The TownhallSocial issues

South Africa’s children have a drug problem

By Simon Mwebaze

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV.

South Africa is one of the most developed countries in Africa, but it is also facing an undercurrent of substance abuse. It ranks in the top 10 countries around the world abusing alcohol and narcotics. Even more startling, 15% of the country’s population has a drug abuse problem. 

While it is challenging to have an adult population struggling with drug abuse, it gets more concerning when the youth are also involved. 

Disturbingly, between 2016 and 2017, 21-28% of patients being treated for substance abuse were below the age of 20. That only accounts for those who sought treatment, leaving another number of youths abusing substances unaccounted for. It is not surprising when you discover that the average age for experimentation for substances is 12 years and dropping. This means many youths experiment with substances by the time they reach primary school. 

When it comes down to the details of what drugs are being used, dagga (i.e., marijuana) accounts for 27% of adolescents, 35% alcohol, and 29% binge drinking. The most common drugs among the youth include flakka, blow, adam, nyaope, and mercedes. There are other categories of drugs responsible for “silent addictions” including ARVs, painkillers, and alcohol. These drugs have contributed to the challenge of substance abuse among the youth in South Africa. 

But what has pushed the youth in the direction of drugs? Poor economic circumstances, especially in the townships, is one clear answer. These include unemployment both for parents and youth. A bleak-looking future for unemployed youth pushed them to look to drugs for different reasons. On one hand, drugs can provide the income they have failed to find through conventional means. As drug dealers, youth can earn some supplementary income. On the other hand, drugs help numb the thoughts of the problems surrounding them. 

Another cause of youth substance abuse is emotional abuse at home. This may include GBV (gender-based violence), and physical and emotional abuse by parents. Drugs become an escape from the abuse at home.

Peer pressure is another cause for the drug problem. As already noted earlier, several youth experiment with substances by the age of 12. Many learn from friends at school and may try drugs to fit in among their peers and feel accepted. 

None of the above causes would be possible without the ease of accessibility of drugs around the country. This is one of the major causes of the drug issue among the youth. The fact that there are many cheap alternatives like nyaope on the market makes it easy for even the youth to afford. 

This is unfortunate because the cheaper drugs like nyaope are more addictive for a faster high. Some of the toxic ingredients in nyaope, aka whoonga, include rat poison, HIV meds, household detergents, ammonia, chlorine, dagga, brown heroin, and tik. 

The ease of accessibility is possible because of poor law enforcement. Drug syndicates have been gradually increasing. In 1995, there were 150 syndicates. By 2014, that number increased to over 500 with no signs of slowing down. A 2018-2019 data report on illicit drugs from the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission of 49 countries showed South Africa came up as the primary embarkation point for cocaine detected. This proves its reputation as a substance destination due to its relaxed law enforcement.

Substance abuse has far-reaching consequences. It not only affects the youth that consume it but the families and communities. The negative impact it has on individual youth includes depression, crime, prostitution, poor academic performance, and poor economic outcomes for victims. At the family level, it can lead to violence and theft from fellow family members to maintain the habit. Substance abusers are also a burden to the community, because they are often involved in criminal behavior and add a burden on resources to rehabilitate them. 

So, what should be done? There are already rehabilitation programs to assist substance abusers. They not only educate the families of the victims about substance abuse but also equip youth with skills to help them be productive. Schools are implementing random drug tests. The drug test providers also provide education about substance abuse and the negative impact it can have on students. 

Drug testing is valuable but it has its challenges. For private schools, purchasing the equipment and resources for the exercises is possible, but it becomes more difficult when you consider public schools with significantly less funding. The problem is that the communities using public schools are the most affected by substance abuse. More so, many of these communities do not have the clinical resources to help substance abusers. This means they resort to clinics which do not have the necessary professional help. 

Poorer communities need greater intervention from the government. The government could provide the information and tools that people need to fight substance abuse. More importantly, they need to equip people with the skills to create better livelihoods for themselves since poverty is one of the primary causes of substance abuse. 

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Simon Mwebaze

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