Heavy burden of addiction

Hout Bay Cares project manager Zulpha October is determined to overcome the drug scourge, one person at a time.

Twenty-seven children – most of them primary school pupils – are enrolled in the Hout Bay Community Awareness Rehabilitation Education Support Service (CARES) drug rehabilitation programme.

A six-year-old boy is one of the youngest, having been referred to the centre for smoking tik.

Even by the standards of Cape Town’s crystal meth scourge, that is exceptionally young.

It is something Hout Bay Cares project manager Zulpha October attributes to a “failing system”. But she also stresses that in spite of the countless socio-economic ills plaguing many in Hout Bay, ultimately, the decision to take drugs lies with the individual.

In a candid interview with the Sentinel, she laid to rest many of the misconceptions around drug use in Hout Bay while confirming others. She feels it’s important people get a clear picture of the situation.

“The fact is about 70 percent of households in Hangberg are affected by drugs in one way or another. But I think too many people are quick to jump to conclusions about why people are misusing drugs,” she said.

“For example, there is a perception that most people using drugs are unemployed. Yes, some are unemployed users but there are also a lot of people who are working. For the most part, you can trace their addiction to one or other traumatic event in their past, such as sexual assault or a death of a loved one.”

It was also wrong to assume automatically that theft and other crimes in Hout Bay were linked to drug use in Hangberg.

“You see a lot of this on Facebook. As soon as a crime is committed, drug addicts in Hangberg are blamed. But that is wrong. I would say less than 50 percent of our clients have engaged in theft in their lifetime.”

What had to be addressed, she said, was the way adults managed their issues. “Because parents smoke tik at home, their kids think this is fine. And because this is the accepted behaviour, you then have peer pressure at school to take drugs.

“One of our greatest challenges is to convince parents to enter their children into our programme. But if they do this, they feel they will be stigmatised as bad parents.”

Ms October said parents had to accept that they had to take responsibility for themselves and their children.

“I don’t agree with what they do, but it is no good blaming the merchants (drug dealers). They are running a business, and all they want to do is make money. The problem starts at home when the parents make the choice to misuse drugs.

“Organisations such as ourselves and the Department of Social Development are always blamed for not doing enough, but we can only assist if people truly want to turn their lives around. There are young people in the Hangberg community who refuse to touch a cigarette let alone drugs. They have made that decision themselves, so it shows it can be done.”

No one has shown greater commitment to turning her life around than former addict and now Cares employee Florence Clark.

Fifteen years ago, her husband of two months was shot and killed in Hangberg after an argument. She was two months pregnant at the time.

The pain of the loss was something she could no longer endure, and seeing the “happiness” of her friends who were using, she decided she would like to try tik.

So began a nightmare 10-year addiction to meth, which saw her losing her job as a respected sous chef at a local restaurant and taking up with strange men with whom she had four children.

When her addiction began, her eldest daughter was only four years old. Through no fault of her own, this child would have to assume responsibility as the adult of the house, looking after the new children as her mother continued her drug descent into hell.

“I didn’t care about nappies or cleaning the house. I sold our house for R3 500. I stole my grandmother’s pension money. I used to go to work high. I used to leave my lolly (tik pipe) under my pillow, and if I came home and my daughter had removed it while cleaning up I used to hit her,” she recalled.

“I just didn’t care. All I wanted was love because of what had happened to my husband. I think that’s why I was with all these different men. And the drug took away my pain. My children were taken away from me. I lost everything.”

That all changed in 2011.

“I was sitting at home looking at my children who were visiting. I thought to myself, ‘I want something better for them.’ I had heard about this programme which had started (Cares), and decided I would give it a try. Now I work here.”

All her six children are back with her, and while making the adjustment to a “normal” life has not been without its challenges, she is grateful for everything she has.

“What keeps me going is the fear of losing everything again. I do worry about my children going down the same road as me, because they say addiction is in the genes. Some of my kids have behaviour problems, and, of course, I worry. But I am a much better person today than I was a few years ago.”

Ms October conceded there were days when she wanted to give up, such is the extent of drug problem in Hout Bay. “But then you have your successes, even if it’s just one person. That keeps you going, knowing that what you do is paying off. If you can help one person, that person can become a valuable part of the community and so it benefits everyone.”