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Breaking the Nyaope addiction in South Africa: Is it possible?

Nyaope is a very popular highly addictive, dangerous and destructive drug substance that is unique to South Africa. It is usually a cocktail of various ingredients i.e. heroin, methamphetamine and cannabis with other harmful substances such as cleaning detergents, bicarbonate of soda, crushed antiretroviral drugs, sugar and rat poison to make its impact stronger and last longer. Nyaope is believed to be South Africa’s worst drug[1] whose uniqueness lies in an almost exclusive consumption by black people. The extent of nyaope addiction is quite complex as it is easily accessible by almost anyone including primary school children. It costs between R25 (US$2.00) and R30 (US$2.25). However, while the price of buying nyaope is low, the social cost paid by the users, their families and their communities is very high, due to the severity of the addiction and the intensity of the withdrawal symptoms.[2]

The drug is mainly consumed in two ways – smoking and via ‘Bluetooth.’ The ‘Bluetooth’ method involves addicts sharing the drug through either a) through blood transfusion or b) sharing the same syringe as the drug is injected directly into the body. In the first option, after the primary consumer has injected him/herself with the drug, blood (supposedly believed to be high in nyaope) is drawn from him/her and is given to other addicts who take turns to inject themselves so that they also get ‘high.’ In most cases the addicts who rely on the blood of the first user usually have no money to buy their own nyaope concoction. The addicts defend themselves with the popular saying that “sharing is caring.” In the second option the addict mixes the concoction with a small amount of water and pulls it into a syringe injecting him/herself. The same syringe is then passed on to other addicts who repeatedly use it. Using the ‘Bluetooth’ method is believed to be the quickest way to get ‘high.’ The addicts seem not to care that the use of the nyaope concoction, and worse still the sharing of syringes and blood, has got a number of health implications, such as blood mismatch and incompatibility, diseases like hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, cellulitis and thrombophlebitis, as well as harm to vital body organs such as the liver, heart, kidneys and the brain.

By law, nyaope is prohibited and punishable yet despite this, it continues to be the leading ‘drug of choice’ for many unemployed South African youths living in the townships. Mitigation efforts by the South African government have not yielded much results. In some cases, the very officers who arrest and detain the addicts are the ones who are bribed to release the addicts, or carry the drugs to prison. The local communities have also not adequately mobilized themselves to address the consumption of nyaope despite government’s efforts to localize the fight against use of illicit drugs. Rather, addicts are blamed for living a chaotic life. One wonders whether the consumption of nyaope can be broken given the dramatic increase in its consumption.

Who has the duty to address this social problem that is claiming lives of youths every day? Is it entirely to government? What is the role of other actors such as the church, civil society, individuals, family and the local communities in addressing the nyaope crisis? Do we have any moral and social responsibility towards addicts who very often are labelled with derogatory names such as ‘dirty,’ ‘criminals,’ ‘messed up’ and ‘unworthy’ members in society? How can we as ethicists continuously engage leadership and policy in order to effect desirable change within society? How can we help victims to escape nyaope dependence? How can we offer victims of nyaope and other drugs the human values of love and life illuminated by faith? How can the Church promote a lifestyle based on evangelical values and contact with God, especially among the youth to help them discover the true meaning of human existence?

Pope Francis has emphasized the role of society is responding to the drug crisis. For instance during the visit to St. Francis of Assisi of the Providence of God Hospital in Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, Pope Francis noted that “it is necessary to confront the problems underlying the use of these drugs, by promoting greater justice, educating young people in the values that build up life in society, accompanying those in difficulty and giving them hope for the future. We all need to look upon one another with the loving eyes of Christ, and to learn to embrace those in need, in order to show our closeness, affection and love.”[3] Genuine love, care and affection towards the victims of drug use would mean that we move beyond blaming and criminalizing them. It would also mean continuously investing resources in extensive rehabilitation programs of drug addicts in order to promote their health as well as restore their joy and dignity. I believe that by drawing close and embracing our neighbors we can manage to escape the powerful waters that drown so many youths in the vice.

[1] Health24. (2014). Is nyaope South Africa’s worst drug? Accessed from

[2] Masombuka, J. (2013). Children’s addiction to the drug “nyaope” in Soshanguve Township: Parents’ experiences and support needs. Masters dissertation. University of South Africa.