their own. Let us not limit their entertainment as it could restrict them in some way. If there was a way for them to be busy, it would really help,” Msiza said.

The belongings of one of the homeless men at the Lyttleton Sport Grounds can been hanging on the tent wall, 21 July 2020, Pretoria. Picture: Jacques Nelles

While speaking to The Citizen, Msiza grips a rolled-up green book with the department of health and the South African coat of arms printed on the cover. Paging through it, he said it was often filled and updated by psychologists and doctors.

Pride mixed with shame 

Written in black ink and stamped by a doctor on 10 June this year, two pages of the book summarised Msiza’s mental condition and challenges.

Msiza had for seven years experienced mild episodes of hallucinations as he believed he was kidnapped, could hear God speak to him, and believed the music he claimed to have produced was stolen, the book explains.

Now Msiza feels confident, and proud of himself, believing his mental state had improved. His cheeks rise as he smiles with pride behind his mask, detailing how the lockdown and the recovery journey taught him things about himself that he didn’t know.

“I was not the type of person who thought of doing bad things to people, but people did bad things to me which is why I started drugs. I have learned to no longer stress about what they did to me, but instead, I have to carry on doing this [recovery] thing. I can use my Christianity to make others feel human and not just guys that come from the street.”

He, however, can’t share his victorious milestone with his family as he is too embarrassed to return home. He was the eldest of eight siblings, with a late father and a mother with a severe mental illness.

“I didn’t want my siblings to end up in prostitution or doing bad things. But then I met the wrong people. And now my family has lost control because I lost control. Now I am too shy to go back home,” he confessed.

No room here for social distancing

Behind Msiza other residents kick around a ball to pass time while others bask in the sun, awaiting the van that would deliver their lunch.

Inside the main marquee, fitness enthusiasts use their creativity by attaching bricks to either side of a long iron rod, creating their own barbells.

Some of the homeless men at the Lyttleton Sports Grounds shelter can be seen working in a tent set up to house them, 21 July 2020, Pretoria. Picture: Jacques Nelles

The rest of the tent smells of urine, feet and the occasional whiff of BB tobacco rolled in newspaper. The few mattresses left in the tent are placed close to one another as the users clean up and make their beds, still using the free blankets they received at the start of the lockdown.

While some mop and sweep up the rubber flooring, wet from condensation that accumulated in the tent overnight, others queue outside a building on the premises to receive their methadone dosage.

“It is hard to socially distance in this tent because it is so cold in here. We end up having to sleep close to one another to keep warm. We were not given any heaters so we have to make a plan,” one of the users yells to us.

“If I had a gun, I would probably have raped you.”

As we say our goodbyes, a short man makes a remark.

“Next time you come here, you should wear jeans instead of a dress. We’re men.”

We stop to speak to him.

His name is Kleinboy Aphane, a 32-year-old former convict who was released from prison last year after serving 12 years for possession of an unlicensed firearm.

Kleinboy Aphane can be seen at the Lyttleton Sport Grounds homeless shelter where he has been staying since the beginning of the nationwide lockdown, 21 July 2020, Pretoria. Picture: Jacques Nelles

Unlike the others who are dressed in tattered clothes and ripped shoes, agape from the toes, Aphane is dressed in a white button-up shirt, black pants and mismatching Converse All Star sneakers. He has scars across his face and around his eyes, and two big round scars on his arms from when he injected a bad mix of nyaope. His front teeth were knocked out, apparently during fights in prison.

He says that although he was involved in various crimes such as robberies, heists, and murder, he remained in custody for four years during his trial but only received an eight-year sentence, due to only being 18-years-old at the time.

“I want to apologise for the remark that I made to you. It’s just that I am also a rapist. If I had a gun right now, I probably would have used it to take you and rape you. That is what I used to do. When I held a big firearm, I felt powerful. I no longer want to live that life. But please, understand that we are all men here and we haven’t been with a woman in a long time.”


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