1 Jun 2010

South Africa and the scourge of 'tik'

As South Africa prepare for the football World Cup, Jonathan Miller blogs from Cape town on the devastation wrought by addiction to crystal methamphetamine – or “tik”, as it is known.

The explosive spread of crystal meth addiction in the suburbs and slums of Cape Town is now the worst such drug problem in the world. Known locally as “tik”, crystal methamphetamine is highly addictive, readily available and relatively cheap.

The drug is known to trigger psychosis, and its spread in the western Cape has been associated with violent criminality and gangsterism. Andreas Pluddemann, senior scientist at South Africa’s Medical Research Council, told Channel 4 News that despite the relentless spread of tik addiction in recent years, it continues to grow rapidly, with devastating social consequences.

In the countdown to the World Cup, we have been filming in Cape Town’s sprawling mixed-race suburbs, less than half an hour’s drive from the majestic stadium built for the tournament. Cape Town, with its stunning scenic backdrop, is the poster city for the competition, which starts next week.

But there is an extreme and disturbing contrast between this planned celebration of “the beautiful game” in this magnificent city and the ugly reality of life in Cape Town’s murderous ghettos.

Efforts by politicians and the police to curb the tik contagion have come to nothing and in the perception of the besieged and frightened residents of the shanties and dilapidated suburbs, rape, murder, armed robbery and car-jacking have grown exponentially worse as the addiction rate has soared.

Not one of those we interviewed believed that Cape Town’s hosting the World Cup (England plays here on 18th June) would make even the slightest difference to their lives, despite earlier expectations that it would bring jobs and improve living standards.

“The World Cup will mean nothing to me, to tell you the honest truth,” said Fabian Jacobs, a 31-year-old tik addict and gang leader, brutalised after spending almost half his life in jail. “Today, we are still waiting for better roads, better schools. This is a very hard life.”

Bongiwe Nakani, a young woman from a township called Kayalitsha, who had broken the mould by getting a place at Cape Town University to study opera, talked about how unsafe she felt in a neighbourhood where tik addicts will stab or shoot you for your cell phone.

As to the Word Cup coming to her city, she said: “They have spent so much money but people won’t be able to afford to go the stadiums they’ve built. They will just have to watch it on TV.”

Bongiwe said great resentment had built up as a result of the £1.3bn lavished on the city in the run-up to the tournament. “People need houses. School children need money for books. We need money for parks and for libraries,” she said.

When challenged on the apparent failure of the World Cup to meet slum-dwellers’ expectations, the provincial government boasts of the “social legacy”. It cites refurbished local stadiums and another “Football for Hope” Fifa-sponsored stadium-cum-community centre in Kayalitsha. And they mention the rapid transit bus system (which doesn’t actually go as far as the townships and run-down suburbs, home to the millions who are neither white nor rich.)

“The World Cup will not be a magic wand which will cure poverty, build houses, schools, homes and will touch every suburb,” Pieter Kronje, from the City of Cape Town Authority, told me. “Right here in Cape Town we have 220 informal settlements – people living in shacks,” he said. “The World Cup was never capable of solving all of that or making that disappear.”

The stories you hear from the residents of these ‘informal settlements’ are tales from poverty’s front line, where gangs and crime and violence and drugs merge in a hair-raising confluence of urban horror. The Cape Flats, where many of the most deprived communities are, have the feel of a social time bomb. Attempts to defuse things appear woefully inadequate.

The social dysfunction is exacerbated by the demographics of the Western Cape. More than half of Cape Town’s population is of mixed-race. Under apartheid, they were labelled “Cape Coloureds”. South Africa used to be ruled by whites. Now blacks are in charge. The mixed-race community remains an underclass in this so-called Rainbow Nation.
Gangs offer the sense of belonging they lack.

Tik would appear to offer a means of escape. But it traps those who use it in a vortex of desperation and despair. In the film we air tonight we meet hardened gang members who brazenly smoke the white crystals on camera and a grandmother whose husband has sold virtually everything of value in their home to sustain their insatiable habit.

But the most chilling interview I conducted in my week in the Cape was with Ellen Pakkies, mother of a tik-addict son who turned psychotic and attacked her with scissors, a breadknife and an axe – before she took a rope and strangled him. The judge handed down a three year suspended sentence and ruled that Mrs Pakkies, not her junkie son, had been the victim.