Whoonga: South Africa’s New Crack

Question: What costs $3, contains AIDS medication and rat poison, and is smoked with marijuana?
Answer: One day’s dose of whoonga, South Africa’s latest, and most tragic, drug craze.

The word “whoonga” is more of an exclamation than an actual name. Invented in Durban, South Africa, this cream-colored powder is hustled by drug dealers who charge 20 rand ($3) for one day’s dose. This mixture of detergent, rat poison, and antiretrovirals (ARVs) is initially taken up as just another addition to a cheap array of recreational drugs for the unskilled and unemployed. For some, it helps them relax or get to sleep; for others, it makes them feel like the “the best person ever.” But this pleasant high soon turns nasty. The drug is extremely addictive, and users report cravings and withdrawal symptoms after the very first hit ranging from stomach cramps and night sweats to depressed heart and lung function. Addicts need several hits to make it through the day. What begins as a way to pass the time becomes an all-consuming habit that drives people to steal, commit crimes, or worse – steal or sell HIV medications.

South Africa has the highest HIV burden of any country in the world. As it finally begins to make meaningful progress against the disease, whoonga could not have come at a worse time. The South African government provides free ARVs to AIDS patients who qualify for economic assistance, and this has now become an unfortunate source of drug supply. Corrupt health workers and clinic staff are selling ARV medications on the whoonga market. AIDS patients have been robbed as they leave clinics with their pills. In some cases, they are selling their own medications to whoonga dealers. And now reports are emerging of desperate addicts intentionally trying to get infected when they can no longer support their habits through petty crime. The cruel irony of it all is that there is no evidence that the HIV medications actually do anything to create or enhance the high.

South African officials are aware of the problem, and so far, the drug has not spread outside of KwaZulu-Natal. However, the implications of the drug’s spread are frightening. What makes whoonga particularly insidious and difficult to combat is lack of information: many experiment with it without realizing what they are getting themselves into. One small organization, Project Whoonga, is confronting it head-on. Run by Vumani Gwala, this community-based support group is based in Kwadebeka, a large township outside of Durban, and has 45 addicts in recovery. While admirable, the organization needs all the help it can get in taking on this tragic menace. “This drug has turned our beloved township into a jungle,” laments Gwala. “Families with addicts live in constant fear of vigilantes that threaten to get rid of this crime using violence and families have gotten their homes burned down.”