The Whoonga Park girls
October 9, 2012
Within the four walls of the Durban University of Technology city campus, we are safe physically as well as psychologically. But step outside this cocoon and it’s another world altogether, write Nosipho Mngoma, Anathi Teyise and Ndabenhle Mthembu.
First published by Sunday Tribune.
“Sifana zinkomo, sidla utshani obubodwa. Like cows, we graze on the same grass.”
This how Nombuso Mkhize sums up her 21-year-old life with a shrug. She means men sharing women, and vice versa, and everyone sharing HIV/AIDS and a brisk trade in whoonga spliffs.
Last week an orange Mango Airlines billboard opposite our campus read: “Win your share of R150 000. Underneath this bill board, now advertising a Steers’ awesome meal, scores of people – sometimes as many as a hundred at a time – rub shoulders with whoonga dealers.
It costs between R20 – R30 for a ready-made whoonga spliff. We are told that about 200 regulars buy as many as five – six whoonga spliffs a day. At R20 – R30 a spliff, this translates into R150,000 exchanging hands every two weeks.
Most of whoonga junkies appear to be unemployed youth. We are warned of hardened muggers among them, guys who like to stab and those who smash and grab what they can from passing cars. The place also appears to a gathering place of sorts for street beggars who have struck it lucky and work seekers who haven’t. And then, of course, there are the women who trade in sex for a regular supply of the notoriously dangerous drug. We call them the Whoonga girls. Nombuso is one of them, seeking the euphoria and elimination of worries that whoonga induces, albeit temporarily so.
From the roadside it’s hard to make out individual faces at Whoonga Park. People stand in tight circles, constantly shuffling about. Puffs of smoke waft between them. Discarded takeaway containers litter the place like urban confetti. Clearly, food sellers are raking in a fair amount of money too.
A wall topped with razor wire separates Whoonga Park from the nearby railway reserve of Maydon Wharf. Everyday people can be seen clambering over broken parts of the wall. This has led to frequent clashes with railway guards and a recent attempt by Metro Police, to remove “illegal foreign and local homeless people” from the area .
As the Sunday Tribune reported, the lastest removal efforts on Saturday September 22 led led to a pitched street battle which saw one man shot and wounded, and four others injured.
Following up on the story, we decided to first visit the Metro Police station in Albert Park, but never got there. As we crossed Khuzimpi Shezi Rd (Williams Road), we met a guy pushing a shopping cart containing two big shiny silver pots with flat lids, a 25l water bottle and a plastic bag full of empty take away containers.
Sizwe Mchunu, 22, spends his days helping his grandmother sell cows’ heads (is’kobho) for R27 in Warwick Avenue. Recently her business expanded to a catering service for people of Whoonga Park. Sizwe is the delivery man, selling half-filled containers of food for R5.
Sizwe said he did not know much about the recent violent clash with authorities, but said he would send people to talk to us.
As Sizwe walked away, a thin woman crossed the road, the wind tugging at a black flared skirt covering her scrawny thighs. Her hair was plaited but the front knot had come undone, making her fringe stand up in spikes. She stopped a short distance away, and glanced back. The glazed look was unmistakable – a whoonga addict for sure.
We introduced ourselves. Mabuyi (surname not provided) told us she was a girlfriend of one the local whoonga dealers. She said a few days before Saturday September 22 railway security had removed a group of vagrants. She said after spending the night in police cells at Durban Central, the group had had returned to the area, soon clashing again with authorities. She said one man was allegedly handcuffed to a pole and beaten by railway guards. Then, when authorities came that Saturday to remove people from Whoonga Park they were attacked and mobbed.
“They grabbed me. One of them said I was not the girl that they were looking for and let me go,” said Mabuyi.
Mabuyi got excited when we showed her pictures illustrating the Sunday Tribune article: “Homeless resist removal bid.”
“Hayi, I know her. I know her,” she exclaimed. “Her name is Sindisiwe. She was shot in the face. This man too. His name is John. He is from Tanzania, a Bongo (derogatory slang). He also sells whoonga. He got shot in the arm.”
As it turned out, Sindisiwe Ngema, 33, had not been shot, but her face was badly bashed up and swollen. She had stitches around her upper lip. She spoke in hushed tones, her head bowed. Sindisiwe said she had been feeling sick and had been unable to run away when violence broke out.
“The railway police came with batons. They grabbed me, hit me, dragged me. I can’t remember anything that happened after that,” she said. Sindisiwe woke up later in Addington Hospital, her face a bloody mess, a gaping cut above her lips.
Sindisiwe said she had wanted to lay an assault charge but after being referred to Broad Street Police station to Durban Central SAPS, who told her to go to Umbilo, she had decided against the idea.
In talking about her whoonga addiction, Sindisiwe began sobbing inconsolably about a 13-year-old daughter she seldom sees. She said after she had fallen pregnant, she had left home because her mother could not look after her and her baby. She has since given up the child to the father’s family. She said had been introduced to whoonga by a boyfriend who lost his job because of it, and then left her. So she started coming to whoonga park.
Through swollen lips she whispered: “I don’t like the life that I am living.” As we took photos, two more Whoonga Park girls approached, asking to see the newspaper. They were Nombuso and Bongi (not her real name) They poked fun at Sindisizwe, said she was crazed.
Discussions soon returned to whoonga.
Nombuso and Bongi unashamedly talked about trading in sex. “You have to sleep with the men to get a hit,” said Bongi. “Otherwise, you won’t smoke, and you won’t eat,” said Nombuso, her wry smile revealing a missing front tooth.
She showed us that most of her back teeth were missing too. “They just fall out,” she said.
Nombuso itched while we talked, her bony fingers tugging at a black boob tube sagging shapelessly around her flat chest. Nombuso’s hair was clean, and done up in the fashionable razor-cut-weave made popular by Hollywood celebrities, but it was too short in places revealing stitches.
She said she had treated in hospital week after being beaten up by her boyfriend. The dealer was angry because she had shared a whoonga fix he had given her with friends.
“They are animals, like dogs,” said Bongi.
“Yes,” hissed Nombuso. “After dark, they rape us whenever they want to. I would not wish this life upon anyone, but I can’t stop . . . .”
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The Whoonga Park expose formed part of Roving Reporters’ 2012 investigative journalism training project supported by the Taco Kuiper Trust, the Open Society Foundation and the Durban University of Technology.
The students who conducted this investigation under supervision of Roving Reporters director, Fred Kockott, were Nosipho Mngoma, Anathi Teyise and Ndabe Mthembu.